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Is your workplace biased against introverts?

Extroverts are more likely to express their passion outwardly, giving them a leg up when it comes to raises and promotions, according to research by Jon Jachimowicz. Introverts are just as motivated and excited about their work, but show it differently. How can managers challenge their assumptions?

Published: Mar 5, 2024 10:49:54 AM IST
Updated: Mar 5, 2024 11:01:21 AM IST

Is your workplace biased against introverts?Extroverted employees are more likely to be considered passionate compared to more introverted colleagues—even if it’s not true—according to recent Harvard Business School research. Image: Shutterstock

Managers almost universally say they want to see passion in their employees. Yet sometimes, they can’t spot it when it’s right in front of them.

Extroverted employees are more likely to be considered passionate compared to more introverted colleagues—even if it’s not true—according to recent Harvard Business School research. That’s because they tend to demonstrate their feelings more, using cues like animated facial expressions, while introverts come off as more aloof due to their quiet and reserved ways, says Jon M. Jachimowicz, an assistant professor at HBS.

But this narrow definition of passion can quietly enable organizational biases against more introspective employees, Jachimowicz and his team say, as studies show that extroverts get more attention from managers in the form of resources, raises, and promotions. The research comes as companies continue to struggle to re-engage employees in a changed workplace.

“The problem we found is that we have stereotypical expectations of what it means to be passionate,” says Jachimowicz, who conducted the study with doctoral students Kai Krautter of HBS and Anabel Büchner of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. “And if we only select for people who express their passion in this way, then there’s a whole population of people who are also passionate, who we miss.”

How passion shows itself in many ways

Jachimowicz and his team built their study around surveys of more than 1,800 employees and supervisors in the United States. They conducted five studies to explore differences in how extroverts and introverts express, perceive, and experience passion on the job.

To extract data from subjective expressions of passion, the team created a novel “passion experiences and behaviors scale,” which captures the common ways people feel and behave when they experience higher levels of passion.

Among their findings:

  •     Supervisors are more likely to perceive extroverted employees as passionate compared to introverts, even when the two groups report similar levels of excitement and motivation for their work.
  •     Extroverts express their passion in a wider range of ways than introverts, both through more and less outwardly noticeable behaviors to others. The team identified quality of work, social interactions, and immersion into the job as potentially more subtle indicators of passion that can get overlooked.
  •     Employees most commonly believe they show passion through higher quality of work and in conveying positive emotions, and less frequently through body language and voice, immersion, social interactions, and quantity of work.

The results of the study indicate that introverts are at a measurable disadvantage for promotion, salary increases, job assignments, and more, the authors argue, “potentially leading to the underrepresentation of introverts among higher echelons of organizations.”

Also read: Passion at work is a good thing—but only if bosses know how to manage it

Why is passion so important anyway?

Jachimowicz acknowledges that the study raises an important question: Why do people care so much about passion? In part, he says it’s because both individuals and organizations see it as a desirable trait—and evidence suggests it can lead to good things.

At the same time, he notes that the correlation between passion and good outcomes is imperfect. It doesn’t always translate to higher performance, and there can be a cost for individuals, Jachimowicz says.

“On the one hand, it’s great. It’s this motivating force,” Krautter says. “When you’re passionate, you’re attracted to more challenging assignments. But it also means that when you experience setbacks, it hurts more. Passion by itself is not enough to deal with some of the challenges and frustrations you might face.”

Büchner also is quick to point out that passion is not a prerequisite for success and often requires sacrifice. “Passion is also an immense privilege,” she says. “When you think about the kinds of jobs that allow you to pursue your passion, often they pay less or might require long working hours, and those things can be very difficult with other demands on your time.”

Jachimowicz adds that passion isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. “I can be more passionate about some aspects of my job and less passionate about other aspects of it,” he says.

Checking the passion bias at work

The tendency to define passion by how it’s expressed is human nature. But there are steps that employees and managers alike can take to rein in this hidden bias and spread credit for passion more widely, Jachimowicz says.

Respect differences. It starts with communication, grounded in the realization that people express passion differently. Ask employees, “How do you typically express your passion?” Jachimowicz suggests. “The other question is, ‘What can I as a leader do to help you express your passion more?’”

Reward results. Managers also need to learn to praise employees for their passion, not just for how they express it, such as by working overtime, Jachimowicz says. The risk of hailing employees for these “performative” aspects of passion is to reinforce behaviors that can lead to burnout and exhaustion. Forced expressions of passion “can end up affecting your work performance negatively because you’re more emotionally exhausted,” Jachimowicz says.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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