Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 15, 2022
by Neil Senturia
He’s the life of the party. And when exactly can I tell him/her to shut up?
The question sometimes asked about leadership is does it depend on the infamous “big personality?” What is the relationship between that characteristic and being equally perceived as authentic?
Harvard professor Julian Zlatev has done some research on that behavior, and he suggests that “people often assume their extroverted colleagues are poor listeners.” When you are engaged in a conversation with an extrovert, it is often hard to get a word in edgewise. They are gregarious and fill the space. The study shows that most people perceive the extrovert as someone less attuned to the setting and who doesn’t listen well. For sure, self-aggrandizement is a very risky choice and usually does not win any converts.
But “working the room” is a practiced skill. You can go big and be assertive and optimistic or you can do laid-back and wait for an opening with a meaningful insertion. The trick I think is to have both skills in your quiver.
You may be bored to tears in the moment, but if you can remember what the other person was talking about, and then when you next see them, you remember to ask about how their vacation was, or to inquire about a parent’s health, or to remember the names of their partners or children — these are huge indications that you are engaged and are listening.
For many of us there is a duality. We have an extrovert hiding inside our initial introverted posture, and only when we feel safe does it come out. The big-you can surprise the group with your engagement. Zlatev says that “high-quality listening increases creativity and work performance on the team.”
In addition, Zlatev offers some advice to demonstrate active engagement, “Repeat back and paraphrase what someone has said.” I think this is one of the most important behaviors, and I have learned to do this, by saying to the other person, “Let me make sure I am listening, what I think you said was ….” This single technique reinforces that I am at least making an effort to listen and to understand. The saying back is a way to reinforce the understanding.
And here is the dirty secret. When I say it back, I have the opportunity in a subtle way to shape their words, to clarify what I think they said or meant to say, and for me to also potentially shift their words to modify their thinking more along the lines of what I hoped to have them say.
Zlatev has a few other behaviors, like nodding, saying “yes,” laughing if there were a joke, assuming an open posture. The best way to demonstrate that you are listening is to rinse and repeat.
Now, without putting too fine a point on it, another key element in this entrepreneurial leadership stew is to make a distinction between “personality” and the actual unique skills and behaviors that successful leaders demonstrate.
What I have seen in my coaching is that the “quiet leader” can be pushed to be louder and bigger, with excellent outcomes, but that the “loud leader” cannot be easily modified. I suspect that is because in part, they are not initially good listeners and so my style has to accelerate to match theirs. While the volumes increase, the outcomes remain less than optimal.
The risk is that the extrovert becomes marginalized and is no longer a key member of the team. The group dynamic finds its own level, and if you continue to operate outside the box, the risk is that you may find yourself outside the room.
Finally, a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” I know it is August, and the entire planet is heating up, but if you are a startup founder, then winter is here in terms of financing and valuations. And discontent from investors and employees seems to be the order of the day.
The true meaning of the line is different given the entire text, but trust me, caution and a rational modicum of fear do seem to be appropriate today.
No. 725: “Baby, it’s cold outside”
— Frank Loesser