Sink or Swim: When partners disagree, and managing introverts and extroverts

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—  

Q: I run a large account with a peer I’ve always loved working with. We became good friends as we moved up the ranks. I’m shocked to find we don’t agree on how to manage people. I’m in frequent conflict with her over behaviour I think demotivates team members. She seems to think keeping people a little fearful is effective. She thinks I’m “too nice.” I want out of this partnership, but worry about the consequences, including losing the friendship.

A: Ouch. Working with a friend, like living with one, can go two ways: as great as you’d expect or a friendship-ending disaster.

You’ve already concluded you don’t want to continue in this shared leader role. But assuming you’re not quitting your job as the fastest possible way to achieve that, there’s the present to get through. And until you two have moved on, do all you can to try and make things work better.

How? Honesty. Most friendships are built upon it—a professional partnership depends on it. Consider having a conversation with her, well outside the heat of the moment. Tell her you’d like to share your thoughts on talent management, with a focus on where you don’t agree, and that you hope to get to common ground on how to manage effectively through employee issues.

You say she makes people feel fearful. Does she believe that, or are you hearing it from folks on the receiving end? This isn’t an easy thing to raise. A good place to start is listening to her to learn more about what management looks like to her. Does she see fear as an important tool in her toolkit? Make her feel safe to share honestly. She may be among the many “raised that way”—and who feel “it worked for me”—so that’s what she assumes works for all. This was and is a common leadership style—though it’s fading fast because it doesn’t work for the average employee. It’s also possible she doesn’t think she’s creating fear. In that case, it may help to share specific examples to help her empathize with how it must feel on the receiving end.

It may also help to bring some formal study into the discussion. Today’s conventional wisdom suggests the definition of effective leadership has changed pretty dramatically. Fear is out, building trusting relationships with employees is what motivates far more effectively. Trust is built through creating a sense of safety; showing failure will be tolerated. The alternative is people staying in boxes for fear of penalty. They play it safe, falling short of what they’re capable of delivering. Maybe well short. You could share some expert evidence, from Simon Sinek for instance. His TED talk on the need for leaders to create a sense of safety is a classic watch for every leader who wants to motivate their people. He’d say it’s Leadership 101: Without trust, an employee isn’t likely to deliver their best consistently.

There’s a landmark 2013 book, The Athena Doctrine, that outlines the practices of the modern leader based on exhaustive global research. The co-authors conclude that leading through fear is a proven failure. After reading it yourself, maybe lend her this highly readable New York Times best seller. She’ll learn that being a good listener, being inclusive, collaborative, open and vulnerable are the way to great work and thriving people. There’s a lot to be said for being “nice.” The PM of New Zealand is a perfect example.

Who knows, your friend may just embrace making some changes, especially if you are empathetic to her as you share your POV. If not, the tougher job is ahead: letting leadership know that you need a new opportunity. Many people would rather leave a job they like than navigate this conflict. We’d argue that if you love your job and don’t see a change in your friend’s style, it’s time to make the case for leading another group. You need not torch your partner in the process. All you need to declare is the wish for a different challenge. Emphatically.

As for keeping the friendship, it’s not on track to continue as things stand, is it? Let honesty and personal authenticity be your guides, and let the chips fall.

Q: I have to make a choice between two great candidates for a senior UX position. One is much more of an extrovert and I can easily picture him leading a client meeting by “owning the room.” The other is a much quieter person and I have some concern about a “lack of gravitas.” Do you find that can be learned? 

A: Lucky you to have two excellent options. It sounds like either person could be “the one” despite how dissimilar they are. Typically, when candidates seem equal but different, many in your shoes would default to an extrovert, to someone who signals their leadership chops through their big personality and charisma. It’s no surprise that, when asked to name a leader, people are quick to conjure up Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. Yet Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steven Spielberg, Barack Obama—some of the most respected top dogs in history—are introverts.

We often worked with teams where one partner was very outgoing and the other more reserved. In one case, the more ebullient person had the clients in the palm of his hand at the outset of the relationship; over time, though, the quieter partner became the one they listened to most, despite his lack of showmanship. His thoughtful approach to talking about the work, his ability to listen and understand what the clients needed, made them feel safe and heard. Which resulted in more sales of riskier work. Go figure. We’d never have guessed that the introvert would become the more powerful person in this situation. It was big learning for us that “gravitas” could come in many packages, and grow over time.

Here are some questions to consider as you go through “on the one hand, on the other hand.”

  • Is this person expected to coach and develop the talent in the group? If the answer is yes, ask them how they get the best out of people. It will give you a clue as to what type of leader they are and what to expect.
  • Do they see themselves as people who create a supportive space for others to take responsibility and risks?
  • How do they manage in situations that are not comfortable to them? How does the introvert lead a client meeting or handle it when things go sideways? How does the extrovert deal when an employee disagrees with them or debates a call they’ve made?
  • How do they feel about pushing back on a client? Can they give you an example of when they had to do this and how it impacted the client relationship?

It’s worth remembering that almost no one is all introvert or all extrovert. While introverts may have to do extra work to develop greater comfort speaking in front of audiences or figuring out how to engage entire groups, extroverts can have an equally big challenge knowing when to stop talking or stepping back to let someone else find their feet.

If in the end you lean towards the introvert, take heart. Most leaders are made, not born, so coaching, deeper experience and clarity around your expectations may get your introvert into the zone you’re hoping for. Many a quiet leader has developed “gravitas.”

Ultimately, the person you’re looking for should have the group’s best interests at heart, a keen eye for the quality of work, a generous approach to giving feedback, and the ability to build trust internally and externally. That’s leadership material.

Which you clearly have, because you asked for advice rather than going with the easy choice. Kudos.