Are neurotics really better team players than extroverts? If so, should they really, as has recently been widely claimed, be given preference in hiring for team-based jobs?

According to a very eye-catching UCLA Today report, “Extroverts Promise, but Neurotics Deliver as Team Players and a Forbes article that agreed with the conclusions of a study conducted by associate professor Corinne Bendersky, UCLA Anderson School of Management study, they are and they should.

That 2012 study, The Downfall of Extraverts and Rise of Neurotics: The Dynamic Process of Status Allocation in Task Groups, compared changes in perceived status of project participants scoring high for “extraversion” ( a.k.a. “extroversion”) with changes for those with high “neuroticism” scores.  

The research discovered that, over time, the outgoing, center-of-attention, take-charge extroverts experienced a decline in status in the eyes of their co-participants, while the “neurotics” enjoyed higher performance-status ratings.

Forbes picked up on the study and ran an equally eye-catching article titled “Leadership Tip: Hire the Quiet Neurotic, Not the Impressive Extrovert”. On the assumption that the organizational and project bottom line is work-performance “results”, Forbes seemed to conclude that, as a minimum, “neurotics”—or more precisely, those with high “neuroticism” “Big-5 Factor” personality ratings, are not only more suitable for team projects, but also should be preferred in hiring.

(But, we have to be careful, because a high neuroticism score can co-exist with a high extroversion score. More on this below.)

Why are the “quiet” neurotics trumpeted as the better choice? Because despite their tendency (as implicitly defined and reported, in the UCLA Today article) to

- “often feel tense and guilty”

- be “ more cautious and risk-averse”

- “sometimes (display) a lot of worrying and grumbling that can irritate everyone involved”

they are, Professor Bendersky said, “[plagued by] an anxiety of not wanting to disappoint peers and colleagues”, adding, “Because of that, neurotics are motivated to work really hard, especially in group contexts.”

Of course, apart from the crucial question of where this specific anxiety about disappointing colleagues fits into the Big-5 definition of neuroticism, this raises the additional question of why neurotics, as opposed to everyone else or especially, would not want to disappoint peers and colleagues. Or is anyone who doesn’t want to disappoint colleagues a neurotic?

My workplace experience suggests quite the opposite, that “neurotic obstruction”, “neurotic hostility”, “neurotic passive-aggressiveness” and “neurotic detachment” are quite common.

The same experience suggests that while some neurotics are “quiet”, many, e.g., the neurotically demanding ones, are anything but that. (So, is Forbes recommending hiring neurotics, period, or just the quiet ones?)

 Note: my judgment is based on

(a) some commonsense notion of “neurotic” that coworkers would employ in describing other coworkers as such

(b) my own understanding of the term, with an emphasis on a definition of neuroticism as the tendency to engage in self-defeating or conflicted behavior motivated by both (unconscious) fear and desire to reveal one’s fears and desires and to achieve contradictory ends or using employing means incompatible with one’s ends.

(As I see it, a neurosis is like a broken, worn broom used to sweep up bits of itself, thereby generating more broken, frayed bits to be swept up. Otherwise, it’s like a broom you are expected to use but never get dirty.)

Not so Fast!

Without even characterizing the corresponding pluses and minuses of extroverts, it is important to hit the pause button and stop to think a bit more deeply about all of this before jumping on the pro-neurotic hiring bandwagon.

Even the most basic reflection suggests we’d better be cautious—for a number of reasons:

1.   1. Within the “Big 5-Factor” personality model, the “opposite” of an extrovert is NOT a “neurotic”. “Introvert” is—at the opposite end of an extraversion (a.k.a. “extroversion”) continuum.  

      On one common Big-5 characterization of “extraversion” it designates a trait that “includes characteristics such as excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.” 

       On the other hand, Big-5 “neuroticism” designates “the propensity for individuals to experience negative emotions in response to adverse conditions such as frustrations, losses, or the prospect of frustrations or losses. The negative emotional responses associated with neuroticism include anger, depression, anxiety, envy, guilt, and shame.” (Clinical Psychiatry News)

       Notice, there’s no Forbes-ish mention of “quiet” here.

Read these two characterizations again, very closely. They are not incompatible; so, a candidate could score high in both of the extroversion and neuroticism personality dimensions.

So, why on Earth can’t a talkative, highly sociable, assertive and emotionally expressive extrovert/extravert also tend to experience “a lot of negative emotions”?

This negativity characteristic is the cardinal neurotic trait in the DSM manual, the  American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which, in DSM-5, will replace “neuroticism” with “negative affectivity”—in effect, making all negative feelings prima facie neurotic. 

This shift will make the Big-5 “neuroticism” dimension somewhat anachronistic, if not problematic or at least confusing, while still remaining silent about any notion that neurotics are “quiet”.

So, the HR manager who imagines (s)he has to choose between an extrovert and a neurotic, or that the neurotic is a quiet or nervous introvert, is mistaken.

In fact, because “extraversion” and “neuroticism” are defined as personality dimensions that are independent of each other, a candidate could easily score high on both the extraversion and neuroticism scales, i.e., could be BOTH very extraverted and neurotic.

Above all, being neurotic is not synonymous or necessarily strongly correlated with being as quiet, withdrawn, shy, self-effacing, nervous, guilt-ridden, cautious or risk averse as the popular reports extolling the “neurotic” candidate have suggested. They seem to have confused neuroticism with introversion or a nervous temperament.

2.    2. There are competing Big-5 concepts of “neuroticism”. Association of neuroticism with introversion may be somewhat forgivable, since it also appears that even with respect to how “neuroticism” is used in the Big 5-Factor model, definitions of it vary from one Big-5 study to another.

       To the extent that such variability can create confusion, it is not surprising that the concept gets spun in ways it shouldn’t.

In particular—and I repeat, strictly speaking, neuroticism should not be confused with introversion in any Big-5 Factor-based study, since these are, on ANY interpretation of each, defined as two completely different dimensions of personality.

Likewise, “tension”, which is indeed closely allied with nervousness, is not obviously uniquely correlated with only “neuroticism”.

Worse, at least one allegedly Big-5 questionnaire, the BBC “Big 5-based” test had no neuroticism dimension at all, having replaced it with “confidence”!

3. There are other interpretations, including psychoanalytic, which define “neuroticism” quite divergently, as

- a tendency to experience emotional instability, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, and sadness (Big-5, Wikipedia)

- a tendency toward “a mental or personality disturbance not attributable to any known neurological or organic dysfunction”(Princeton University)

an unstable “compromise formation” between fears, desires, instincts and/or conscience, that is emotionally, sexually, psychosomatically, socially or professionally handicapping without psychosis and disconnection from reality (Freudian)

- a tendency toward psychological suffering involving unconscious inner conflicts partially determined by cultural factors (psychoanalyst Karen Horney)

Notice that not one of the Big-5 or other definitions mentions “risk aversion” as a trait associated with neuroticism, even though the UCLA report and some of the available “Big-5” questionnaires I looked at did, either explicitly or implicitly.

(However, to the extent that one subset of neuroses, the irrational phobias, comprises neurotic and irrational risk-aversions, they can serve as illustrations of neurotic risk aversiveness, without any presumption that ALL neuroticism involves pronounced risk aversion.)

Vigilance vs. Risk Aversion

Moreover, even when risk aversion is mentioned in connection with neuroticism and the Big-5, as it was in a The Atlantic article that reported that high neuroticism scores combined with high conscientiousness scores correlate with better health, an important distinction between “risk aversion” and “vigilance” gets blurred, if not ignored.

The importance of not confusing vigilance and risk aversion can be established this way: The case of a high-risk equities day trader who will be very vigilant once (s)he boldly buys a volatile stock illustrates how these differ.

He (s)he displays vigilance perfectly, but distinctly blended with a high risk tolerance. At a high-flying Wall Street brokerage, a young turk broker may be considered for a position on the basis of his vigilance, but passed over if too risk averse.

So, if you are hiring, which matters to you more: risk aversion or vigilance? Or both? If you think you are hiring a “neurotic”, which of these two very different traits will you expect to see displayed on the job, if either?

3.    4. The studies, or at least the reports about them, don’t seem to distinguish “perceived status” of neurotics from “deserved status”. Every employer should be concerned about both the perceived and deserved status of every employee on a team.

       High perceived status, i.e., the rank of an employee in the eyes of coworkers (and maybe the employer himself), is important for morale; however, deserved status is a critical correlate of actual productivity and performance.

It is quite possible that a neurotic may have a high(er) perceived status at the end of a project only because expectations of his or her performance were set too low at the outset, whereas an extrovert is more likely to be initially overrated and therefore disappoint—even if his objective level of performance is the same as the neurotic’s.

Hypothetically speaking, it is possible for there to be zero objective difference in performance between a given extrovert and a neurotic (however one chooses to define either of these) over the course of a project, yet for there also to be a dramatic “improvement” in the status rankings of the neurotic and decline for the extrovert.

However, although that improvement is only relative to expectation and measurable only in terms of perceived status, it might be a hiring plus if morale counts more than actual job productivity.

On the other hand, if deserved status is what needs to be gauged, the illusions of biased expectation should be ignored.

The Real Big-5

As for the apparent superiority of neurotics to extroverts, The UCLA Today report closed with this: “In terms of the study’s practical takeaway, ‘In no way does this suggest that we should not be staffing teams with extroverted people or only with neurotic people,’ Bendersky said.”

That is correct, but probably mostly because

1.    Extroversion and neuroticism are not mutually exclusive personality dimensions or types.

 

2.    Definitions and characterizations of “neuroticism” are not consistent enough from one study or researcher to another to support any uniform prediction, explanation or employment application of the conclusions reported in the media.

3.   The alleged assets “neurotics” allegedly bring to a job, e.g., anxiety about disappointing colleagues,  do not seem as clearly related to the official Big-5 definitions of “neuroticism” as they should be to warrant any specific hiring bias, priority or decision based on the concept. In the mass media, the concept of “neuroticism” has been embellished and distorted in order to sensationalize it or as a result of misunderstanding it.

 

4.    The reports fail to distinguish productivity benefits of hiring a “neurotic”, i.e., deserved status, from morale benefits (albeit with some productivity implications) of perceived status.

 

5.    Any definition of “neuroticism” that makes neurotics look like a better bet is quite divergent from most mainstream and traditional definitions, e.g., psychoanalytic. Even if the Big-5 concept of “neuroticism” in any way favored the hiring of neurotics, it is, in fact, being abandoned as a personality dimension and disorder by the AMA and recast as “negative affectivity” (bad feelings).

Bottom line: If you insist on making hiring decisions about “extroverts” and “neurotics” based on the “Big 5”…

 

…make it the preceding five big warnings.

 



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