How do qualities of introversion and extraversion relate to bullying at work?
I searched “introvert,” “extrovert,” and “workplace bullying” together and was surprised to find very little addressing this topic. In recent years we’ve seen greater attention devoted to “rescuing” introverts from unfair characterizations about their personalities, including the workplace context. However, the introvert/extrovert dichotomy only tangentially appears in research studies about workplace bullying, and not to a degree sufficient to draw firm conclusions.
I think it’s worth a much closer look.
First, let’s make sure we understand our terms, as both are often mischaracterized.
Contrary to popular assumptions, introversion is not synonymous with shyness or social ineptitude. Rather, introverts tend to be inner-directed, drawing energy from their solitude. Social situations cause them to expend that energy and create the need to recharge away from others. Introverts may greatly prefer conversations about “serious” ideas and find casual exchanges somewhat burdensome.
Extraversion is commonly misunderstood as being the equivalent of an outgoing “life of the party” personality. More accurately, extroverts tend to be more outer-directed, drawing energy from their interactions with others. That social side may cause them to prefer everyday chit chat over being alone. In fact, extroverts may feel bereft and restless without frequent social contact.
Of course, most people are not complete extroverts or introverts. Those of us who can identify with both qualities may find that different social settings and contexts influence our tendencies one way or the other. Furthermore, personalities can change over time.
With these characterizations in mind, I think the introvert/extrovert framework is ripe for inquiries concerning workplace bullying, in terms of both targets and aggressors. Here are a few questions that could make for interesting theses, dissertations, and research articles:
- Are introverts or extroverts more likely to be targets of workplace bullying?
- Are introverts or extroverts more likely to be workplace aggressors?
- Are extroverts more likely to bully in direct or indirect ways?
- Are introverts more likely to bully in direct or indirect ways?
- When introverts bully, are they more likely to target introverts or extroverts?
- When extroverts bully, are they more likely to target introverts or extroverts?
- Do introverts and extroverts react differently as bystanders to workplace bullying?
If I was a social science researcher studying how introversion and extraversion relate to bullying at work, here are some hypotheses I’d start out with, based on my general understanding of topic:
- Because extroverts may be favored for promotion to management positions, and because workplace bullying (at least in the U.S.) is disproportionately supervisor-to-subordinate in nature, they may be in a more advantageous position to bully others. This does not necessarily mean that extroverts are inherently more prone to engage in bullying behaviors.
- Introverts may be more likely to be bullied than extroverts.
- Extroverts are more likely to bully directly, while introverts are more likely to bully indirectly.
- Differences can fuel interpersonal incivility and aggression. Accordingly, extroverts are more likely to bully introverts, and introverts are more likely to bully extroverts.
Again, these are hypotheses only, not evidence-based conclusions.
The introvert/extrovert framework potentially yields some useful insights toward understanding the nature of bullying and similar forms of mistreatment at work. I hope we’ll see some enterprising researchers take up these research possibilities.
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Followup note: Organizational psychology professor Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois University), whose work I have mentioned before on this blog, saw this post on Facebook and kindly shared some research results and article links concerning interpersonal conflict and incivility at work that are relevant to this topic.
Applying the Interpersonal Conflict at Work scale to 515 respondents, she found that “people higher in extraversion tend to report less interpersonal conflict at work, including even getting into arguments (e.g., contributing to those conflicts).” However, she strongly emphasized that the effect of extraversion on the composite score “is quite a bit weaker” than traits such as “agreeableness and conscientiousness and honesty-humility.”
She also provided these article/dissertation abstracts on research concerning incivility and personality:
http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ocp/14/1/58/ (individual differences among workplace incivility targets)
http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-95016-074 (workplace incivility and counterproductive work behavior)
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14766086.2012.758049#.UlhMbxxa7YF (effects of personality and spirituality on workplace incivility perceptions)
It’s worth noting that although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, bullying and incivility are not necessarily synonymous, and researchers often draw firm distinctions between them. Nevertheless, this information helps to shed light on the topic and is much appreciated.