Introverts, extroverts, and workplace bullying

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.

Understanding terms

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.

Workplace bullying

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?

Some hypotheses

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: (individual differences among workplace incivility targets) (workplace incivility and counterproductive work behavior) (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.

12 responses

  1. In my situation the bully is somewhat of an introvert in the sense that she is not a “people” person. She is lacking in the skill of showing sincerity and empathy. I am more of an extrovert. A true people person. I can be empathetic and sincere in my words and actions. I am comfortable around all people. She is not. I think a very big piece of why bullies attack others is because they are lacking in the skills the target has and they feel threatened by the potential target. My situation is a very good example of this scenario and I would not doubt that most WPB situations, if studied closely would determine the same. I am very interested in this topic and plan to write about my experiences working 25 years for a bully at a top Firm in a major city once I leave and am no longer bound by legal agreements (possibly 6 months). I think my experience may help others overcome their situation and take back control of their lives; after all WPB is all about control, and is very similar to other abusive environments. Right now targets have no easy legal recourse to stop the bully. There are ways of taking back control and putting the bully in check. It wont stop the bully but it will give the target a better hand to play with. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, the use of Family Leave at the workplace gives the target the legal edge they need to take time off, whether it be late arrival, early departure, once a week or a week at a time. To be able to take the time off when needed to take care of oneself physically and/or emotionally without being threatened about “too many absences” is empowering to a target.

    • Hey Dee,
      I do agree with you, but on the introvert part I disagree. English is not my first language and I am an introvert. You see, a bully loves company, and “company” is not something an introvert loves (so they think), at least not all the time. I am an introvert myself and I have always felt confident, until my last job. The verbal attacks by my boss were so awful. I was bullied by the salesteam, because they formed a group, a typical extravert thing. To bully someone, one has to tell stories about the other person, get others to back them up to feel confident and keep doing it, typical extravert behavior. Please, I did not say that extraverts are bullies. Introverts mostly keep to themselves to actively bully, they are good at ignoring. I can see how that can be seen as wrong by extraverts. What I am trying to say is that it is does not have to be extravert or introvert behavior, but just wrong behavior. Teaching people that bullying is introvert or extravert will only make one group feel superior and continue their behavior and will result in the other being bullied even more.

  2. In my conflict consulting practice, I really appreciate the work of Myers-Briggs (Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers) which is based on that of Carl Jung. Jung theorized that when our minds are active, we are involved in one of two mental activities:

    1) taking in information, or
    2) making decisions about it.

    He further theorized that that:

    There are two opposite ways to take in information:

    – Sensing (prefers to get things decided), or
    – Intuition (prefers to stay open to new information and options)

    There are two opposite ways to make decisions about information:

    – Thinking (prefers to look at logic and consistency), or
    – Feeling (prefers to look at people and special circumstances)

    Similarly, there are two opposite ways to make decisions about information:

    – Thinking (prefers to look at logic and consistency,) or
    – Feeling (prefers to look at people and special circumstances)

    Additionally, Jung observed the two opposite ways we prefer to focus our energy:

    – Extraversion (focus toward the external world), or
    – Introversion (focus toward the internal world)

    Myers and Briggs refined and interpreted Jung’s theory and designed a self-report questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to make Jung’s theory understandable and applicable in everyday life. In constructing the MBTI instrument, Myers and Briggs added that:

    Each individual prefers to deal with the outer world in either a way that is:

    – Judging (decisive and orderly), or
    – Perceiving (flexible and spontaneous)

    Of course, not everyone is simply one or the other in each of these areas – there is a spectrum of “grays” between these opposites.

    The work of Thomas-Kilmann connects the Myers-Briggs personality types with how we prefer to approach conflict – which I believe adds great dimension to understanding both the “bully” and his/her target.

    • Debra, thank you for setting out that thorough explanation of Myers-Briggs! For readers unfamiliar with Dr. Carl Jung and the Myers-Briggs personality type test inspired by his work: Jung’s analysis of personality types introduced the introvert/extrovert framework (way back in the 20s, I believe!) and is embodied by the Myers-Briggs test, which identifies 16 personality types.

      Over the years I’ve read a few speculations about whether the Myers-Briggs framework yields insights about workplace bullying. While Myers-Briggs may not be a seamless proxy for introvert vs. extrovert, perhaps it may be the easiest vehicle for shaping a research study on this topic.

  3. From my experience, introverts make easier targets because we tend to stay to ourselves and may be reluctant to speak up. The quiet nature of introverts can be misinterpreted as aloofness, idleness, dullness, and an inability to be a team player. It can lead to speculation about what the introvert is hiding, why they don’t socialize more with co-workers, their job satisfaction, etc. Bullies unfortunately use this personality trait to their advantage and manipulate others’ impression of the introvert target.

    I haven’t seen an introverstion/extraversion pattern with workplace bullies. I have been the target of both personality types, although the bullying tactics are definitely different between the two.

  4. It seems that anyone perceived as ‘different’ from the status quo can more easily become a target.

    It is reported that in the USA, preference for introversion is not as prevalent as extraversion. It makes sense, then, that introverts in most US workplaces may find themselves ‘on the radar’ more — for reasons EXTARGET explained above. I have no doubt, though, that if an extravert found him or herself in a group of introverts, the same could be said.

    I have studied and administered the MBTI as well. The MBTI helps us understand why we and others perceive what we do, why those perceptions may be quite different, and how the preferences impact our actions and thoughts. What I really appreciate about this ‘tool’ in understanding ourselves and others is that no preference is ‘better’ than the other. Also, no one is 100% introverted or 100% extraverted. Some may have stronger ‘preferences’ for one over the other, but how that is experienced and acted upon depends a lot on other preferences (which Debra Healy indicated above).

    Finally, hat can’t be forgotten is that work abuse involves the interplay of several variables, including the characteristics of the abuser and the workplace culture (systemic).

  5. I am an avid follower of this blog- currently my case is coming to a close with the EEOC’s investigation. I have not commented as much as I would have liked to- because I did not want to use it as a venting place for my specific situation- but yesterday after 10 months of blacklisting- chapter 13, losing my home – cutting and dying my hair- using my maiden name, and becoming certified in my secondary area of expertise I finally was offered a teaching position – so perhaps I am responding because I have the knowledge of the whole scope and sequence now and feel that the circle has at least made it to some kind of “full” even though I await the stamp of approval by the EEOC….which after an admission of racial animus from my former supervisor- may in fact happen. I am an extrovert– well, I was. Now I am an extrovert disguised as an introvert. There are always extremes on either end, but for the most part, in the teaching profession- the children gravitate to extroverted teachers. Especially in Urban areas where there are so many needs within the children served- that are often met by the extroverted teacher. Culturally speaking, most of my students African American, there were not many if any introverted African American mothers- grandmothers- or on rare occasion introverted fathers. By nature, they were louder, first to question, first to act then think– and very passionate about their families and advocacy…it is a matriarch driven culture- so being a female extroverted teacher– meant the students flocked to me…one problem though- I am white…I say “problem” because what should have been a 1000% positive situation- led to my demise. The brighter my light burned– the more it cast light in the shadows as well. My situation involved a mobbing model….The breakdown of personality and race was 1 white alcoholic extroverted principal fearing job loss, 1 white principal new to the position- domestic violence survivor- and seeking approval in a pre-takeover school, 1 introverted African american vice principal struggling to make it up the ladder of success, and finally the nucleus- an African American extroverted content supervisor who was once a classroom teacher in the same subject area as I was….and who held several records for most wins, etc….
    I was approaching those records, and up until my final year, this person took credit for hiring me years ago– but the more I gained student wise- the more I lost professionally. I think extroverts in service positions — like teaching…need to be aware of their surroundings in all areas…because what makes a teacher successful is his/her ability to meet the needs of children and successfully instruct- inspire- and have longevity — but at the same time, jealousy festers at the speed of light…thankfully my intuition kicked in and for the last 3 years I kept every email, text, and recorded conversations– I knew something wasn’t right- and I ended up losing everything. But I believe justice will prevail in the end…and on Wednesday I will once again be with students..and starting over basically….and this time, I am very aware – and intend on staying under the radar for the time being.

  6. I am less interested in understanding why bullying happens than ensuring that it stops. Does understanding decrease the incidence or harmful effects? Does it restore victims?

    I think it happens because there’s no reason not to engage in destructive workplace behaviour. A review of operant conditioning provides a rational for approaches that are certainly worth trying in light of the magnitude of losses (personal and social) that result where bullying is not addressed effectively.

    • If we don’t understand bullying in all its aspects — interpersonal, organizational, cultural, etc. — then we’re at a disadvantage in trying to develop preventive and responsive measures.

      We know from research studies that diversities of all types contribute toward workplace aggression of all types. Seemingly, this would include the introvert/extrovert dichotomy. At the very least we benefit by knowing how it might be a variable.

  7. It might very well be a variable. If diversities of all/any types contribute to aggression, the solution (to me) seems to lie in the direction of valuing diversity generally rather than focussing on the myriad of “reasons” that people might devalue and feel justified in mistreating each other.

    And as I think about it more, perhaps there is value in describing all the various ways we are different (yet equally deserving of respect as human beings). The more opportunity we have to develop appreciation of differences, the more tolerant (and eventually accepting) we could be.

    Perhaps I was feeling put out after reading elsewhere that recent research suggests that “physically unattractive” people were more likely to be bullied at work- which seems to me a particularly nasty way to blame targets for their misfortune. There’s a risk that as we identify more and more characteristics associated with being targeted, we provide more reasons for targets to feel both responsible and inadequate.

    Part of the challenge, I realize, is that there’s an abundance of targets to study, and not so many identified perpetrators. We need to get a few hundred of them together so we can start pulling out similarities and differences on the other side of the equation. And the “why’s” there are of more interest to therapists than they are to targets.

  8. I’m an introvert and have been bullied at work…told I am too quiet, mocked as being weird and shy as well as identified as being an aloof bitch . Part nature and nurture I stand back from the pool rather than diving right in. This trait has been used to say I’m under-performing and not a team player. Rather than seeing other attributes it becomes the main focal point. That actually causes me to feel hypersensitive and self conscious and disrupts my performance. When you feel judged by your every way of being in the world it goes deeper than other types of bullying because really what is happening is you are being told you are defunct, you need to change, and conform. Being an introvert is not something you can change it is no different than having a certain haircolor. I can dye it to fut in but underneath it I am still an introvert so every time I’m forced to conform to extrovert standard…I’m expending energy trying t pretend. The world begins to feel fake, you become detached from it and depressed. An actor in a play that isn’t real….

    • I agree with you and understand what you are saying. I also have gone through the same and am an introvert and I know what you mean when you say you feel others want you to change. I like being an introvert and do not want to change nor could I if I wanted to. I would much rather be an introvert then extrovert. Also in my observations, it has always been the extrovert who does the bullying. More than likely why they are wanting to learn all about this subject, so they can get away with it going forward, now that so many are figuring them out. Introverts are quiet and nice people; they are usually highly intelligent and just want to do their jobs, get along and be left out of the office drama. Extroverts are confrontational and cannot stand others who are quiet for whatever reason.

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