Communication skills predict who emerge as team leaders at work


BUFFALO, NY — If you want to be seen as a leader, work on your public speaking skills — that’s the takeaway from a new University at Buffalo School of Management study, which found strong communication skills reliably predictable leadership emergence in teams.

The paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, challenges the long-standing assumption that extroverts are naturally charismatic speakers, thereby giving extroverts an advantage when it comes to being seen as leadership material.

“Extroverts tend to put themselves at the center of social interactions, giving them opportunities to build connections with their teammates,” says James Lemoine, PhD, associate professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “But like other personality traits, extroversion reflects an inclination to engage in those behaviors — not necessarily the ability to do so successfully.”

In other words, just because people are outgoing and talkative doesn’t mean they communicate effectively and inspire others to view them as leaders. Lemoine and his co-authors set out to untangle extroversion and communication skills to see which really drove leadership in teams.

To do so, the researchers conducted two studies with more than 630 people divided into 140 teams. Participants were randomly assigned roles within a fictitious company and had to come to consensus within their teams on two issues: hiring a new executive and identifying a new initiative for the company. Along the way, experts evaluated their communication skills across six metrics, and the participants completed a personality assessment and rated their peers on leadership.

“Across both studies, extroversion and communication skills were not significantly correlated,” Lemoine says, “and it was communication skills that most consistently affected who participants identified as leaders within their teams.”

For organizations — and introverts — the study is good news, Lemoine says.

“While extroversion is a trait you’re born with, communication skills can be developed over time,” Lemoine says. “Employees who learn to speak with confidence and clarity, and use appropriate nonverbal cues, will be more likely to be seen as leaders when working in teams. In turn, they’ll have more opportunities to make a positive difference on their team and organization — and to advance their own career.

“For organizations,” Lemoine continues, “studies show communicating effectively can positively influence job performance and other critical outcomes — making training programs focused on communication skills a good investment in their success, too.”

The study was led by Tyree Mitchell, PhD, assistant professor in Louisiana State University’s School of Leadership and Human Resource Development, and co-authored by Lemoine and UB School of Management alumna Diana Lee, BS ’18, doctoral candidate at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school has also been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and US News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit management.buffalo.edu.

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