The Upside of Your Neurotic Co-Workers

You have a spot to fill on a team. Two qualified candidates come to mind. One is bright and gregarious—she radiates energy and is well-liked around the office. The other is quiet and nervous—he has a reputation for being obsessive and can be off-putting. It’s a no-brainer, right? The extrovert will shine; the neurotic will shrink.

Think again, says Corinne Bendersky, associate professor of management and organizations at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. She believes that the assumptions people make and the expectations they have about how much value colleagues with different personality types will bring to a group are usually wrong.

Bendersky and her collaborator, Neha Shah of Rutgers Business School, have studied how status changes are driven by the perceptions of an individual’s peers. Bendersky considered the influence of personality type on these perceptions, with a focus on the two dimensions of the Big Five traits that previous research has shown are most strongly associated with status in groups: extroversion and neuroticism (she controlled for the other traits, which are agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience). As interdependent work unfolds, she finds, extroverts lose stature and neurotics gain stature.

In an interview with strategy+business, Bendersky explains this evolution—and why it means that we should give that hyperanxious colleague another look.

S+B: When most of us hear that someone is an “extrovert” or a “neurotic,” we get a clear picture in our minds.
 If we’re told that we have a coworker with an extroverted personality—and we don’t know much else about him—our expectations are positive. We assume that his energy and charisma will make him a strong collaborator and contributor to the group, and we assign that person high value and high status. On the other hand, our expectations of a neurotic colleague (again, absent any other information) are negative. We assume her anxiety and negativity will be disruptive, resulting in weak contributions to the group, and we assign her low value and low status.

S+B: What happens when people actually start to work together?
 What we learned, both through observing real teams and through manipulations in a lab, is that in the absence of other information, personality sets expectations. But actual interactive experiences enable us to make informed status assessments. The influence of an individual’s personality weakens and becomes much less relevant.

It turns out that behaviors associated with a strongly extroverted personality don’t make extroverts particularly good collaborators. In groups, extroverts like to be the center of attention. They are not known for being good listeners. They don’t typically solicit and integrate other people’s input and suggestions. They also may be prone to exaggerating their contribution or even taking credit for other people’s work. So, not only are they not necessarily contributing much value, but they may be engaging in self-aggrandizing behaviors. As the group works together, peers recognize this behavior, and frankly, it’s annoying.

People who are more neurotic, however, are very anxious about their social relationships. In particular, they’re anxious not to disappoint people, and they’re motivated in social contexts like interdependent teams to work very hard, to persist at their task and to be well prepared. They are driven to put in a great deal of time and effort on behalf of the group’s goals.

As a result, more extroverted colleagues fail to live up to the high expectations that their colleagues have for them, and their peers’ valuations of them drop. The opposite is true for neurotics. People have very low initial expectations of neurotics but are impressed by their experiences working with them—and the esteem and value of the more neurotic colleagues rise over time.

S+B: So contrary to common perception, neurotics make great teammates.
  Part of why I like this research so much is there is a little bit of an underdog story here. We underestimate the potential contributions of our neurotic colleagues. But our anxious, withdrawn colleagues will surprise and impress us. The data is really unambiguous: Neurotics are getting a bad shake. Neurotics have significant upside potential when they go into a group setting, and if they embrace and even build on their natural personality-based inclinations to put a lot of effort into a group task, they’re very likely to reap the social benefits. If they feel like they’re being underappreciated at the outset, they can feel confident that by being themselves, they’re going to be rewarded in the end.

Extroverts, meanwhile, have to go above and beyond to prove their value to the group. Of course, we can all learn to behave in ways that are more sophisticated or more thoughtful or more conscientious than our default. It’s a matter of stepping outside your comfort zone. If there’s awareness on the part of an extrovert that his behavioral inclinations may potentially be disruptive or lead him to be less appreciated, he can learn to moderate some of his behaviors to sustain the high initial positive perceptions of his teammates. But extroverts have to work at it to prevent their status from dropping, whereas neurotics’ status will rise if they just behave in a way that is normal for them.

S+B: Is there an ideal balance of personality types?
  Personalities are just one facet of a prospective team member that may be offset by other benefits that they bring—and most people’s personalities are not at the extremes of each dimension. So, I caution against using personality as too strong a decision factor.

But managers need to be aware of what their intuition is telling them when they are designing teams to do interdependent work. Their intuition suggests that more extroverts and fewer (or, in extreme cases, no) neurotics is optimal for achieving good outcomes. We now know that that just isn’t true. Of course, that doesn’t mean there should be no extroverts on teams or that you should stack teams with really neurotic people. What you want is to have a mix of personalities, just as you would want diversity in other dimensions of your team.

Managers should also think about the environment in which people will add the most value. I think it’s quite likely that extroverts would do better in individual contributor roles, and especially in client-facing roles, whereas neurotics would probably do better working in teams. And that goes against some of the norms in terms of the allocation of human resources.


This article has been adapted with permission from strategy+business. Read the unabridged interview, “Corinne Bendersky on Why Neurotics Get a Bum Rap.”


Laura W. Geller is senior editor of strategy+business.

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