Daniel Pink and the “Ambivert Advantage”

DanielPinkI’ve been reading Daniel Pink‘s latest book, To Sell is Human (Amazon affiliate link), and I like a lot of what he has to say.

I found his thesis intriguing that extroverts don’t necessarily have an inherent advantage over introverts in sales success – you can see a summary of his thinking in this Washington Post article (if you don’t have the book).

But, a couple of things set off some alarms bells in my head.

First, I think his use of the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” are somewhat imprecise. Pink reinforces some of the more behavioral notions of the two orientations (sociable/lively/assertive vs. soft-spoken) – you know those stereotypes about the gregarious extrovert and the retiring introvert. In fact, the essence of introversion is finding one’s energy source from within, while extroverts generally find their energy from other people. While it is usually true that extroverts may tend to favor being more often in larger groups of people, and introverts typically need more (quiet) alone time, to look at stereotypical extremes and label only those as introverts or extroverts is to miss the point (in fact, there are many introverts who can quite effectively project outgoing behaviors). The ” ___vert” wiring has to do with replenishment of energy; behaviors are somewhat elastic across the spectrum. One of the best treatments of this topic is Susan Cain‘s excellent book Quiet.

My sense is that most people lean toward one orientation or the other – there are degrees of introversion and extroversion, but I am ambivalent about the notion of ambiversion as presented by Pink. He depicts “ambiverts” as the majority of people on a bell curve, with introverts and extroverts as extremes. I’d argue that there may be very few (if any) true ambiverts – people who draw energy equally from within and without. If you think of introversion/extroversion as a linear scale, I theorize that we all natively lean in one direction or the other (according to our internal wiring), even if we have learned and adopted behaviors that are more outgoing or contemplative. See this blog post for a fuller muse on this point.

The other point of contention I have with Pink’s methodology is his over-reliance on a single study (by Adam Grant) correlating sales effectiveness with self-reported measures of extroversion. In this study, people at (either) extreme end of the introvert-extrovert scale did not sell as successfully as those in the middle (whom Pink labels as the ambiverts). This result is used to argue against the prevailing notion that extroverted people are (of course!) the most productive sales people. Instead, people who could be somewhat chameleon-ish in the middle were the most successful.

It’s an intriguing and suggestive result, but there is a serious limitation to keep in mind – this is a single study (300 people), and it involved only call center representatives. Generalizing from that sample is tenuous – this is, after all, only one type of selling, and it is via phone, not in person. We can safely conclude that extremely extroverted and extremely introverted people were less effective in this particular type of non-face-to-face selling than people who were less introverted/extroverted – but that’s about it. I’m not convinced that the data and extrapolated conclusions are as convincing as they at first appear.

To then call a large swath of the population “ambiverts” and imply that they’re going to be just fine at whatever-kind-of-selling may be a bit of a stretch.

I’m an introvert, and I have done a lot of selling. I don’t schmooze as naturally as my extroverted brethren, but I practice many outgoing behaviors (that doesn’t make me an ambivert; I’m just an outgoing introvert!). And I’m actually in sympathy with a lot of Pink’s message in this book, especially the notion that, in one form or another, we’re just about all in sales (of some type). I just think that the evidence for some of the conclusions being drawn seems a bit thin on this point.

If you’ve been reading To Sell is Human – what’s your take?