In combing through the research on personality and brain function, Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking) concludes that they are. This conclusion, or at least its strong probability, raises some interesting questions for workplace culture, performance and rewards.
The term "reward-sensitive" has been coined by psychologists and applies to people who are highly motivated to seek rewards. As Cain notes, "reward sensitivity motivates us to pursue goals like sex and money, social status and influence. It prompts us to climb ladders and reach for faraway branches in order to gather life's choicest fruits."
In introducing this idea, Cain calls our attention to the work of Dr. Janice Dorn, PhD in neuroscience with a specialty in brain anatomy, M.D. trained in psychiatry, who works as a "financial psychologist", having counseled more than 600 traders as part of her practice. Dorn notes that her extroverted clients are more likely to be reward-sensitive, while the introverts are more likely to heed warning signals and are more successful at regulating their feelings of desire or excitement.
The answer to why extroverts and introverts might react differently to the prospect of rewards, Dorn tells us, lies in the structure of their brains. Research suggest that extroverts seem to be more susceptible to the reward-seeking cravings of the limbic system (the parts of the brain often referred to as its "pleasure center"). This, and the fact that extroverts appear to have more active dopamine pathways (dopamine being the "reward chemical" that the brain releases in response to anticipated pleasure), causes them to get an extra buzz from the pursuit and attainment of goals. In fact, some scientists are exploring the idea that reward sensitivity, rather than just a feature of extroversion, may be the thing that makes an extrovert an extrovert.
While this buzz may have the positive effects of firing up extroverts to work hard and giving them the courage to take chances, it can also make them blind to warning signals and danger, leading them to take on outsized risks in pursuit of rewards.
Introverts, by contrast, don't buzz as easily. Their response to their reward system is smaller. This helps them be better at delaying gratification and makes them more likely to be cautious, to scan the environment for risks before proceeding, to see and consider peripheral issues.
Cain further postulates that the cultures of many businesses celebrate the go-go aggressive type, the forceful extrovert, and that these are the personality types who rise to the top, while the more cautious and cerebral types tend to be passed over for promotion. She makes her case that having people with this personality type in control of our capital, institutions and power may be the source of many of the crises of our times, with examples ranging from Enron to Wall Street.
So what does this mean for those of us charged with designing and managing pay systems? I think it raises some interesting questions, like the following:
To what extent can -- and should -- we assess the reward-sensitivity of our employee populations and organizational cultures, and take this factor into consideration when designing programs?
Many of us work in or serve organizations with extroverted cultures. How should this fact impact our work in designing rewards? Should our programs reinforce this culture -- or should they act as ballast, providing counter-pressure?
And what about our own personalities vis-a-vis the work we do? Some of us are extroverts, apparently prone to be more reward-sensitive, and some of us are introverts. Do we need to be more aware of our own tendencies, so that they don't overly influence the rewards we recommend?
What's your take?
Ann Bares is the Founder and Editor of the Compensation Café, Author of Compensation Force and Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group LLC, where she provides compensation consulting services to a wide range of client organizations. Ann was recently named President Elect of the Twin Cities Compensation Network (the most awesome local reward network on the planet) and has joined the Advisory Board of the Compensation & Benefits Review, the leading journal for those who design, implement, evaluate and communicate total rewards. She earned her M.B.A. at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and is a bookhound and aspiring cook in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter at @annbares.
Creative Commons image "Brain" by dirk schaefer