by | Sep 4, 2018

Do you have to be loud to speak up for your cause?

The Social Power report is the culmination of SMK’s long investigation to discover how change happens. Anyone who is serious about achieving genuine change in the world should take a look.

The project caught my attention because I spent the best part of two decades working for charities, campaigning for change and helping others be effective influencers. The report identifies Twelve Habits of Successful Change-Makers. Reading them, I was struck by the importance of two key traits of introversion – listening and reflection. Good campaign leaders are commonly believed to be charismatic, articulate and media savvy. It seems to me that the ability to listen carefully to what others are saying and reflect on what’s happening around you are vital to getting results. Often, it is the quieter campaigners and leaders who do this to best advantage. A low-key approach can be just as effective as making a lot of noise but I’m not convinced that campaigning style is valued as highly as it should be.

The ability to listen and reflect are central to five of the Twelve Habits:

1.     Looking at the bigger picture. Successful change-makers continually reflect on strategy to make sure their efforts (and those of the teams they lead) are hitting home. Doing this comes naturally to introverts.

2.     In whose name? It’s increasingly recognised that devolving decision-making and responsibility to people whose lives are directly affected by the issues on which we campaign can yield good results. Research shows introverts make good leaders in environments that are dynamic and unpredictable, and are good at leading proactive people who want to put their own ideas into action. It strikes me that this makes introverts the ideal people to coordinate campaigns that rely on distributed leadership structures (such as those outlined by Hahrie Han) whereby power and resources are pushed out to a network of activists working at a remove from the centre.

3.     Understanding other people’s interests and motivations. Introverts are often good observers of people, as well as great listeners. By listening and observing carefully we pick up on nuances others might miss. Sometimes what people are not saying is as important as what they are. The ability to notice the unspoken can help gain a fuller understanding of how to influence that person.

4.     Radical listening and an asset-based approach. Introverts will happily adopt campaigning approaches that start with listening to other people. For example, community organising techniques begin with listening to people with lived experience of particular problems, not only to learn more about the difficulties they face but to work with them to generate solutions. Also, if you can get through the door then listening to and engaging with what a government minister has to say in private can sometimes be a more positive and effective approach than rushing to denounce them in public.

5.     Evaluating what matters and learning from it. For an introvert, taking time to step back, reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and learn from experience is as natural as breathing!

The Twelve Habits also highlight ways in which introverts can learn from our extraverted colleagues. For example:

1.     Being adaptive and responsive. Let’s face it, we introverts don’t tend to be good at thinking on our feet. We prefer to take our time, gather information and think carefully before making decisions. But campaigning often requires us to react with speed, for example when an unanticipated event presents an opportunity to start a public debate about an important issue (as recently happened after the terrible Grenfell fire). We need to recognise this weak spot and consciously do what we can to be more flexible and agile than feels comfortable. For example, we could set aside a short time to think but be disciplined about putting a strict time limit on it. Perhaps we could recruit adaptive and responsive extraverts to our teams and trust them to make the correct judgments when rapid action is required.

2.     Relationship-building. Introverts like to spend time alone and we prefer to save our energy for socialising with close friends and family. It becomes easy to neglect the relationship-building that’s essential to effective change-making. Extraverts generally find relationship-building easier because they can socialise for longer, with more people, without becoming exhausted – doing the painstaking work to build trust and collaboration with potential allies comes more easily to them. We can learn from extraverts by getting out of our comfort zone to do more networking. If you find that daunting, remember you don’t always have to network in person (do it online if you want to) and building one-to-one relationships can be as fruitful as working a room.

Viewing this report through the lens of introversion/extraversion leads me to the conclusion that effective change-making is not dependent on personality type. Although the stereotype of an effective campaigner might have more in common with the characteristics of extraversion, the reality is introverts and extraverts can be equally effective in different ways. We need balanced teams and a mutual appreciation of the strengths that different personality types bring to campaigning.


1.     The Social Change Project, 2018. Social Power: How civil society can ‘Play Big’ and truly create change. Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

2.     Grant, A., Gino, F. and Hofman, D.A., 2010. The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses. Harvard Business Review.

3.     Han, H., 2014. How Organizations Develop Activists. Oxford University Press.

Emma Taggart
Emma Taggart is provides coaching, facilitation and consultancy to individuals and teams. @emmataggart

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