A personal touch

Sometimes it can seem like the world of business has no room for personality. People need to match the job description rather than the other way round. But is there a way we can work according to who our employees really are?

A personal touch

One of the most appreciable measurements we have of an individual’s character is also one of the oldest. Dating back to Carl Jung’s work on the personality, the idea of extroversion and introversion are firmly established in our culture. And yet it’s something of which the majority of us have a poor understanding, despite the fact that our place on the spectrum between introversion and extroversion almost certainly dominates a huge part of our daily lives. Author of the recent analysis of the relationship between introversion and extroversion, Quiet, Susan Cain is something of an expert on introversion-extroversion research. 

A significant portion of Cain’s book is dedicated to the business world, an arena often unfairly stacked in favour of extroverts. We only have to think of a stereotypical City financier to be greeted with images of someone brash and confident. Again commonly received logic would have that the most ebullient characters are best suited to the demands of the boardroom. But this really isn’t the case; often a firm but receptive hand on the tiller can win more respect from employees and partners than a brash and overconfident one.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of research Cain highlights in Quiet relates to a study conducted by management professor Adam Grant at Wharton University of Pennsylvania. 

The findings, contrary to expectation, showed that introverts are the best people to lead extroverts and vice versa. Cain explains why this would be. “Introverts are better at managing proactive employees because they’re more likely to let them run with their ideas, to implement new and creative ideas,” she says. While with their natural enthusiasm and drive, extroverts may often seem ideal to lead a project forward, this very nature can sometimes cause them to unconsciously pass over others’ contributions and not make the most of the talent they’re working with. However, if you have a group of introverts, a manager who can be stimulating and confident can make all the difference. “On the other hand, when employees need rousing, when they need inspiration, extroverts tend to be the better leaders,” says Cain.

There are all manner of other techniques used to measure and categorise personality, many of which build directly on Jung’s ideas. But few of them have gained as much ground in the workplace as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Myers Briggs evaluates an individual in terms of their place upon four spectrums: introversion–extroversion, sensing–intuition, thinking–feeling and perceiving–judging. By assessing which poles of the spectrum are more dominant in a person, this provides a theoretical model of how they respond to and process the world around them, summarised in a four letter ‘type’ that details their most dominant characteristics – for example ESTP. 

Think Training & Development is one of the country’s most prominent providers of Myers Briggs workplace training and its managing director, Gavin Aubrey, is clear on how it can help us to better understand one another. “Before I did Myers Briggs I got on really well with about a third of people,” he recalls. “A third I had to work harder with. And then a third I just thought were completely odd.” Aubrey explains how he, like the most of us, assumed that people thought about and saw the world the way he did. When people acted in ways he didn’t understand, it was a more natural leap in logic to assume they were a deviation from the norm. It wasn’t until he began to engage in Myers Briggs that he realised that these people weren’t ‘abnormal’; they just processed things differently. “It’s strange that it took me so long to work out that actually people think differently,” he says.

How does understanding this help someone work better with a team? Aubrey gives an example, explaining that he falls very firmly on the thinking side of the thinking-feeling spectrum.

“I have no feelings,” he jokes. “I’m cold and dark inside.” Obviously, this isn’t true but it highlights how valuable it can be to have individuals around for whom emotional empathy is more natural. “Sometimes I can forget the values and the appreciation within the group,” he explains. “Quite often I use more emotionally astute people within the team to make sure the team’s values align properly and that we’re doing the right thing by everyone.”

But working with personality isn’t just about making up for your own deficiencies. It’s also about recognising what your team needs. Aubrey offers an example: “Something that irritates a lot of judging people is people who, like me, are very last-minute – all over the place,” he says. “It just makes them stressed; they think it’s wrong and it causes a lot of friction.”

Cain also thinks there’s huge value in recognising the needs of your team. One of the major differences between introverts and extroverts is the amount of stimulation they require – introverts are easily over-stimulated and need time to wind down, extroverts can easily find themselves becoming under-stimulated and slipping into boredom and lethargy. There are ways to respond to this though. “Smart employers will allow employees to choose the level of stimulation they need at any given time,” she observes. “For example, by designing offices that have shared, socially active spaces but also quiet nooks and crannies.”

This is a very important observation, as it highlights that learning about different personalities not only teaches us how to better work with those personalities but can also aid all of us in adopting a range of working practices, providing suitable solutions for different types of situation. Aubrey gives an example where even a team full of extroverts may benefit from an introverted approach. “If we’re all talking too much, we can just put up a hand and say that we’re extroverting far too much,” he says. “And because it’s about Myers Briggs nobody takes it personally; they understand it will be of benefit to have a bit of quiet time.”

On paper it all sounds very simple. But in practice one can imagine how it would be far more complex. There are all manner of other factors that make up someone’s personality; your natural tendencies won’t necessarily always be in the perfect position to complement that of your team. So, what if a manager finds their own natural character isn’t well suited to deal with a specific situation or member of staff? Do they need to pretend to be someone they aren’t?

“We all do best when we draw on our own natural strengths,” remarks Cain. But she also refers to the work of Professor Brian Little, whose idea of ‘free traits’ shows that while personality sets a framework for us we all have capacity to act in accordance with these trends or against them, depending on the requirements of the situation. As Cain elucidates: “All of us need sometimes to ‘act out of character’ for the sake of work or people we love.” However, it’s worth noting that acting outside our normal framework is far more tiring than acting within it. “The key is to step out of character on an as-needed basis,” Cain explains. “If you’re doing it all of the time or even most of the time, you’ll burn out quickly.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Aubrey. He emphasises an idea that is prevalent in Cain’s book, that character type doesn’t dictate what we can and can’t do – rather it is about our capacity for operating in certain modes. He offers an example of someone for whom thinking is their weakest trait. “If you were to spend all week just doing very logical stuff, without doing any people-based stuff, usually that would induce stress,” he says. While awareness of your personality type can allow you to be flexible with your index, trying to push yourself too far and for too long will simply cause too much pressure. “If you spent too much time trying to get good at it you’ll probably just induce stress.”

This hits the nail on the head. Plenty of introverts can display great social skills and be incredibly engaging speakers – the aforementioned Professor Little, despite being a ‘classic introvert’, is renowned for his energetic and passionate lectures. It is simply the case that the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ encapsulate which state we find to be most natural. Operating in the other mode is entirely possible – it just takes a little more effort than the individual’s default state. And this means that there is a huge value in trying to understand who your employees are and how they work. Because with a little work we can find a way to make the workplace fit our employees’ strengths – rather than the other way round.

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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