Understanding people is an essential part of a leader’s job. The better we understand people - the higher our emotional intelligence - the better we handle our relationships with them. We can communicate more appropriately, manage conflict more constructively and build more effective teams.
What is personality theory?
People come in a wide variety of psychological shapes and sizes. Personality theories help us to understand that variation, and to explain why people behave the way they do at work.
But how can a team leader, or the team as a whole, get to grips with what is essential, without being led down the highways and byways of unnecessary psychological theory?
There are two excellent places to start:
- The "Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI)" is the world’s most widely used personality assessment. It uses four dimensions of personality to define sixteen personality types, and is insightful and easy to use with work teams. Our briefing note summarises all sixteen Myers-Briggs types.
- The "Big Five personality characteristics" are more respectable from a psychologist’s point of view as they are more comprehensive and have a better evidence base, but they are more complex to understand. They are also more difficult to use in a team discussion as they cover a wider range of personality characteristics, including 'neuroticism'.
However, the two approaches have much in common. The descriptions below blend the two approaches to give a succinct introduction to the people we meet and key differences between them. They are intended to explain a bit more than Myers-Briggs, which is a fairly limited description of a few aspects of personality, without getting into the serious depth of five-factor theories. If you are interested in finding out more about these two approaches, plus the limitations of personality theory, you could try a very accessible book by Brian Little called Me, Myself and Us1. It requires no previous knowledge of psychology to learn from enjoy.
But remember - there are a million things that make us the unique individuals we are. The dimensions below are just the most succinct way psychologists have found to summarise the similarities and differences between us.
Five key dimensions of personality
- Extravert or Introvert
- Pragmatist or Explorer
- Considerate or Challenging
- Disciplined or Flexible
- Resilient or Moody
Extravert or Introvert?
Extraverts are sociable and talkative. They start discussions, enjoy teamwork and bring an upbeat energy to a team.
Introverts are more reserved. They enjoy working alone or in pairs. They are independent thinkers and think carefully before speaking in a team.
Pragmatist or Explorer?
Pragmatic people enjoy the familiar and conventional. Their interest is in what is here and now, tangible and real.
Explorers enjoy thinking creatively about possibilities – new things to do, novel ideas, unconventional values. They like variety.
Considerate or Challenging?
Considerate people are co-operative and altruistic, sympathetic and popular.
Challenging people are good at critical analysis. They will stand up for their position and interests, and are competitive.
Disciplined or Flexible?
Disciplined people are well-organized. They like to plan. They are conscientious and reliable.
Flexible people are spontaneous and easy-going. They like to keep their options open and go with the flow.
The dark side
I have set out the opposite poles of the spectrum to show the value each characteristic can contribute to your team. Most of us will have aspects of all eight qualities, and the most rounded team will benefit from a good spread of strengths.
Each character has a potentially unhelpful “shadow” side too. In effective work teams people control their shadow side so they can make the fullest possible contribution to the team - even if it goes against their natural personality grain. Watch out for the opposite – if people justify unhelpful behaviour by saying “That’s just the way I am”. Could be time for a coach.
Resilient or Moody?
For the four dimensions above there is some common ground between Myers-Briggs and the Big Five. But the Big Five is the Big Five, not the Big Four.
It is the fifth dimension that makes the whole Big Five framework useful for understanding personality, but more difficult to use in work settings with teams. It is the charmingly named Neuroticism factor.
Resilient people are relaxed, slow to anger and not easily discouraged. They are emotionally stable and handle stress well.
Moody people worry more and feel more vulnerable. They may be impulsive and quick to anger.
Moody people may need more help to make a constructive contribution than any other character we have met on the five factors. But they may be your most skilled designer or surgeon, so you will need to know how to influence them to get the best out of them in a team setting.
Understanding personality is important for successful leadership and teamwork. Specific job skills are likely to be more important for specific tasks. Ideally you’ll get the right mix of both in your team.
Personality test details
You can find out more about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the test instrument here, and the Big Five personality theory and its test instrument here. You can take the MBTI test online yourself, but you will need to contact a qualified coach to set the NEO-PI test up for you.
1. Little, 2014, Me,Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-being, Kindle Edition, Public Affairs
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