When people with different personalities work together the results can meet or exceed everybody's expectations. Creative new ideas, innovative solutions, productivity gains and a healthy, satisfying workplace are all possible. But when personalities clash and conflicts arise the adverse effects can be far reaching and costly. People's health and wellbeing is in jeopardy, productivity suffers and the likelihood of OHS breaches rises dramatically.
Whether or not they have direct line responsibility for staff, it is part of every manager's job to understand the nature of personality and how it influences people's attitudes, behaviour and performance at work. This knowledge helps generate optimal conditions for personality differences to be beneficial. It also helps managers to be proactive in averting the downside effects of personality conflicts.
Personality: a management perspective
‘Personality' refers to the unique set of personal characteristics which determine how a person naturally interacts with their environment including how they think, feel and behave at work and in all other aspects of life. Personality is influenced by many factors that are not directly observable or easily accessible to others at work such as a person's core beliefs and personal values as well as their upbringing and background in general.
From a management perspective it is unnecessary to know about all these influencing factors. Rather, managers should be interested in how people's personality manifest in their observable behaviour and attitude at work. How a person interacts with colleagues, how they gather and evaluate information, how they make decisions and their overall approach to managing themselves at work are all influenced by their personality.
At the same time it is important to remember that mature adults have, to a greater or lesser degree, learned to adapt their behaviour to suit prevailing conditions. For example, the natural introvert might have worked hard to develop the social skills that come naturally to the extrovert. And the person with a natural inclination toward the ‘big picture' might have a well-honed skill in attending to detail when necessary.
It can be very helpful for staff and managers alike to understand each others' natural preferences and to have opportunities to consider the adaptations everyone could make in the interests of working together as effectively as possible.
Personality at work
Very few workplaces offer an environment in which people are free to express their personality without constraints, yet, for management purposes, it useful to think of personality as who a person is when they are NOT at work. This is because workplaces inevitably impose expectations and rules which require people to adapt from how they would prefer to behave without those constraints. It is part of management to understand people's personality-related preferences, how they are impacted by their working environment and, when necessary to initiate action that ameliorates an unhelpful situation.
For example, a manager hires a talented, experienced individual with a skill set that is intended to complement his existing team. However, it soon becomes clear that the new recruit's performance is significantly inhibited by the ‘open plan' office environment. The manager realises with hindsight that, in his enthusiasm to boost the team's composite skill set, he overlooked the mismatch between the prevailing office climate and the new recruit's personality. During the probationary period the manager became aware of the stress being experienced by the new recruit and the adverse effect on his performance. Working arrangements were agreed which enabled the new team member to do his best work without compromise to the team as a whole.
Every individual's personality is unique and it is not part of management work to probe every aspect. For example, enquiring about a person's family background could easily be considered intrusive by the person concerned. But it is important to develop insights into people's personalities rather than depending on assumptions about unexplored differences between colleagues. When you take on a management role you are well placed to lead this knowledge building by:
v getting to know the people around you at work; that is getting to know them as people as well as knowing about what they do at work;
v revealing something about your own personality – how you prefer to work what tends to leave you feeling stressed and even something about areas of soft skills weaknesses that you might be addressing;
v encouraging a trusting environment in which people feel safe to reveal something of who they are their working style preferences and aspects of the working environment that they find challenging;
v developing a culture of dialogue and discussion and the active listening necessary for productive inclusive conversations; and
v urging respect for the differences between people and a spirit of enquiry about understanding those differences.
Everyday activities such as these are usefully complemented by formal activities which help people gain insights into their own and others' personalities and develop understanding of how best to work together. A wide range of instruments are available and an expert in the field of psychometric testing can help you choose the most appropriate. Whilst on-line variations are available for many of the widely used instruments it can be useful to engage the services of a qualified expert to administer them and guide people's interpretation of their results. A skilled expert would also be able to deliver a team event in which people are guided to share their results with others and participate in a collaborative exploration of the implications for the team as a whole.
Managing people with different personalities: a proactive approach
Making the most of different personalities at work at the same time avoiding the downside risks calls for a proactive approach by managers. The following actions can make a significant contribution to managing different personalities effectively:
1. Obtain a good understanding of your own personality and how it plays out in your approach to your own work before you encourage others to learn about their personality. This includes learning about your own preferences in terms of how you think learn and interact with others. Consider engaging the services of an experienced professional to administer relevant psychological tests and to work with you to interpret the results.
2. When you manage a team invest in a team building event that focuses on individuals' personalities and how to work together effectively. Make sure that you are an equal participant in the process.
3. Ensure that everyone for whose work you are accountable is provided with a clear up-to-date position description (PD) that sets out the scope of their role the extent of their responsibilities and the limits of their authority. These provide an essential basis for constructive workplace relationships because they help people focus on what needs to be done rather than how it is being done.
4. Build psychological testing into the hiring process for key appointments. When you commission ‘psych testing' of a preferred candidate you are provided not only with commentary about their suitability for the role but also with invaluable guidance about how to manage them.
5. Publish widely any organisational values or other guidelines such as a ‘code of conduct' that help people understand what constitutes acceptable workplace attitudes and behaviour. This provides a helpful foundation for people to make choices about how they express their personality at work.
6. Put ‘coaching skills' in your professional development plan and participate in training that enables you to be a coach to people who report to you. When a manager is an effective coach they are able to work with staff to help them see the effects of their personality on how they work and to make necessary adjustments
You certainly don't need to be a qualified psychologist to be able to gain important insights into your own and others' personalities but it is important to be aware of the ethical limits of management work and to be adequately informed about the sort of circumstances that call for advice or support from a qualified expert.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the Professionals Australia website:
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an organisation development consultant and facilitator providing consulting services through FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd.
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