Business Communication. Original photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by Social Science Insights

Making the Most of Personality and Communication Styles Within Business

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Personality and communication styles within businessPsychologists and management professionals often use the Myers-Briggs concepts of introversion and extraversion to help people understand different personality types. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t about people who are outgoing versus people who dislike mingling during parties. Instead, these concepts encourage managers and teams to think about individual preferences in communication styles for the purposes of enhanced innovation and collaboration. Today’s post provides an overview of the key personality types that are used in management training and in team building exercises. I will then talk about some of the limitations of applying personality types too strictly within organisations. I’ll discuss how managers and leaders can adopt a more flexible model of personality types to improve how their team members communicate with one another, which in turn will boost their team contributions at work.

Personality Types

The Myers-Briggs test measures four pairs of personality traits that draw on the theory of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. The four pairs each sit on a spectrum: from extraversion to introversion; sensing to intuition; thinking to feeling; and judging to perceiving. When you take the Myers-Briggs test, you will get a score in between each pair showing your preference towards one personality style versus another. In the end, the test gives you a four trait personality score. I’ll describe the four pairs briefly:

  • If you prefer to talk through a problem in order to arrive at a solution, this probably means that you lean towards extraversion. If you prefer to have time to think and consider information before giving your opinion, you are likely to lean towards introversion. These two ideas describe a spectrum of interaction styles that people adopt when they try to make sense of their inner selves and the outside world.
  • If you prefer to make decisions based upon past or present experiences, and you prefer concrete ideas and “facts” that you can observe and weigh up, then you lean towards sensing. If you enjoy abstract ideas and you like imagining the “bigger picture,” especially focusing on future possibilities and the meaning behind the things you see, then you lean towards intuition. In the former case, you would  prefer to run tests carefully before committing to new projects, but in the latter, you don’t mind experimenting with new ventures without all the evidence at hand. These concepts address how people perceive the world around them through their five senses or alternatively through their subjective perceptions.
  • If you see yourself as a “logical” and “rational” person who makes decisions primarily through information  you have gathered, and you prefer to stick by the rules and follow routines, then you lean towards the thinking function. If you prefer to trust your “gut feeling” and you base your decisions with respect to specific contexts, taking into consideration other people’s feelings and subjective viewpoints, then you lean towards feeling. These concepts attempt to capture how personal values affect decision-making processes.
  • If you like your life to have order and you prefer to settle problems or disputes as they arise, then you are stronger on the judging function. If you thrive under uncertainty and you’re open to new experiences and possibilities on a whim without much planning, then your perceiving function is more dominant. These personality traits represent the way that individuals manage their lives and the world around them.

The Myers-Briggs test can be a useful tool to think and talk through management and leadership issues, and it can also be a valuable way to explore different perspectives at work.

As a measurement of personality types, the Myers-Briggs test has had its share of controversies over time. Some of these issues are related to the everyday application of these personality traits. In some of my descriptions, I’ve used quote marks around some of the loaded words associated with certain personality types. It’s nice to be thought of as creative, but not if this means you’re going to be labelled “irrational.” It’s good to observe rules and arrive at logical conclusions, but not if people are going to see you as inconsiderate.

Mary McGuiness’ book does a great job explaining how the various personality types develop over key life stages, including strengths, potential difficulties, learning styles, professional identities, behaviour under stress, and communication preferences. McGuiness notes that personality preferences are not the same as skills, meaning that understanding patterns of interaction help us improve our communication with others and our understanding of ourselves.

At the same time, McGuiness notes that personality types do “not determine behaviour.” Problems arise when individuals and workplaces adopt personality types as a fixed “thing.” They are not. Personalities are fluid over one’s lifetime and different elements of our personalities may be more or less evident in particular circumstances.

The next section explores the power of language in the workplace, and how personality labels can be a hindrance when managing diverse teams.

Personality types are not the same as skills. Understanding patterns of interaction improves communication. Photo by Renato Ganoza via Flickr. CC. Remixed by SSI
Personality types are not the same as skills. Understanding patterns of interaction improves communication. Photo by Renato Ganoza via Flickr. CC. Remixed by SSI

Overcoming the limitations of personality narratives at work

Australian researcher Karin Garrety led a team of researchers from management and communications backgrounds who studied the effects of the Myers-Briggs personality types on businesses. Using sociology, they find that personality measures can be both helpful and detrimental to organisational change.

They studied an organisation that had adopted the Myers-Briggs personality types as part of their professional identity narratives. That is, when individuals made sense of how they and their colleagues fit into the organisation, team members used the various personality types to explain their solidarity as well as their differences of opinion.

This was useful when managers and staff focused on positive issues, such as projects where everyone collaborated well and when people worked to their strengths. People also started to see that certain traits were missing from leadership roles that might be better filled by other personalities. Some people used the personality types as a source of inspiration. One man interviewed for the study, a general manager, said that most of the leaders in his organisation were stronger on Intuition but they needed to behave more like their colleagues who were stronger on the Sensing function:

Getting out of the comfort zone for us is to behave in modes in which we may not be comfortable. We need to behave like Ss [Sensing] – gather data, do business plans and so on.

Unfortunately, the staff also used the Myers-Briggs personality types to put themselves down as well as their colleagues. Some of the people that Garrety and her colleagues interviewed had trouble talking about organisational issues such as poor performance, bad attitudes and discrimination because they were overly conscious of treating people as individuals who fit into specific personality types. For example, one woman who worked in finance complained that one of her colleagues used his personality profile as a way to resist participating in certain tasks. He understood that his identity could not be changed because the test had given him a specific score. She explains:

I know people who are INFPs [Introverted Intuition Feeling Perceiving personality], who say ‘Hello, I’m an INFP. I don’t deal with detail.’ And you think ‘Terrific. Now we’ve got a job to do, and I really don’t care (about your type).’ There are people who are using the [organizational change] stuff to make excuses for their own behavior. So instead of working together, it’s an excuse – ‘Well, I don’t have to because I’m x% of the population.’

Another woman said she was treated badly by her colleagues. She had trouble identifying whether this was due to the fact that these colleagues were mistreating her because of her gender, or if this was a symptom of her colleagues’ personality types. In this case, the personality narrative stopped this woman from speaking out about the discrimination she faced at work.

Original photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI
Original photo by Victor1558 via Flickr. Remixed by SSI

Leaders have a tricky job of understanding their teams as individuals who require flexible management styles. Different personalities evidently work better under different conditions. Leaders also have to keep a broad understanding of team dynamics and organisational problems. Personality types are important to address, but not at the expense of overburdening some people with particular tasks, or under utilising other team members. Similarly being responsive to personality preferences can’t be the expense of addressing discrimination that stops women and minority groups from fully participating within the organisation.

How does one keep this balance between personality preferences and organisational culture?

Organisational culture and ‘technologies of the self’

Garrety and colleagues make use of sociologist Michel Foucault’s theory of ‘technologies of the self.’ This describes the stories and resources (or discourses) that people use to make sense of their professional relationships. The Myers-Briggs test and other management tools are most effective when managers and leaders understand the power of language. The way in which people talk about themselves, their colleagues and their organisation give important insight into issues of power, conflict and resistance to change.

Leaders need to recognise that personalities and relationships are dynamic. People modify how they see themselves, their work and their relationships according to specific situations. A person’s communication preference may well be introverted; they might not enjoy public speaking or sharing ideas in a group – but should this be a reason to exclude them from presentations altogether? Similarly, you might have someone who is loud, opinionated and brilliant at their job – but does that mean we excuse a belligerent or rude comment from time to time?

Of course not. Yet these types of issues come up all the time and organisations have a tendency to fall back to thinking about individuals and their personality differences. Just as good leaders routinely monitor their products, services and profit, leaders should constantly question the way in which they manage staff.

A leader should get into the habit of asking: am I making the most of my team members’ skills and knowledge, or am I harbouring a narrow understanding of their personalities? Have my team’s circumstances changed? Is there a better way to encourage change? How can I prevent team members from being excluded from different activities they may not yet have had a chance to speak up about?

While it’s useful to think about personality strengths and weaknesses, leaders need to be actively listening to the language used in their workplace. When staff start talking about their own or their colleagues’ personalities in terms of deficiencies, you have a problem. People’s personalities and identities are reflexive. People modify their perceptions of themselves and of other people through the very act of communication.

People have communication preferences but these are not immutable. This doesn’t mean force people to change, rather, listen, reflect and act upon the conversations and interactions you observe your team. Instead of solely thinking about your team in terms of their productivity, get into a habit of reflecting on your team dynamics and how things might be improved.

Being more aware about your team’s communication styles is useful when addressing reactions during stressful situations, it can help you modify your own behaviour to address conflict resolution, and how to better integrate knowledge from different team members.

Personality measures such as the Myers-Briggs test are great and they should be used as part of management training and during team building exercises, but don’t let these become a set of fixed labels to pigeon hole people. Don’t let your understanding of individual preferences mask organisational and cultural issues.

Technologies are only useful when they serve their purpose. Personality types and communication styles are technologies of the self – they represent ideas about how team members behave when they are at work, but they are not describing a phenomena that’s set in stone.

Leaders are key agents of change within organisations. Learning when to respond to personalities with different communication styles requires an awareness of the changing dynamics of social interaction, culture and organisational structures. In other words, responsive leadership requires the application of social science!

Social science doesn’t have to be tough or scary. If you’ve tried to use the Mysers-Briggs test or some other personality training, chances are you are open to trying out other social science ideas. The key thing to remember is that all people are constantly changing. This includes their knowledge, skills and their technologies of the self. Make the most of the different personality types and communication styles in your organisation by thinking of these as an evolving process.

Our interactions need to be fine tuned. People who are mostly introverted are not always best left to sit alone in a corner to solve problems on their own. It’s not always healthy to let extraverted people dominate meetings and presentations without providing them an opportunity to think, prepare and listen before they present their ideas.

Making the most of personalities and communication styles

Here are some ideas from Iris Shoor, writing for Buffer, on the best ways to inspire different team members using mixed communication methods for individuals and groups. She discusses both visual and auditory techniques:

  • Mix up your presentation and meeting strategies: send your initial ideas out via email to give people time to reflect before you get them to discuss
  • Balance presentations using texts and visuals
  • Use vivid language and tell stories during a talk
  • Give people a notepad or a whiteboard to “doodle on”
  • For people who talk a lot and dominate discussions (“extraverts”), incorporate their comments into your presentation in order to take charge and move the conversation forward
  • For people who prefer to listen (“intraverts”), ask them direct questions once they’ve had a chance to think over the material presented.

Change the techniques you use to engage with your staff. Listen to the way they talk about themselves and their work. Understand that all personalities are unfinished projects. This includes yours and that of your staff – people are constantly learning new things about themselves, but this process is facilitated when leaders provide a safe space for this learning to be put into practice. Once you adopt a reflexive approach to management and communication, you will see new possibilities amongst your team that you may have missed before.

If you have tried out personality testing and want to share your experiences of whether it worked well for your team please share in the comments below!

Until next time, take care of your staff, look after your health and have a lovely end of the week.