Where does an understanding of personality fit in a manager’s toolbox of skills in the post-pandemic era? I will debut two new offerings later this year that explain how “where” and “when” we were born influences workplace behaviours. Although both, to varying degrees, determine the manner in which we act under changing circumstances, neither deals specifically with personality – our distinctive way of responding to the world in unique, albeit often predictable patterns of behaviour. While we’re socialized, or programmed, by many common circumstances, both time and place provide especially useful insights into how we deal with others. But it’s primarily our personalities that differentiate us from one another. That said, the accuracy of predicting human responses based solely on our traits is the same as predicting the weather – very difficult and highly probabilistic.
Beyond where we were born and when we grew up, our personality is shaped by what excites or motivates us, what we fear, how we interact with and are influenced by others, and predominantly by heredity. True (or pure) personality types do not exist. They’re measured on a continuum from low to high intensity and triggered by casual events. A behavioural trait is what predisposes us to act in a certain way as a consequence of the circumstance we’re dealing with. Depending upon the situation, some of these characteristics are more important than others: honesty and dependability, for example, would seem more consequential in the workplace than tidiness or excitability.
Depending on the behaviour, between roughly 40 to 60% of our personality traits are genetically determined. Openness and extraversion are highly influenced by our genes (accounting for up to 57% of the variability in our behaviour on these trait dimensions) with agreeableness at the lower end of the continuum (about 42%). This simply means learning how to be relatable is more of a learned skill than is being curious. While all of our personality attributes are rooted in our neurobiology, they’re also influenced by a variety of social factors. Behaviour is adaptable and is driven largely by rewards or punishments.
Psychologists deem the most important aspects of personality – what they call “the big five” – to be extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. Classifying people on just these five basic traits based on five levels of intensity from low to high produces 3,125 different personality types. Hence the extreme variability in worker performance and the impossibility of using personality as a measurement tool in the manger’s arsenal of competencies for forecasting and influencing employee behaviour.
Extraversion accounts for more variability in our behaviour than any other personality trait. Introversion is not the opposite of extroversion; it’s just lower on the scale. Extroverted people greatly enjoy interacting with others – they’re more sociable, talkative and assertive than introverts. They’re also enthusiastic workers, more sensitive to recognition and reward, better risk takers, and desirous of projects that promote their own satisfaction above all other motivators.
Neuroticism or emotional instability is learned early in life – for example, overprotective parents tend to begat children who are chronically fearful (because fear is a learned emotion). Neurotic people experience negative feelings more frequently. Their descriptive traits include sadness, regret, insecurity, vulnerability, rejection/embarrassment, risk aversion and neediness. They are highly dependent on others but also less satisfied with their relationships.
Agreeableness describes either a positive or a negative orientation towards others. At the low end of the scale, one is generally not nice, highly disagreeable, prejudiced and prone to anger. At the high end, one is invariably friendly, trusting, compromise-oriented, averse to acquiring power for its own sake, cooperative, charitable, more tolerant and empathic.
Conscientiousness defines the degree to which people are responsible, organized, persistent, self-disciplined, and willing to follow the rules and work hard. Openness describes the extent to which we are receptive to new ideas and experiences, intellectually curious and imaginative, less dogmatic, more humble, flexible, non-conformist, less conventional, open-minded and less prejudiced.
If a sixth trait were added to the preceding list of behaviours, it would likely be honesty/humility. These attributes are combined because humble people are simply more honest with themselves. On the high side of this personality continuum, one acts fairly, faithfully and generously. On the low side, one is deceitful, manipulative, greedy, sly, arrogant and selfish.
If you are to manage people effectively, you need to understand what makes them (and you) tick. This requires a deeper understanding of the three determinants of the human condition. Everything we do in life is a consequence of how the brain works. It determines our success or failure, personally as well as professionally. But our hard-working neurons aren’t always functioning to our advantage. Because the brain has a mind of its own – one that’s beyond our command.
Our brain protects us, deceives us and glorifies us. It provides us with unrealistic optimism, moral excuse-making, wishful thinking, excitement, anxiety and depression. All of which distorts reality, saves us from the ego-destroying effects of our mistakes and prevents us from seeing the truth about the world and those around us. It can make us smart, logical and open-minded but also vain, immoral, unscrupulous, unreliable and bigoted.
The more time and effort we give to understanding the determinants of our behaviour, the more we can discover how our inbred biases and acquired beliefs drive our sometimes unproductive actions. These three factors – where, when and why – determine how we deal with uncertainty, why we lie (to ourselves as well as others), why we believe what we want to be true (even when it’s not), why we don’t change course when we know we should, why we persevere in the face of lost causes, why we think others are at fault but we’re blameless, why we rebel against rules and regulations, prefer to live by double standards and are so gullible. This lack of comprehension can lead to enabling poor choices and dumb behaviours that result in unintended, even dire, consequences.