Understanding Personalities in the Workplace
Understanding how different personalities process information and make decisions can improve the harmony in your workplace.

It takes time for people to recognize their own personality traits and those of others. iStockPhotos.com

Imagine how much less conflict would arise if you could anticipate reactions before they occur and manage them with ease. Personality influences every aspect of life. It guides an individual’s job choices, personal relationships, shopping decisions and more. Personality influences how a person communicates, reacts to change and interacts with others. Different preferences for receiving and processing information can create misunderstanding and conflict.

There are multiple traits and natural tendencies that contribute to a person’s personality. One characteristic isn’t better than another. Having an understanding of these inborn preferences, including your own, enhances relationships and reduces conflict. Since people spend more time at work than at home with family or friends, it’s important to nurture an amicable workplace environment.

A harmonious workplace makes the long hours enjoyable for the practice owner and employees. It also enhances employee retention. Skilled, conscientious employees are in high demand and can find work elsewhere. Employee turnover interrupts the workflow and it’s expensive to onboard new staff.

“Creating a culture that recognizes the value of differing personalities and strives to minimize conflict helps a business hold onto valuable employees,” said Christine Allard, associate director of the Archer Center for leadership development at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

A hostile work environment impacts more than the employees. “An unhappy workplace transfers to clients and horses,” Allard said. “People get good customer service from happy people.”

Social media makes it easy for dissatisfied customers to share their experiences. Poor customer service elicits the most reaction.

There are several tools for discovering and understanding how people process information and interactions. A Google search for “personality in the workplace” yields thousands of articles and books on the topic. This article will focus on a self-report questionnaire called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI; more information can be found at MyersBriggs.org).

Understanding Personality Type

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator provides insights into people’s natural tendencies for using their minds. In the sixth edition of Introduction to Type , Isabel Briggs Myers explained that MBTI is based on Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung’s observations: “Jung concluded that differences in behavior result from people’s inborn tendencies to use their minds in different ways. As people act on these tendencies, they develop patterns of behaviors.”

Jung’s theory defines patterns of behavior or “types.” His research defined the way people take in information, organize information to form conclusions and how they focus their energy. Isabel Myers Briggs and her mother, Katharine Briggs, developed the MBTI inventory from Jung’s theory. The result is a set of preferences that can help people better understand their own and others’ behaviors, decisions and reactions.

“The Myers-Briggs is one tool to help understand yourself, coworkers and employees,” Allard said. “The voluntary self-assessment helps create a common language.”

The MBTI questionnaire reveals a person’s inborn tendencies for four main categories:

  • where people prefer to focus their attention and get energy
  • the way they prefer to take in information
  • the way they prefer to make decisions
  • how they orient themselves to the external world—with a judging process or a perceiving process.

Each category has a corresponding pair of classifications:

  • Extraversion vs. Introversion (E or I)
  • Sensing vs. Intuition (S or I)
  • Thinking vs. Feeling (T or F)
  • Judging vs. Perceiving (J or P)

The results provide a four-letter combination that describes fundamental mental patterns. The MBTI inventory is available online. Trained facilitators can also administer and assist in understanding the results. Leadership development programs at colleges and universities or perhaps your local chamber of commerce office are good places to start.

The important thing to remember is that one trait is not right or wrong; it’s simply a different approach to life.

Personality Type in Action

“These kinds of things cause the biggest issues in the workplace, more so than a lack of technical or scientific knowledge,” Allard said, referring to personality conflicts.

The first pair of letters in the MBTI analysis describes how a person feels energized, which is known as Extraversion or Introversion and is represented by E or I. This descriptor does not mean a person is outgoing or shy. Instead, it explains if a person is invigorated by interacting with others or having time alone. Allard is an I, while her boss is an E. Allard finds it exhausting to be “on” all the time, whereas her boss thrives in that setting.

“I need my space to recharge. Sometimes it’s exhausting to be out there all the time,” Allard said. “It’s a give and take where we both recognize and understand our differences.”

The second pair of letters in the MBTI analysis is Sensing vs. Intuition— S or N. This dichotomy illustrates the different ways people take in information. The S preference approaches things from a big picture perspective. The N preference focuses on step-by-step details.

When Allard leads MBTI workshops, she groups S and N participants together. She places an apple in front of each group and asks them to describe it. Then each group shares its analysis. The S group provides factual observations. They will say it is red, two inches in diameter, that it has green specks, a stem and bruises, she said. The N group will have discussions about how the apple reminds them of picking apples with a grandparent, baking pies and other tangential topics.

“If you listen in, you will think the Ns are off task,” she said. “They aren’t. They simply process the information in front of them differently.”

The third pair of letters in the MBTI is Thinking vs. Feeling, T or F. This describes how people make decisions. Those who have a preference for T tend to be analytical and use cause-and-effect reasoning. Individuals with an inclination for F assess the impacts of decisions on the people involved and strive for harmony.

In training events, Allard uses the story of a medal-winning gymnast to highlight this contrast. A 16-year-old gymnast wins gold at the Olympics but fails the drug test. The gymnast tests positive for a banned substance. Allard groups Ts and Fs. She asks the groups to decide if they should take away the medal or award it to the girl.

The T group decides to take away the medal based on the rationale that the rules are the rules. The young gymnast knew and violated the rules and therefore should not be rewarded. The F group treats each person as an individual in the situation. The rationale might be that the gymnast is young and trusted her coach and that the coach should have known better. The same group will also consider how the fourth-place finisher would feel knowing that the gold medalist won because of an unfair advantage. In the end, this group will still come to the same decision as the T group and take away the medal.

“They come to the same conclusion, but the rationale is different,” she said.

In an office environment, Allard uses tardiness as an example. A boss with a T preference might decide to dock an employee’s pay who arrives late to work three times in a week. That decision is based on process. An F-oriented boss likely considers extenuating circumstances and might not see the situation as cut and dried, she said.

The final pair in the MBTI letters is Judging vs. Perceiving, J or P. This set defines how an individual deals with the outer world. Js seek order and are systematic, methodical and organized. These folks like to have things decided ahead of time and strive to avoid last-minute stressors. Ps are spontaneous, flexible, casual and open-ended. These people are energized by the pressure of the last-minute decisions.

“I like to have things set up, organized and structured so that I know what I am walking into,” Allard said. “My boss sees that approach as constricting, and she feels hemmed in.”

This does not mean that Ps are irresponsible. Allard said that her boss is always on time and prepared; she simply goes about it in a different fashion.

“It’s not about skill or ability,” Allard stressed. “It’s about different approaches.”

Why is it important to consider MBTI findings and results from other tools?

Having an awareness of how other people react and process information can help avoid conflict and allow you to seek out a co-worker’s point of view for important decisions.

“When you recognize that people are coming from different perspectives, you can see the real value in those differences,” she said.

She offers a personal example. Allard approaches decision-making from Intuition. She tends to process projects from the big picture, with broad stokes rather than specific details. She has a colleague who is a Sensing preference and is detail-oriented and takes a step-by-step approach to projects.

“I seek him out because I know he can tell me the step-by-step details needed to make my idea happen,” she said. “On the flip side, he asks me to walk through the big picture of the project.”

By recognizing each other’s strengths, they are able to have a well-rounded approach and potentially a better outcome than if focused on personal preference. In the veterinary world, this collaboration could be helpful in diagnosis and treatment plans.

Take-Home Message

It takes time for people to recognize their own personality traits and those of others. It’s a lifelong process to develop the skills needed to fully embrace personality traits. These are skills that are learned and need to be practiced. They will push you outside of your comfort zone. Your business and your practice will be healthier when you and your employees are respectful and mindful of the difference between personality traits, she concluded. 

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