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When employees understand the personality of their coworkers, they can improve their careers as individuals as well as members of a larger team. One employee may love to give presentations and lead projects, but another may prefer to work individually in a behind-the-scenes role. Often the reasoning for these preferences is rooted in the employee's fundamental personality.

“It’s important for managers to understand it’s not just about your skill sets, your experience or background,” says Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD in organizational psychology and founder of Human Capital Integrated. “It’s about how that comes out and a lot of that is driven by your personality.”

Defining Personality

What exactly is personality? Hippocrates defined personality by the four temperaments — choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic — while others think of it in terms of Myers Briggs acronyms. But as Dr. Woody says, “Two extroverts aren’t necessarily the same. You’re a combination of lots of different facets of personalities, and those different mixtures, influenced by your culture, upbringing and the environment, drive how you behave.”

Dr. Woody says that a lot of people confuse personality with intent and behavior. Personality is the internal driver and natural disposition, whereas intent is when people try to act a certain way. People may think that someone is trying to act a certain way, but more often than not, it’s just how they naturally are, Dr. Woody says.

Behavior, on the other hand, is an external action that can be trained. For example, someone who is naturally introverted can be trained to act more extroverted, but you don’t want to train someone to behave too far outside of his comfort zone since it will create undue stress and won’t have a lasting impact, according to Dr. Woody.

Staying Inside the Personality Comfort Zone

Managers always want to encourage their employees to work outside of their zone to develop more skills and expand their repertoire, but when it comes to the personality comfort zone, it’s best to stay within the boundaries, notes John D. Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire.

"I try to allow people to stay inside their comfort zones as much as possible, knowing that no matter what we’re all going to confront moments outside of our comfort zones," says Mayer. "We don’t have to worry about pushing people outside of their comfort zones." 

Consider the stereotype of an introverted technical programmer. He may enjoy quietly working in the corner cubicle on individual projects, but when it’s his moment to shine and show off his project, he may need to present to the company, Dr. Woody notes.

Understanding Personality to Inspire Great Performance

So how can a manager help his employees be top performers while taking advantage of their natural personalities? Dr. Woody says the first step is facilitating self awareness because you can’t grow if you’re not aware of your personality, behavior and style of communication.

When managers have one-on-one conversations with employees and give them feedback, employees "can understand how those around them receive their messages and perceive them, so they can better connect with and interact with the folks that they need to on a regular basis to be successful,” Dr. Woody says. Mayer adds that a lot can be learned by observing people and taking notice of people’s long-term habits, but don’t jump to conclusions about people just based off a couple of observations.

Creating a common language around personality can be challenging for a team since there are so many ways of defining personality traits, so Dr. Woody suggests using a personality assessment as a way to lay the foundation for talking about it. But be careful when choosing one, he says, since 95 percent of them are worthless. Dr. Woody suggests the Hogan assessments or any other assessment rooted in the Big Five personality traits. The Big Five refers to the five characteristics of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion/introversion, agreeableness and neuroticism/emotional stability.

Adjusting Personal Goals Based on Interpersonal Interactions

At the end of the day, someone’s personal goals dictate how he interacts with a coworker, and no interaction is ever the same. Depending on whether two coworkers have a personality conflict or they think alike, Mayer says the goal may be as simple as finishing a task without losing their tempers, whereas with others it may be to bring a new element of creativity to a project.

Mayer adds, “With some people, our goals may be minimal, such as finish the work on speaking terms, and for somebody else, the goal may be at a much higher level which may be to come up with something that’s going to blow away our supervisor.”

Those individual goals must fit into a bigger picture of self awareness. Someone who acknowledges that he doesn’t like conflict is going to have very different goals from someone who feels that conflict fuels his mind, notes Mayer.

Once an employee or manager understands his personality and that of his coworkers, he can use that insight to create more productive teams and to know who to turn to for certain projects. Knowing the personality of team members can help an employee choose a path to accomplish personal goals related to an assignment or overall career path, all with positive coworker interactions in mind.

Photo: Can Stock