ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — March 2004

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Empowerment—Seeing the Elephant

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March 2004 News For A Change — Home Page

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The Help Desk

Personality Versus Process

When new teams form, the members often have little or no knowledge of each other. It’s fairly common for team leaders and/or facilitators to use assessment instruments to help members start the “forming” stage of team development.

Once teams are under way, they may find it difficult to reach consensus on some issues or they may even encounter significant conflict. Once again, assessment instruments are often used to move through these jams.

The Instruments
A closer examination of the available instruments used in these situations shows that many of them rely on identifying individual team members’ personality types. Then, team members are asked to share their findings and use that information to build relationships and understand the sources of conflict.

Some of these instruments, such as the most commonly used Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), provide a direct categorization of personality. The MBTI inventory is based on Carl Jung’s theory of types, outlined in his 1921 work Psychological Types. Jung’s theory holds that human beings are either introverts or extroverts, and their behavior follows from these inborn psychological types. He also believed that people take in and process information in different ways, based on their personality traits.

The MBTI evaluates personality type and preference based on the four Jungian psychological types: extroversion (E) or introversion (I), sensing (S) or intuition (N), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and judging (J) or perceiving (P).

Other tools, such as the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, are subtler, naming the categories in terms of styles, such as competing, avoiding, compromising, collaborating, and accommodating.

The Problems
On the surface, all of these instruments seem useful and provide a basis for discussion and to recognize diversity. On the other hand, they also may create uncomfortable experiences for some team members, and they may have some workplace implications that are troublesome.

Fundamentally, concerns arise when people are asked to publicly share something as deeply personal as their personalities. Yes, this phraseology seems awkward, but it does make an obvious point that personalities are a very personal matter. For many people, personality discussions infringe on their sense of privacy and seem inappropriate in the workplace. This factor alone may be sufficient to encourage the use of different tools for team building and conflict resolution.

A second concern, however, involves the tendency of people to label each other according to these personality assessments. Statements such as “Oh, I knew you’d do that because you’re an INTJ,” are heard frequently after team members reveal their assessment results. In some cases, instead of encouraging mutual understanding, these labels actually can polarize team members’ relationships permanently. After all, should an INTJ expect to have anything in common with an ESFP?

If these concerns haven’t convinced you that these instruments need to be used cautiously, think about what happens when a team member is dysfunctional—either occasionally or on a regular basis. Once a team member’s personality has been revealed, others may expect him/her to change personalities to build relationships, improve team productivity, and resolve conflicts. This is not only an unreasonable expectation, but it also is virtually impossible to accomplish in a short time period.

Psychologists have debated the flexibility of personality for years; in fact, there is an enormous amount of research that presents theories on our natural tendencies to resist personality change and the factors that are necessary to induce personality change. Although there are no definitive answers to the questions, “What does it take to change a person’s personality and how long does it take?” it’s clear that the process doesn’t occur at the mere suggestion that a change is required or in an instant of intense concentration.

An Alternative Approach
When all of these issues are taken into account, the use of personality-oriented assessment instruments seems to present more risks than benefits. There is still a need, however, for assessing the differences among team members in a way that fits the workplace environment.

Step back for a moment and think about the word “work.” Dictionaries usually define work as “carrying on an operation or performing a job.” In other words, work is about processes. So why not identify members’ preferred processes when forming a new team or introducing a new team member? Why not search for differences in personal processes to solve conflicts?

There are instruments available for this type of analysis, but just an open discussion of each team member’s typical approaches to work is enlightening. Here are a few questions that can show the variety of ways in which people accomplish their work:

  • What information do you like to have before you make a decision? How do you use that information to reach your decision?
  • When you are trying to learn something new, what do you do to get the basic concepts? To master the required skills?
  • If you need someone else’s assistance to get your work done, how do you enlist that person’s aid?

Although team members may approach these processes differently, discussions of this nature don’t feel like an invasion of privacy and don’t generate lifelong labels. Instead, they clarify when team members’ processes fall into the following categories:

  • Complimentary Processes: Two or more processes that fit together to create synergistic outcomes. They are mutually beneficial and don’t generate ineffectiveness, inefficiency, or conflict.
  • Disconnected Processes: Two or more processes that peacefully coexist but do not create synergistic outcomes. They are mutually beneficial and don’t generate ineffectiveness, inefficiency, or conflict.
  • Interfering Processes: Two or more processes that do not create synergistic outcomes and that generate ineffectiveness and/or inefficiency. Although they may peacefully coexist without generating conflict, they undermine the productivity of team members and the organization.
  • Colliding Processes: Two or more processes that do not create synergistic outcomes. In fact, they generate conflict, undermining effectiveness and efficiency, and occasionally damaging relationships.

Here’s a simple example of different personal processes that can fall into these categories. Suppose a team was asked to design a new recognition program, and the members are trying to decide what rewards to offer. Each team member was asked to bring his/her suggestions to the meeting.

  • Mary took a quick poll of the members of her work group.
  • Jim conducted an Internet search to learn the most common rewards offered by other similar organizations.
  • Martha used to work for another company that had a program of this nature, and she liked the rewards offered there.
  • Harold grabbed a catalog from the company store and rank-ordered the available items according to their prices.

Although all of these are legitimate processes for gathering and assessing potential rewards, they are unlikely to generate identical lists. By understanding the diversity of processes used, the team members are more likely to give each suggestion a fair hearing and to gain enormous benefit from considering the decision from such a broad-based perspective.

In times of conflict, an analysis of personal processes can quickly identify how to improve integration and eliminate collisions. Instead of asking one person to change his/her approach, all approaches are examined and shifted slightly to make them work together successfully. Resolution of the conflict focuses on the work, not the people, making it a far more comfortable process.

In a way, this is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together so that they become a beautiful picture; team members’ individual processes are combined to become an integrated workflow that relies on collaboration and builds interconnectedness.

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