How Well Do You Really Know Your Team?

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research and Development.

In 2018, I blogged about the role of personality in team performance, highlighting the importance of understanding the personalities within teams, and the positive relationship that the traits play within virtual teams.

As many more people are now working apart (at home, in globally based teams or hybrid (part in-office, part elsewhere) models), it seemed time to expand on the value of understanding personality.

Why is an understanding of personality useful?

AWA’s research into the productivity of knowledge workers highlighted six key factors that correlate strongly with team performance, whether co-located or virtual. The most strongly correlated is social cohesion, which refers to the bonds of friendship between team members, and the importance of knowing each other as people. One way to deepen our relationships is to explore what makes us who we are, our preferences, what helps us be our best, and how to help when we aren’t at the top of our game.

Teams are, by definition, groups of people that come together to perform a particular task or activity, either short or long term. With established teams, there aren’t many opportunities to alter the personality mix, but we can ensure that members understand and can accommodate each other’s differences.

When forming a new team, there is an opportunity to ensure a good mix for the task, taking time to explore the personalities and how they can work together effectively.

What is important when working apart?

When people aren’t in the same physical space, they have fewer opportunities to gather information about their colleagues unless they have regular, meaningful remote interactions. Although they may have known colleagues for a long time, an absence of regular input means there are fewer opportunities to see how people are, to learn about them, to deepen connections. Under these circumstances, trust can be compromised. When we don’t see each other, trust becomes more important, particularly if we rely on others for the success of our work.

It is therefore critical that we demonstrate trustworthy behaviour and openly build and sustain trust by delivering on our promises, being visible, and doing what we say we will do.

Research shows that three of the Big Five personality traits are positively associated with team performance and trust. These are conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness – and virtual teams with high levels of these traits are likely to enjoy high levels of trust between members. A mix of high / low levels of these traits in a virtual team could lead to tensions and damaged trust if members are not aware and have not taken steps to accommodate those differences.

This is not to say that everyone must be at the same level of the five traits for success to occur – indeed too much or too little can be detrimental to performance.

There is also a need for diversity, and it’s clear that while similarity may be a strength in some situations, a mix / variety may be more productive for others. There is also the question of how high is high, and how low is low?! This isn’t a question that the originator of the Big Five model (American personality psychologist Lewis Goldberg) addressed – suggesting instead that researchers use their own population data and divide people into appropriate groups. It has been suggested that using quartiles for a given population would provide this guidance.

That said, I believe that the value of the Big Five for a team is that it provides a basis for conversion, enables an exploration of differences and similarities without worrying unduly about absolute scores or labels. To some degree the results depend upon the honesty of the respondents and how they see themselves and we all know from personal experience that we can operate outside of our preferences given the right motivation and circumstances.

More is not always “more”

Spend time reading about the Big Five and you’ll find explanations of the traits and how to recognise different behaviours displayed by people that score higher or lower on the ranges. There is no suggestion that high is “good” or low is “bad”, although it is easy to fall into that trap. It’s worth remembering that not everything “high” is good (think about blood pressure!) and when taken to extreme, some traits may cause issues.

For example, take agreeableness. This trait reflects whether people prioritise their own needs over those of others. A high score reflects care, empathy and compassion for others and a desire for co-operation rather than conflict. Sounds good!

Then consider a team of people all high in agreeableness – where there could be a tendency not to welcome independent or critical thinking. A desire to support others may result in difficulty tackling poor performance, and members may even take on other people’s tasks rather than challenge them. This can lead to people getting overloaded, particularly if they are also high in conscientiousness.

It is easy to see that extremes of behaviour can lead to people appearing soft / subservient / weak or unfriendly / untrustworthy – and teamwork will suffer.

Research by Curşeu et al shows that those high in conscientiousness (a desirable shared trait for team members) could be prone to perfectionism, or be seen to be overly task-focused. They may pursue personal goals rather than group ones, and it seems likely that those more focused on their own needs (i.e. lower in agreeableness) could be prone to this action. So, the desirable traits of reliability and trustworthiness could, when taken to extreme, become problematic.

Similarly, if a team contains too many extraverts or too many introverts, this can be an issue. Those with very high extraversion prefer opportunities to engage with others, taking their energy from social interactions, but can lack listening skills and be seen to talk too much. Those with low extraversion (i.e. more introverted thinkers) are often calm, low key and slower to contribute in group settings. This is often misinterpreted as shyness or being reserved / withdrawn, but can simply reflect a preference for thinking before speaking.

Ideally you need a mix – extraverts who are more likely to take charge and lead, and introverts who will reflect, pick up tasks and follow the lead – with each having respect and understanding of the others’ needs. In accommodating these particular needs, there are some great tips here, showing simple ways to care for extraverts and introverts.

Applying the knowledge

At AWA, we are exploring personality in some detail. As we work virtually, we are always keen to add additional layers of understanding to deepen social cohesion. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  1. Asked everyone to complete a Big Five personality test and get their own results
  2. Invited everyone to put their scores into a team spreadsheet, so they could see the picture building up
  3. Produced scattergrams and bar charts to show the whole team and some “example” project team profiles
  4. Explored the results and discussed how to use them during a team knowledge sharing session, designed to prompt people to think about others’ profiles – i.e. what they value, what might drive them nuts, and how to identify what they might be missing within a particular team (and indeed whether that was a good or bad thing!)

The journey is ongoing and there’s more work to do – but this knowledge is powerful. The results enable people to understand others better and to have a shared language and experience to draw on when talking about how to make things work for everyone. The next stages are outlined below.

Five steps to better understanding

  1. Explore: consider your team profile and discuss a few questions such as what you value in the team, what could drive you nuts, what are you missing, and spend time researching the meaning of the 5 traits rather than jumping to conclusions or invoking stereotypes. Be mindful of biases (we are all subject to unconscious bias) and when you notice them, talk about how to mitigate them through conscious action, agreed process steps, etc.
  2. Review team roles: and who is most suited to them. For example, someone with low conscientiousness might not appear suited to their role, so could their role be changed or are there ways to better manage the role? If the team is generally high in agreeableness, might this lead to groupthink / a lack of creativity or challenge? Is the person high in openness going to get frustrated by other, more conventional thinkers?
  3. Let everyone shine: consider ways to enable the team and each member to shine. Find ways to adapt and cooperate, to accommodate differences – even making a virtue of them – and ensuring that challenge particularly doesn’t escalate into broken trust. The leader could assign roles like “devil’s advocate” to someone not usually given to this type of behaviour; team members could mix up their roles to keep the rest of the team on their toes; coaching and mentoring could be deployed to support the team in accommodating differences.
  4. Homogeneity / diversity: be on the lookout for a group that is too similar. This can result in them being too comfortable and certain about their own solutions. Minority perspectives can be highly valuable and fostering co-operation and supporting the team through times when things are a little uncomfortable can lead to productive outcomes.   
  5. Safety: ensure this exploration and discussion is done within a safe psychological environment where views are valued and people can contribute without fear of embarrassment or rebuke. The team leader can also examine their traits as these play a role in establishing an emotional ‘climate’ within which the team works (for example, high openness may be difficult for more practical, detail oriented colleagues; low agreeableness may lead to conflict which may or may not be healthy for the team’s work, and so on).

Finally, be mindful of diversity. We know from research that diverse groups are more creative and personality is part of the diversity mix. A diverse group is more likely to consider facts and actions more fully, to challenge established thinking (thereby avoiding groupthink) and stimulating better ideas and solutions. It should be said, however, that diversity in goals or values will generally destroy a team and it is vital to ensure harmony around the team’s vision and mission.

It’s a fine balance, and diversity doesn’t work on its own – it’s no good having diversity if organisational culture and working practices don’t encourage and support inclusion. Value everyone’s input and ideas, and work with their personality to enable them, and the team, to give of their best.

My thanks to my colleague Philippa Hale and the AWA team for their inspiration for this blog.

Curşeu, P.L., Ilies, R., Vîrgă, D., Maricuţoiu, L. and Sava, F.A. (2019), Personality characteristics that are valued in teams: Not always “more is better”? Int J Psychol, 54: 638-649. doi:10.1002/ijop.12511

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