Managing the Agile Workforce – Chapter 4: The Role of Personality

When undertaking our research about managing the agile workforce, it became clear (not surprisingly) that there is a clear relationship between personality and team performance. Therefore, it was important to understand how the influence of personality would affect teams working virtually or “asynchronously”.

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What is “Personality”?

Unless you’re talking about a showbiz personality, what ‘personality’ generally refers to is the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character. The research we studied concluded that the best way to describe personality is by using the “Big Five” personality traits, which are:

  • Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). This reflects intellectual curiosity, imagination, creativity, and a preference for novelty and variety. It also depicts a preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine.
  • Conscientiousness: (efficient/organised vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organised and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behaviour.
  • Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). This looks at energy, positive emotions, assertiveness, responsiveness, sociability, self-confidence, stimulation in the company of others and talkativeness.
  • Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached). A tendency towards compassion and cooperation rather than suspicion and antagonism with others. It is also a measure of a person’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether they are generally well tempered or not.
  • Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control.

These factors have been found to predict outcomes such as stress responses, occupational interests, job performance, life and career satisfaction and perceived workload.

 

How does personality affect agile / virtual teams?

Research has shown that conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion are positively related to the performance of these teams. These factors are related to trust, one of the factors we will come to later in this series of blogs. For now, it is important to recognise that when people are working apart, a lot more trust is required, because there is less that can be directly observed (upon which to form conclusions about colleagues).

Virtual teams made up of people high in agreeableness, conscientiousness and extraversion will have a higher level of trust within them – increasing their chances of success. Where the team has members with high and low levels of these factors, this can cause tensions, particularly if they are not identified and understood by people.

For example, if a virtual team has different levels of conscientiousness, this may negatively impact their performance as the more conscientious members resent those that put in less effort and/or are less disciplined. This can lead the more conscientious to withdraw some of their effort. The asynchronous nature of virtual team working (i.e. we work on the same task at different times) can mean that we get fewer cues upon which to determine the amount of effort that colleagues put into their work. This can cause misunderstandings, particularly if communication is poor.

Researchers found that virtual teams need a mix of extraverts (who will tend to take control and assign tasks) and introverts who will naturally pick up and follow the lead of the stronger personalities. Too many extraverts and there may be conflict; too many introverts and there is likely to be a reluctance of anyone to step forward to lead the team’s efforts. This is all exacerbated when members are communicating and collaborating remotely, or at different times.

As mentioned earlier, the important thing in this mix is trust. People who trust each other feel less driven to monitor or double check each other’s work, which is particularly important if the work being done is less visible. Some people are naturally predisposed to trust others (the so called “propensity to trust”) and this tends to result in those people being perceived by colleagues to be trustworthy themselves. It should also be mentioned that while extraversion and agreeableness are positively related to a propensity to trust others – this is not so for conscientiousness. A highly conscientious person is less likely to trust others as a default state.

 

What can we do to address the personality impact on virtual team performance?

In a perfect world, we would choose a mix of people with different personalities that were suited to working apart much of the time. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

The ability to choose the right people will vary depending upon how much control we have over the allocation of resources. Forming a new virtual team may present many more opportunities to secure the best mix of personality types, the people that may already know each other and get on well etc., but even then, it’s entirely possible that the people with the best skills and experience may unbalance the ideal mix across the team.

For any team, having some appreciation of personality traits and preferences is a natural starting point. Even if we have some notion of colleagues’ personalities, it is also important to understand their preferences – i.e. how do they prefer to communicate (face to face, by phone, email, IM); do they prefer to work alone or with others; what circumstances enable them to do their best work etc. If colleagues need the proximity of others to help them do their best work, then working apart will call for different ways to be “together”. By understanding that need and planning for it, we can avoid causing damage to individual and team performance.

Secondly, having identified the traits and preferences, it would be very useful to consider the impact these are likely to have on performance. For example, if there is a high variation in conscientiousness and / or extraversion within the team (or proposed team) and all the members are unknown to each other (i.e. no history of trust has built between them) then putting in some effort to building trust and getting to know each other would be wise. Some people will naturally trust others instinctively (until given an opportunity to revise their view) but others won’t be predisposed to give trust without it being earned.

Finally, as a link to another future blog – the importance of communicating remotely becomes very important in a virtual / agile team. If we understand each other’s preferences (I prefer to speak, you prefer to email) that’s a good start – but if we agree to compromise on using IM more often when we’re apart – we need to ensure that we both know to use the technology and get the most out of it.

 

Summary

All of this takes time and effort – but pays dividends. Our research and our own experience within AWA and with clients shows clearly that working apart from other members of your team can damage performance unless you understand the risks and prepare for/ adapt to the differences. Spending time together exploring how things will be when you work apart can help identify the critical aspects that will need attention and ‘maintenance’ over time. Many organisations go straight into virtual working without any understanding or preparation, and then, when team performance starts to suffer, they wonder what went wrong.

And before you know it, everyone is recalled to work side by side in the office… oh dear.

 

In our next blog we continue our exploration of the agile workforce, by considering the importance of building and sustaining good team Relationships.