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Understanding People You Manage

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 45. No. 6. May-June, 2005. pp 58-60.

A large part of your job as a research technology manager is understanding people, not just evaluating how well they have performed. Evaluation is easy part; much harder is predicting how people will perform in new roles.

Here are some of the questions you probably have to answer: What's her potential? Can he lead a big project? Will this person be able to adapt to a rapidly changing market? Can I get these two people to work together?

Although understanding people is a crucial part of your role, it's not likely you have had much training for it. That's partly because you concentrated on studying science and engineering. Maybe you took management courses, possibly even an M.B.A. But even so, you didn't learn a great deal about understanding people.

Sure, you signed up for leadership training where you listened to someone sell one or another personality theory. You probably took a personality test; corporations spend $400 million dollars a year on them. But if you stopped to think about it, you wondered why there were so many different personality theories. You don't find umpteen different theories about how computers function or what happens if you mix certain chemicals. There's been steady progress in science and engineering, understanding the physical world. Yet, psychologists still argue over what Freud wrote a century ago. Why so little progress in understanding people?

When I asked a physicist friend this question, he suggested that the reason was that we can't do controlled experiments on people the way we do in the natural sciences. Furthermore, he said, even if we could do the experiments, there are too many variables involved, and like the complementary principle of Quantum mechanics when you have measured one variable, you can't measure others.

There is an even more important difference between understanding people vs. the physical world. Scientists and engineers can detach themselves from their emotions. In fact, many people choose the fields of science and engineering partly for this reason, to avoid messy emotions. But understanding people requires using emotions as well as intellect, a listening heart together with an educated head. Knowing whether a person is caring, conscientious, anxious, hostile, angry, defensive, open, unsure or confident is a matter of experiencing that person, free of your own distorting emotions like competitiveness, anger, anxiety or suspiciousness. It means experiencing other people as they are, not like someone they remind us of, not as we would like them to be or how we might want them to see us. To be fully objective about people requires that we understand our own emotions and how the other person is affecting us.

Using Personality Types

Psychological theories and typologies can be useful for understanding others. This is because the old saying is true.

In some ways, I am like all people.
In some ways, I am like some people.
In some ways, I am like no one else.

We can use personality types to sensitize us to ways in which a person is like all or some people, but understanding the unique individual depends on what I call our Personality IQ which combines head and heart. Some personality types prove more useful than others. Keep in mind that all personality types are what the sociologist Max Weber called "ideal types," meaning no one fits one of them exactly and while one type may dominate, most people are likely a mix.

Which types are most useful? William James, the psychologist of pragmatism jokingly divided personality theorists into two kinds: those who describe two types of people and those who do not. James himself favored two types. He contrasted "tough-minded" people who don't believe anything that can't be measured with the idealistic "tender-minded" who believe whatever fits their values. James argued that neither type owned the truth, that it was better to be a pragmatist, meaning that you clarified your values but were willing to put them to the test and modify them through experience.

Leadership courses usually employ the Myers-Briggs test which builds on the psychoanalyst C. G. Jung's dichotomy of introvert vs. extrovert. I will bet almost everyone reading this has taken that test. It gets at inborn personality traits that determine styles of thinking and judging. It alerts us to recognize differences that can impede good communication, but I doubt that it helps much in predicting how people will perform in management roles.

Freud proposed three personality types, with theories about how they developed through childhood experiences. He called his types: erotic, obsessive and narcissistic. Briefly, the erotic person is caring and most values loving relationships; the obsessive is inner-directed and conscientious; and the narcissistic is the natural leader who is likely to change things for better or worse. I've found Freud's types useful for understanding and predicting managerial behavior, with the addition of a fourth type first described by Erich Fromm. This type is the self-marketing, interactive personality which I have seen increasingly over the past two generations in my research and consulting. This type has resulted from changes in family structure and work. I've developed a questionnaire based on these types with scoring instructions (1).

Enter the Gamers

Now, a new study suggests that a powerful influence on the personalities of most young technical professionals you are managing is their experience playing videogames (2). The authors of the study, John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade, estimate that eighty percent of technical and professional employees under age 35 have had their attitudes to work and leadership formed in large part by playing these games and that the frequent players appear to have these attitudes even more strongly. Here are some of the attitudes they cite.

  • You are an expert who not only has gotten really good at something but also knows how to bounce back from failure.
  • Everything is possible. There is always an answer, and you can find it by trial and error.
  • Competition is the natural state. You expect nothing else.
  • Teamwork can be fun, but it needs to be structured so that each person has a clear role.
  • It's a global world in design, consumption and characters. You can get along with people anywhere.
  • You are ambitions, competitive and want your rewards to be based on results.
  • You see leaders as irrelevant and often evil. You feel you can take charge or share the leadership role.

The Interactive Personality

Playing lots of video games seem to reinforce an attitude I have observed in the interactive personality which has been formed in families where both parents work and kids grow up with ties that may be stronger to siblings and peers than to parents (3). These interactive gamers don't have the same strong emotional ties to managers as parental figures that corporate people used to have. But that doesn't mean they won't be valuable team players. Beck and Wade find that while gamers may see themselves as free agents, ready to leave work that lacks challenge and fun, once engaged in a project, they are loyal and committed to its success.

To be sure, all gamers don't have all these attitudes. Beck and Wade are presenting another ideal type that you can use to understand some of the people you manage. But gamers may also have weaknesses that depresses their Personality IQ, the tendency to see people like cartoon characters and to suppress a whole set of emotions as they treat life as a video game. Gaming may teach people to live with the thrills of continual competition, but it doesn't teach them to understand real individuals.

To conclude, personality typologies can be useful for understanding classes of people and even sensitizing us about what to expect from individuals. How can you determine these types? You can start out by taking the personality questionnaire I've developed yourself. It's a good idea to also have someone else who knows you well take it according to how they see you.

After doing the scoring and reading the description of the type indicated, discuss the differences if any. Judge for yourself how well the type describes your personality. If you think it's useful, you can then ask the people you manage to take the questionnaire and you can discuss the results together. I've done this with executive teams and it's improved their understanding of each other. As for the gamer factor, people find that easy to talk about.

But to go further than being sensitized about personality types, managers have to connect with their own emotions. Developing your Personality IQ can be uncomfortable, but it will make you a better manager. One way to begin is through conversation. Make it legitimate to talk about personality differences and how personalities influence what people most like about work. As Marshall Goldsmith, the world-class executive coach, suggests try "feed forward" rather than "feedback." Instead of criticizing what someone has done which, usually provokes defensiveness, invite people to tell you what they want to improve about themselves and give them your ideas about what they can do. This works best when you reciprocate, sharing something about yourself you want to change and asking for their advice.

Goldsmith does this with a team. I've tried it with positive results; people even enjoyed it. Keep in mind that the goal should never be to label people according to type but to understand them in a non-judgmental way. Conversation about attitudes and emotions at work can be a big step toward the kind of understanding that develops Personality IQ and managerial competence.

  1. These types are described in Maccoby, Michael. The Productive Narcissist, The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. In this book, you can also find a key to scoring and descriptions of the mixed types.

  2. Beck, John C. and Mitchell Wade. Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
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  3. Maccoby, Michael. "Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference." Harvard Business Review September 2004. pp 76-85.

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