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Understanding personality and individual differences in the workplace

Posted on: July 8, 2022

Personality is often defined by the classification of groups of people into certain “types”. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is perhaps one of the most well-known models of personality psychology used in the corporate world. 

Individual differences account for the variations in each individual person’s patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. The three main areas of inquiry within individual differences research are personality, creativity, and intelligence (including emotional intelligence).

Understanding personality differences in the workplace can support teams in working more cohesively, improve communication, and help employees play to their strengths, while working on their weaknesses.

What are the three personality differences?

The study of personality dates as far back as ancient Greece and Galen’s “temperaments”. These temperaments, according to Galen, were based upon the ratio of four different fluids within the body – blood, yellow bile, black, and phlegm. The personalities that these fluids represented were sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic respectively.

Galen’s beliefs may feel as dated as they genuinely are, but even in the twentieth century they inspired one of the forefathers of modern psychology, Hans Eysenck. Eysenck’s personality theory states that there are three broad personality factors. These are:

  • Psychoticism – Normality
  • Extroversion – Introversion
  • Neuroticism – Ego-stability

Eysenck’s three-factor model (sometimes referred to with the acronym PEN) was extremely influential in promoting a biological basis of personality. At the time of his death in 1997, he was the most cited researcher in psychology. He also founded an academic journal called Personality and Individual Differences, which is published by Elsevier and is the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. However, since his death, there have been questions over the reliability of the psychometric data that he produced to link personality traits to diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Even the British Psychological Society referred to Eysenck as “probably the most divisive figure British psychology has ever produced” in the April 2011 edition of its journal.

Coincidentally, in the year 1997, a popular study book called Individual Differences and Personality by Colin Cooper was published. Ideas around personality and individual differences and whether they stem from biology or environment (or a combination) remain a constantly fascinating field of research with many questions still unanswered. Some psychologists even doubt whether personality types exist. However, research does point to the fact that personality traits remain relatively stable throughout our lives, and if they do change, it is for the better.

What is the Big Five?

According to “type” theories such as Eysenck’s, you are either an introvert or an extrovert. However, according to trait theories, introversion and extroversion are part of a continuous spectrum in which some people may be ambivert – both introverted and extroverted to different degrees depending on the circumstances.

The Five-Factor Model grew out of the need for a more fluid continuum of measuring personality traits that reflects the reality of people’s shifting behaviours in any one scenario. The five personality traits are:

  • Openness – linked to creativity and abstract and lateral thinking.
  • Conscientiousness – linked to thoughtfulness, impulse control, and goal-directed behaviours.
  • Extroversion – linked to being talkative, levels of assertion, and ability to emote expressively.
  • Altruism – linked to demonstrating signs of trust, altruism, and kindness.
  • Neuroticism – An emotional response to stress that can be mistaken for anti-social behaviour; sometimes expressed as anxiety. Lower levels are linked to resilience.

What are personality disorders?

The history of what are considered abnormal personalities, or personality disorders, has been formed by the research of physicians and psychiatrists such as Phillipe Pinel (1745-1826), JC Prichard (1786-1848), Julius Koch (1841-1908), Emil Kraepelin (1856-1928), and Kurt Schneider (1887-1967).

The earliest work around personality disorders used terms such as “moral insanity” (Prichard) and “psychopathic inferiority” (Koch), which many would now deem unhelpful and damaging. Even the term “personality disorder” is problematic as it implies that there is a “normal” ordered personality from which to benchmark others. The language we use around personality disorders is constantly evolving as is our understanding of them. The website for the mental health charity, Mind, points out, “The diagnosis of ‘personality disorder’ can be controversial because:

  • Specialists disagree about how to understand personality disorders
  • It doesn’t take social context into account
  • The term itself can be stigmatising.”

What is neurodivergence?

Just as personality traits are better represented as a spectrum, so are neurodivergences such as autism, dyscalculia and dyslexia, synaesthesia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Neurodivergences that affect mental health and are often referred to as personality disorders include bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), anxiety, and depression.

Social media sites such as TikTok have acted as forums to help many people open up about neurodivergence and mental health, and what they mean for them in practice. This has its pros and cons as although it increases general awareness around differences in our brain chemistry, it can sometimes lead to people thinking that they can spot undiagnosed disorders in others or even themselves. Greater awareness means that we can be more careful about how we use language. For example, not saying that we have OCD, when we are simply consistently checking on something that is worrying us.

Understanding neurodivergence is particularly relevant in the workplace, not just to better understand how people work and with whom, but also how the environment can affect how our brains work. Those who are introverted may find open-plan offices difficult to work in, but someone who is on the autism spectrum may find it impossible because they experience sensory over-stimulation from too much sound, light, scent, or unfamiliar textures.

Wellbeing in the workplace

Needless to say, as being in the workplace accounts for a large part of many people’s lives, wellbeing in the workplace is increasingly important to employees. Having individual differences acknowledged is one element of this, but heightened awareness around mental health issues is another. Businesses are increasingly offering support in the form of online therapy as a benefit, particularly in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, and some organisations are even starting to consider mental health days as part of statutory sick leave. Beyond this, it is important for founders to start the conversation around mental health challenges to help de-stigmatise them.

Personality can act as a predictor for levels of wellbeing, but we’re far less likely to experience individual differences as disadvantages (which has a detrimental effect on our wellbeing) when they are seen and acknowledged by colleagues. For example, some people learn better through practical demonstrations, while others prefer memorisation. Some people find it easier to come up with ideas when talking in a group, while others can better articulate their thoughts by writing them down. Despite many companies looking for a “good fit” when they hire, it’s vital to be conscientious about bias and consider people with more diverse experiences and skills that can contribute to the growth of the business.

Expand your knowledge with an MBA Psychology

There are many theories of personality that help us understand different behaviours in the workplace, from how people are motivated to what inspires creativity. We are also increasingly understanding how the effects of our environment and the behaviours of others – social psychology – influence each of us as individuals.

Discover more about the valuable insights that psychology can provide about running a successful business with the University of Wolverhampton’s MBA Psychology. The 100% online course allows you to study part-time while you continue to work and benefit from the real-life learning that your career can offer.

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