Exploring personality tools to enhance the diversity within our teams

By Elisabeth Goodman, 17th May 2017

My RiverRhee Associate, Liz Mercer and I have been doing a fair amount of reading and reflection to support our new course on Transition to Leadership.

The March-April 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) gave us plenty to think about, as it explored some of the personality tools available to us to understand the diversity of the people within our teams.

HBR Mar-Apr 2017

Exploring biological systems to help us understand personality traits

“If you understand how the brain works, you can reach anyone” (pp.60-62) is the record of a conversation between Alison Beard, one of HBR’s senior editors, and Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist.  The latter has developed a personality questionnaire (on match.com and chemistry.com) based on her understanding of brain chemistry and others’ neurological research.  She also used brain functional MRI to validate the questionnaire.

Helen Fisher reminds us that personality is based on culture (nurture or upbringing) and temperament (nature or the influences of our genes, hormones and neurotransmitters).

She suggests that four biological systems are linked to personality traits:

  1. Dopamine and norepinephrine – which correlate with curiosity, creativity and risk-taking amongst other behaviours
  2. Serotonin – which correlates with greater adherence to social norms, and to tradition
  3. Testosterone – which correlates with tough-mindedness, directness and assertiveness
  4. Oestrogen and oxytocin – which correlate with intuition, imagination, empathy and trust (see previous blog on oxytocin and trust)

Helen Fisher suggests that some of the biological systems have analogies with and support some of the MBTI preferences.  So for instance the Thinking / Feeling preferences might equate to numbers 3 and 4 above.  And Judging / Perceiving might equate to 2 and 1.

She challenges some of the MBTI tenets in ways that MBTI practitioners would not agree with – for instance she suggests that Introverts cannot be “chatty”.  Whereas the MBTI definition actually includes the notion that Introverts can become quite talkative on topics that are important to them.  (See more about MBTI in one of my earlier blogs.)

Otherwise, Helen Fisher’s conclusions echo those for other personality tools:

  • You can benefit from collaborating with others whose strengths are complementary to your own
  • You can interact more effectively by adapting your style to match others’
  • If you have to act, on a long term basis, in a way that is different to your authentic style, it will be a strain
  • You can use your understanding of others’ strengths to build diversity into your team

The range of personality tools available to us

In “A brief history of personality tests” (p.63) Eben Harrell, another HBR senior editor, takes us quickly through MBTI, the five-factor model (or “big five”) and Strengthsfinder 2.0 (from Gallup).

[The article does not mention the wide range of other tools available to us such as Belbin Team Roles, Colours / Insights, NLP Representational Styles, Emergenetics and more…]

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The five-factor model is apparently one that is “widely accepted by academics as the gold standard”.  It is based on a statistical study of words used to describe psychological characteristics across cultures and languages, with the following resultant list:

  • openness to experience
  • conscientiousness
  • extroversion
  • agreeableness
  • neuroticism

It may well be that I am mis-interpreting these words, but they seem to suggest that it would be a good thing if you demonstrated the first four behaviours.  Whilst it would ‘not be a good thing’ if you demonstrated the opposite of any of the first four, and also demonstrated the fifth!

However, if we choose to value the opposites that these terms suggest, as strengths, as other personality tools do, then they can also provide us with the basis for creating a richly diverse team.

Reading this issue of HBR was also very timely as it coincided with my reading of Claudio Feser’s new book on Inspirational Leadership, which also includes a section on the five-factor model.   The book explores, amongst other things, how an inspirational leader can adapt their influencing style to reflect the different personality types in this model or tool.

[There are a couple more articles in this issue of HBR that explore other personality tools, and how leaders are using them to enhance their understanding and how they can work more effectively with others.]

Closing thoughts

How we inspire others as leaders depends to a large extent on our ability to balance our emotional intelligence (EQ) with our intellectual intelligence (IQ).

Personality tools contribute to our EQ by helping us to better understand our own style of leadership and how we interact with others – our preferences and defaults.

That understanding will enable managers and leaders to clarify what strengths in others will most complement their own so that they can actively nurture diversity within their teams.

How will you enhance your understanding of personality types, or how have you done this already?  How will you / or have you applied this to enrich the diversity of your team?


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she is a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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