The diversity of identities and personalities in today’s knowledge workplace complicates a leader’s task. However, knowing what factors shaped and still influence those identities can help a leader understand – and predict – why certain personalities behave in certain ways. Made aware and sensitized, a leader comes to respect those identities. In turn, followers come to respect the leader.

By satisfying the demands of identity groups, leaders don’t necessarily gain willing followers. But if these identities are not respected, leaders will be less willingly followed, possibly resisted. In a democratic society, we enjoy the right to have multiple loyalties, based on multiple identifications, while in an autocratic society – and some companies are autocratically led – those in power are threatened by loyalties to any group other than the current regime.

Understanding personality has become essential for leaders of the complex, knowledge-based companies operating in the global marketplace. This imperative has been made even more challenging by the need for managers to recognize that many of the personalities they must understand were formed in different cultures with different attitudes to authority. Otherwise, managers will risk losing the trust of the people they lead. Today, in order to fit people into the right roles, leaders need to develop what I call Personality Intelligence.

Awareness that it’s important to understand people has been growing over the past thirty years, since I wrote about the personalities of high tech managers in The Gamesman (1977). Managers take courses to improve their emotional intelligence and appreciation of cultural diversity. Tests abound of cognitive styles, behavioral strengths, and personality types. They sensitize people to differences, but risk oversimplifying and stereotyping, rather than help to understand, predict, and improve behavior. This article will help leaders develop Personality Intelligence, a skill that will enable them to understand, predict and improve the behaviour of the different types of people they lead.

How to understand people and predict how they will behave

Let’s be clear: Understanding another person is an art. Compare the miraculous developments over the past 500 years in science and technology to advances in understanding people. Has our understanding of personality advanced from what we learn by reading Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes and Tolstoy? Arguably, we’ve regressed. Psychologists have made some progress in describing personality and intelligence, but their different theories lack coherence. Each theory views personality from a somewhat different angle. That’s understandable, since we are dealing with interpretations of complex behavior patterns, emotional attitudes, and experiences that don’t lend themselves to linear cause-effect formulas.

Although few of us have the talents of great novelists or playwrights, we can improve our understanding of people by expanding the concepts we use to sensitize us to behavior patterns. In his famous essay on pragmatism, William James advises us to learn about the philosophies of those we work with. By this he means their ethics and moral principles. Of course, this knowledge is essential for knowing who we can trust. But we also need other concepts to describe how people think, how they relate to others, and whether their principles are rigid or flexible.

I have found that there are four concepts that are particularly useful to understanding people and predict how they are likely to behave at work.

They are:

  • Talents and Temperament – what we are born with
  • Social character – how we are like others brought up in the same culture
  • Personality type – how we are like some people within our culture
  • Identities – how we want to define ourselves

These different concepts are windows on the self – the person – and include values, emotional attitudes, characteristic ways of working and relating to others, the identities we give to ourselves, and our ways of acquiring, retaining, and transforming information. Of course, we can’t see these facets of our brains and personality directly, but we can observe patterns of behavior and interpret them in terms of personality type and social character. We talk about our sense of identity and, to some extent, our values. But a part of our personality may not be conscious to us, even though a trained observer can see it in action.

  1. Talents and Temperament includes intelligence and creative gifts. Psychologists do agree that there are five genetically influenced personality traits that can be observed from infancy on. These traits, called the Big Five, are:

    • Openness to experience and curiosity versus just following the same routine. This trait has become especially valuable in companies that must adapt to a changing market.

    • Agreeableness versus suspiciousness. The most effective leaders attract people and are only suspicious of those who betray their trust.

    • Emotional stability versus emotional instability is clearly a quality that protects a person from being overwhelmed by inevitable setbacks.

    • Conscientiousness, sticking with a task versus being easily distracted is a quality shared by all successful people.

    • Extraversion, sociability versus introversion does not, in my experience, predict success or failure. Both qualities can be useful. Typically, effective salespeople are extroverts and strategists tend to be introverts.

  2. Social Character is a concept that connects personality and culture. It is that part of personality shaped by family, school, sports, and workplace, so that we have the emotional attitudes and values that equip us to succeed in a particular culture with its dominant mode of production. In a changing global marketplace, understanding social character differences has become essential, not only to understand people in different countries, but also different generations in our own country.

    Since the 1970s, people in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have grown up in a world that is different than the one their parents were raised in during the 1950s and 1960s. One of the most striking differences can be seen in the change in business leaders. In the 70s, managers knew subordinates’ jobs better than they did. But today, with the rapid advance of knowledge, subordinates often know more. Today, what people seek in their leaders is authenticity, transparency, and a clear sense of meaningful purpose. Experience is secondary.

    The result of all these changes has been the emergence of a new social character – one that I call the “interactive,” in contrast to the “bureaucratic” social character that was dominant in the last century. Interactives tend to identify with sibling-like peers rather than paternal models. Since they were ten or 11 years old, these Interactives have been in touch with global management through Facebook and multi-player video games. They see themselves as independent free agents, and many treat big companies like Microsoft and Google as places for post-graduate education before they join an entrepreneurial venture. They are experimental at work and in their lifestyles. At an early age, they begin building networks and are at ease connecting with people all over the world. They want leaders to add value by increasing opportunities for them, not telling them what to do. In the advanced democratic societies, where the dominant mode of production is knowledge work, the shift from bureaucratic to interactive social character is facilitating globalization.

    However, cultural variations persist, and younger Interactives sometimes clash with bureaucratic bosses. George Raymond (not his real name) is a thirty-four-year-old leader of a technical team in a large media company. He tells me his boss is a bureaucrat who doesn’t listen to good ideas, even when they can save money. The boss wants to be admired and told that his ideas are great, but George just sees the boss as an obstacle, an evil. George describes his own team as a collaborative community where information flows easily. Both parents were professionals, but growing up, his close ties were with friends and brothers, even more than with parents. He loved playing video games, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) in which he was creating international teams and making quick decisions with no need for a boss.

    This boss tells him he’d better play by the company rules or else, but George says he is ready to quit if he can find a job with a company that respects what he can do. A few months later he e-mails to tell me he’s now joined another company where he’s a lot freer, and where he gets along well with a boss, who is more of a colleague. There will be many more people like George who follow a bureaucratic boss for only as long as they have to.

    When a project leader at Citi was organizing his team, he found a way of making sure the people he selected were Interactives. Asked for their credentials, Interactives described what they could do for the project. In contrast, Bureaucrats boasted about the senior managers and executives they had worked with.

  3. Personality types describe variations within a social character. Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, and C.G. Jung have all proposed useful psychoanalytic types. Jung describes “archetypes” that leaders can take on, such as “wise king,” “magician,” “nurturer,” or “warrior.” Some of these archetypes are similar to roles in the MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, so popular with Interactives. These roles appeal more or less to the different personality types observed by Freud, who suggested that there are three types: erotic, obsessive, narcissistic. Fromm added a fourth type, marketing. No one is a pure type, but while we are all mixes, one type usually dominates a personality. Also, each type has positive or productive as well as the negative or unproductive potentials that can result in personality disorders. Each type can be either good or bad.

    The productive-erotic type is a helper – caring, cooperative, idealistic, communicative – the kind of person who stimulates love and supports others. The unproductive erotics are dependent, needy for love, and gossipy. They tend to avoid conflict and to exaggerate their emotional reactions. You are especially likely to find professionals of this type in health care, education, and the arts. I’ve also found them in staff roles in companies, where they often attach themselves as helpers to top executives.

    The productive obsessive is the systematic type – inner-directed with a strong sense of responsibility and high standards, conscientious and reliable. The unproductive obsessives are nit-picking, over-controlling, stubborn, and stingy – behaviour typifying what Freud termed the anal character. This type can be effective in leadership roles in the professions and industry, especially when the challenge is cost cutting and process management, but less so when there is a need for innovation.

    Freud contrasted narcissism, which resides in all of us, with the narcissistic personality. Narcissism is essential for survival, since without a dose of it, we wouldn’t value ourselves any more than anyone else. Although any personality type can have an excess of narcissism in the form of egoism or hubris, with success, the narcissistic personality is more likely than other types to puffing him or herself up. That’s because narcissists care less than the other types about what others think of them. They answer mainly to their own internal ideal self.

    Freud describes the narcissistic personality as “independent and not open to intimidation. The ego has a large amount of aggressiveness at its disposal, which also manifests itself in a readiness for activity . . . People belonging to this type impress others as being ‘personalities’, they are especially suited to act as a support for others, to take on the role of leaders and to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development or to damage the established state of affairs.”

    Narcissists – and Freud saw himself as one – have not internalized parental models, so, lacking a strong superego that programs a moral code, they are free to write their own. The gifted and productive ones are innovators, independent thinkers who want to project their vision onto the world and are the type best able to inspire followers with their passionate conviction.

    Unproductive narcissistic traits are arrogance, grandiosity, not listening to others, paranoid sensitivity to threats, extreme competitiveness, and unbridled ambition and aggressiveness. These traits have undermined some narcissistic leaders who have gone from great success to disaster, like Napoleon and Henry Ford.

    When Freud observed personalities in the early twentieth century, obsessives were the dominant type, the model for character development. This was because their personality type fit hand in glove with the social character formed in the era of craft and bureaucratic-industrial production. But as the mode of production and its cultural frame shifted to service and knowledge work, a new personality type emerged to fit its demands. Fromm termed this chameleon-like type the “marketing personality”. It has become the dominant personality type of the interactive social character.

    The productive marketing type combines independence with interactivity. Flexible to the point of being protean, marketing types are decisive when adapting to changing situations. The negative traits include lack of a center, insincerity, disloyalty, and superficiality. Like narcissists, marketing types lack a strong superego, because they don’t identify strongly with parental figures. But their moral code is continually programmed and reprogrammed by groups they consider essential for their success. The effectiveness of a leader with a marketing personality depends greatly on the quality of the leader’s close colleagues, since marketing types tend to form their views interactively, shaping them to what they think leads to success.

The value of using psychoanalytic types to understand colleagues

Why do I suggest using these psychoanalytic types rather than simpler behavioral types? There are two reasons. One, although typologies like introvert versus extrovert describe observable traits, these are inborn elements of temperament, neither learned nor learnable. And behavioral patterns like the Gallup strengths don’t always predict how these strengths will be expressed. The psychoanalytic types may be influenced by inborn personality traits, but they are mainly formed in the socialization process. Each type expresses a particular constellation of universal human needs or emotionally energized values: motivational systems shaped in the stages of development. The genius of Freud included the ability to think systemically, to connect dynamic behavioural traits into types. Each psychological type describes the interaction of universal motivational patterns – fight-flight, attachment, play-mastery, pleasure-pain, exploration – but each type shuffles these differently, with one or another element as dominant.

The second reason I suggest using these psychoanalytic types is that I’ve observed these types in my clinical work as a psychoanalyst and in supervising other therapists. The types have been useful both in research on Mexican villagers and in a study of corporate managers starting with The Gamesman. Furthermore, in applying a questionnaire testing for these types in leadership workshops, my students, colleagues, and I have been able to understand and predict styles of leadership (Narcissistic Leaders. 2007). Not surprisingly, we’ve found that high-tech entrepreneurs who take the big risks are narcissistic visionaries; the executives who squeeze efficiencies out of every process in production companies are obsessives, and professionals who customize their services and sell their personalities are marketing types. Furthermore, these types are consistent with the observations of such diverse leaders as Machiavelli and Jack Welch about fitting personalities to leadership roles.

When I’ve used the personality questionnaire with an executive team, the result has been a more open conversation. For example, vice presidents of one executive team complained that the CFO didn’t respond to their queries. The CFO’s questionnaire showed he was a (erotic) helper, but his interest in helping was directed solely to the CEO, whom he saw as a father figure. As a result of this discussion, which brought to light an attitude of which the CFO had not been aware, stronger links were forged between the CFO and vice presidents. Furthermore, the CFO understood why he so often felt insufficiently appreciated by his boss whom he’d unconsciously experienced as the uncaring father he was desperately trying to please.

In these conversations about personality, team members have become more interactive with fewer examples of serial monologues. I asked Tony Barclay, CEO of DAI, a global development consultancy, what difference it made after his team had shared the results of the personality questionnaire. He said, “We began to talk to each other in a different way and ultimately to be more direct with each other. It saved time.”

An effective leader recognizes personality differences, but succeeds in creating a common sense of purpose, a shared identity as members of a team. Identities can be powerful motivators. Under great stress, people revert to family or tribal identities. We see in Iraq how religious identities turn neighbors into deadly enemies.

In the bureaucratic-industrial age, people started to identify with organizations, especially the companies, unions, and professional associations that gave them a sense of security and status. Asked to describe themselves, managers of major companies would invariably mention the company (e.g., “I’m an IBMer”). Of course, family, place, and religion remained part of their identities, and identifications were sometimes expanded further to memberships in fraternities, service organizations, schools, and colleges, especially those that added to the person’s sense of importance.

Compared with the Interactive social character, whose sense of identity can be protean, the bureaucratic social character is strongly attached to its identities. It doesn’t bother Interactives to shift identities like roles in video games. Rather than identify with a company, they identify with a project or mission, a sport, or consumer group. They practice shaping identities that will get them a job or a date on the Internet.

However, in this new age of diverse identities at work, we risk confusing cultural-social character differences with identity interest groups. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton University philosopher, points out that identity groups can include people from very different cultures and with a variety of individual values. He argues “that the diversity that preoccupies us is really a matter not so much of cultures as of identities.” But identities differ according to how deeply they are rooted in our personalities. A characteristic of Interactives is their ability to shift identities in different settings. Sometimes, people choose to belong to an identity group at work, like a union, mainly because the group promises to gain privileges for them. People may choose to identify themselves with ethnic groups like Hispanics, a name that corresponds to no particular country and that covers people who don’t even come from the same culture or even necessarily speak Spanish. In terms of social character, a Mexican villager may be more like a Serbian or Indian villager than like a professional from Mexico City or Havana. But people with a family background from a Latin American country can choose whether or not to take on a Hispanic identity, especially if that gives them some advantage at work.

By satisfying the demands of identity groups, leaders don’t necessarily gain willing followers. But if these identities are not respected, leaders will be less willingly followed, possibly resisted. In a democratic society, we enjoy the right to have multiple loyalties, based on multiple identifications, while in an autocratic society, and some companies are autocratically led, those in power are threatened by loyalties to any group other than the regime.

Keep in mind that identities can be extremely powerful when attached to deep human needs for respect and support from people we can trust to care about us. Identities can be powerful motivators because they provide meaning for our lives. This is especially true when we feel that an identity determines our friends and enemies. When an identity gives us a feeling of security and pride, any attack on identity is a blow to self esteem, even a threat to survival.

How can you learn to understand the people you want to follow or collaborate with you? How can you improve your ability to fit the person to the role? While concepts like identities, social character, and personality can sensitize us to people’s values and patterns of relatedness, unless we are also fully present with them, listening with our hearts, we can’t really know other people. We can’t experience them directly. Even when they smile and nod their heads, we won’t know whether their enthusiasm is real or their feelings are really positive. Even when they cry, we won’t know whether they are sad or furious. To understand others, we have to observe and listen actively, using the conceptual framework I’ve presented as a context for understanding what we see, hear, and experience. However, the most effective leaders not only experience people’s doubts and fears. They are also able to infuse confidence and hope.

Clearly, the diversity of identities and personalities complicates leadership for the knowledge workplace, particularly since leaders can no longer count on the bureaucratic character’s idealization of paternal authority. Interactives seem to grasp this better and to recognize that the capability to understand differences in culture and personality is essential for effective collaboration in knowledge work. However, they will become more effective leaders by developing their Personality Intelligence, both conceptually and emotionally, using both their head and their heart.