By Neil Harris
Knowing your mind
Do you ever think that some colleagues are irritating? They seem not to be on your wavelength. They approach things very differently and you sometimes wonder how their mind works. If only you understood where they are coming from working together could be so much easier. Personality plays a big part in how we view others, gather information, tackle problems, organise our lives. Academics specialising in some subjects often have quite similar personalities and this can lead to ‘blind spots'. Imaginative people are often not good at the detail. Spontaneity is rarely associated with careful planning. A team that includes a broad range of personality types is often better able to function well.
Myers Briggs, the 1920s psychologist, developed Jungian theory to analyse personality types. She came up with four ‘dichotomies' that explain why we often have difficulty understanding colleagues whose personalities differ significantly from our own.
Outgoing or a reflective thinker
There are those who prefer to solve their problems by talking them through, need other's company, are happy to work in open plan, noisy situations. It's the buzz of life that gives them their energy. Being the centre of attention and giving a lecture to a few hundred people is not a problem for them. Their energy is external and they are outgoing extraverts. People working in dramatic art and musicians are among those who often externalise their energy.
At the other end of this spectrum are those who prefer to reflect on issues, think things through thoroughly before discussing. Their approach is more private and they like to be quiet. They are much more energised by reading a book than partying. At work they prefer an office of their own to open plan situations. These are the reflective introverts. Computer scientists, engineers and philosophers are sometimes among the most reflective thinkers.
At the extremes these two personalities can cause each other problems. Extraverts worry that introverts don't talk much and wonder what they think. Introverts just wish that extraverts would think first and talk when they have worked out their ideas.
Of course, we all behave differently in different contexts but most of us have a leaning towards introversion or extraversion and this will affect out preferred way of doing things.
The big picture or attention to detail
Some of us get deeply involved in the detail of a problem and neglect the big picture.
Others have a good overview of what is going on and a vision of what they want to achieve but hate the detail. Myers Briggs calls the first ‘sensors', the second ‘intuitives'. Sensing types are most found among practical people- engineers, scientists and those involved in crafts. Their feet are firmly on the ground. They live in the present. They do things sequentially and make changes incrementally. Intuitives by contrast, have more imagination. Taking information from many different sources they ‘what if' the future. Put them in charge and they want to change everything while ‘sensors' prefer to alter things incrementally.
Naturally ‘intuitives' believe that ‘sensors' are lacking in creativity and imagination while ‘sensors' think ‘intuitives' have their heads in the clouds. Writers, journalists and psychologists tend to be above average on the intuitive side.
Analytical or people based solutions
Scientists and mathematicians approach problem solving by deducing from first principles. Start somewhere and work logically towards a correct solution. Provided the logic is good the answer must be right. But will people accept it? ‘Thinkers' who work this way do the logic first and sell the solution to others later. Most, but not all, scientists and engineers are strongly analytical.
The ‘feeling' method is to consider what kind of solution people want and go from there. Those using this approach solve problems as though they were a part of it while analysts are able to be much more detached. One is objective the other subjective. Analysts think subjective problem solvers are illogical. The clergy and those in social work are often strongly ‘feeling' problem solvers. They may find analysts cold and unfeeling. If you're in an academic department where you are supposed to be logical, but your approach is different, that will cause problems, and vice versa.
Organising your life
Do you plan, organise and think ahead? Some of us like to be in control. They have to do lists and diaries. They plan their day, their week and year. Holidays are usually booked well in advance and perhaps they like them to be structured. Myers Briggs calls these ‘Judging' types. With tidy desks and offices they know exactly where to find things, whether at work or at home. Others, she calls ‘Perceiving', feel hemmed in if their life is organised a month ahead. They prefer to go with the flow, work flexible hours, take life as it comes and be ready for new experiences.
At one end of this particular spectrum are the control freaks. At the other they are much more laid back. ‘Judging' types finish their work before taking their leisure; ‘Perceiving' types are ready for leisure pursuits now. If your boss is the opposite type to you in this particular category it will be an interesting relationship.
If you analyse yourself against these dimensions, for some you will say ‘That's me!' For others you might decide that you behave differently in different situations.. Perhaps you are on the cusp between one type of behaviour and another. Knowing yourself better can help you to understand your strengths and weaknesses. When you consider your relationships with friends and colleagues and think about the irritations and difficulties that arise, sometimes the Myers Briggs Personality Type indicator, as it's called, can help you to work out why. After that relationships might just possibly improve.