Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Personality & Communication

I recently read an interesting article in the Toastmasters Magazine on the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. The article prompted me to share some of my own thoughts on personality theory and communication. These ideas informed my research into The Psychology of Collaboration, carried out on behalf of Herman Miller, which I hope to be published soon. Hopefully you will find my review useful in you day-to-day lives and at work.
Eysenck's super-trait personality model

So what is personality? Well“Persona” is Latin for "mask", so it suggests personality is the mask we present to the world. But interestingly there does not appear to be any agreed definition of personality amongst psychologists. My own mash-up of definitions is: “Personality is an individual’s unique set of traits and consistent pattern of thinking and behaviour that persists over time and across situations”. Personality is stable but not absolutely fixed. It is a proclivity for certain traits (or characteristics) that in turn affect our behaviour.
Personality theories date back to ancient Egypt but it was the Greek physician Hippocrates (circa 400 BC) who is attributed with developing the first structured theory of personality. He proposed thatt personality is affected by the (in)balance of bodily fluids, termed the four temperaments. He believed that levels of phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile are associated with four core personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic. His theory sounds antiquated but modern-day neuropsychologists acknowledge that the presence of certain chemical transmitters in the brain affect our mood and behaviour.

Today’s most popular personality theories are based on attempts to identify and describe personality in terms of traits, or characteristics. In the 1930’s Allport and colleagues found nearly 18,000 words in the English language used to describe characteristics of personality. Since then Psychologists have competed to reduce the number of key traits that describe our personality. If you work for a large corporate you have most probably been subjected to a Myers-Briggs Inventory or the Cattell’s 16PF (16 Personality Factors). They both categorise us according to one of 16 personality types. I find them a little complicated and prefer Eysenck’s super-traits model.
Eysenck has boiled it all down to two core personality factors which not only appear in all other personality theories and tests but also relate back to the Hippocrates’ four temperaments. The extroversion scale ranges from introverted to extroverted, and the neuroticism scale (which is more to do with anxiousness) ranges from stable to unstable. We may lie at extreme ends of the scales or in the middle, the so called ambiverts. I am going to discuss the extreme ends of the extroversion scale.

An extrovert is a social person who seeks company and interaction; they get easily distracted when on their own. They act on impulse, require lots of stimulation, they are thrill seekers and takes risks – they are fans of roller-coasters. In contrast, the introvert prefers the quiet life, they are reflective people preferring their own company and solitary activity; they do not enjoy large social events and get easily distracted when with others. They prefer reading a book to roller-coaster rides.
In terms of communication, extroverts prefer face-to-face interaction, and large meetings; they also tend to gesticulate a lot. Extroverts like impromptu and informal meetings to share ideas. But it can be difficult to extract details from an extrovert. On the other hand, introverts prefer written communications (email and text), and if meeting they prefer them small and planned with advance notice. Introverts are the ones who send you a detailed and lengthy email in response to a simple question, whereas extroverts will mention it over a coffee. Web-conferences are potentially a good format for the introvert as they provide a good means of interaction and sharing data without actually meeting face to face.
One explanation of the behaviour of introverts and extroverts is Arousal Theory. Arousal Theory is a psychological meta-theory that relates to how alert we are in our resting state and the affect it has on performance. If our arousal is too high we may get stressed out, and perform poorly, and if it is too low we may fall asleep and perform poorly. Arousal somewhere in the middle leads to optimum performance. Now extroverts have a low level of arousal so constantly seek stimulation. Introverts have a high level of arousal and so prefer calm and serenity.
Now here is the tricky bit. Complicated tasks can increase our level of arousal whereas detailed repetitive tasks will reduce it. As extroverts have a low level of arousal they are better at complex tasks. However, as introverts have a high level of arousal they are better at detailed and repetitive tasks. Research has also shown that extroverts are more creative but their behaviour can inhibit precision or logic. On the other hand, introverts are good at sieving through large datasets and fine detail. The more successful teams have been found to have a mixture of personality types; we need both extroverts and introverts in the workplace.
Social networking, like Facebook and Twitter etc, is a relatively new form of communication. As introverts can suffer anxiety when meeting people, it was hypothesised that they would use social network sites more than extroverts who prefer face to face interaction. Unexpectedly, it was discovered that extroverts use social networking sites much more than introverts. However, this is because extroverts seek more interaction than introverts regardless of whether it is on-line or face-to-face. More recent studies have indeed find that introverts use online interactions as a replacement for face-to-face ones, termed Social Compensation Theory.
So in conclusion introverts prefer the quiet life, are good at detailed repetitive work and prefer to communicate through email, text and well-planned small meetings. In contrast, extroverts are social animals who are more creative and like communicating through face to face interaction and presenting creative ideas to large audiences.
I have focused on introversion-extroversion but there are many other traits that affect our perferred means of communication. For me introversion-extroversion is the key one and hopefully you will now appreciate that the way you like to communicate may not be the most natural or preferred method for your work colleagues, managers, clients or audience.
This blog formed the basis of my CC2 presentation at Toastmasters.

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