by: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic & Dave Winsborough
It’s just plain hard to get people working together the way you’d like. That’s because, left to our own devices, we are often too greedy and self-centered to collaborate, preferring instead to compete as individuals. Sigmund Freud made this point, comparing humans to hedgehogs in the winter: When hedgehogs get cold, they huddle together to warm up, but then things become unbearably prickly as they sting each other with their spines.
We are the most social species on earth — but also inherently selfish. Darwinian theories of organizational behavior support Freud’s view, highlighting the fundamental tension between “getting ahead” and “getting along” in the workplace.
Resolving that tension involves balancing individuals’ agendas and the goals of the group. To do that, it’s critical to select the right team members — people who are likely to gel, particularly when the pressure is on. Even the most successful leaders, such as Sir Russell Coutts, who led Oracle Team USA to win America’s Cup in boat racing, admit that this is “one of the hardest things to do.”
Many leaders choose team members purely on the basis of functional skill — treating them, essentially, as fungible assets or the individual components of a machine. Others, perhaps driven by their own narcissism, pick people who are like them, which kills diversity and breeds groupthink. Alternatively, they just assemble the smartest folks they can find.
None of these tactics work, because, as research shows, the dynamics of interpersonal relationships depend on individuals’ personalities, not on hard skills or expertise. You can put world-class talent together on a team, and it may still fail to perform as a cohesive unit. In fact, the only way to create a team that’s worth more than the sum of its individual contributors is to select members on the basis of personality, soft skills, and values.
To that end, a number of organizations are using personality profiling to build their teams. For example, Edmunds, a sort of TripAdvisor for cars, uses personality tests to identify the most promising candidates for its executive team. Buffer, a social media firm, uses them to create virtual teams and pilot novel organizational structures that eschew managers and formal roles. The New Zealand Army, which of course does have formal roles, molds teams based on personality for its outdoor development races through the mountains.
The science behind personality assessment has advanced well beyond the Myers-Briggs, a relatively poor and discredited psychological tool. Rigorous assessment tools reliably predict real-world behaviors and desirable business outcomes. Although many tools exist, they fall into three basic categories, because they evaluate three core elements of your personality: the bright side (how you behave when you are at your best), the dark side (how you behave when you are stressed or under pressure), and the inside (your needs, motives and preferences).
Importantly, assessment tools can be used to profile not just individual team members but also entire groups — and they can indicate whether the group is likely to bond or fracture by examining qualities that predict both success and failure. For example, we know that teams with members who are open minded and emotionally intelligent leverage conflict to improve performance, whereas neurotic and closed-minded teams fall apart in the face of disagreement. A well-known example is the disintegration of the French national football team at the 2010 World Cup.
Although Deloitte recently complained that the field of people analytics is “stuck in neutral,” using the whole group as the unit of analysis is a real breakthrough, because it enables focused coaching for the team. In our consulting work, we use a personality test to see whether teams have people playing five key roles necessary for performance: results, relationships, process, innovation, and pragmatism. We are finding that typical top leadership teams are heavy on results and light on relationships and process. As a consequence, they need to moderate the tendencies to compete internally, generate too many action plans, and leave follow-through to others.
Teams also perform better when their members share work values. A long series of studies conducted in the British National Health Service has shown that teams whose values cohere identify more strongly as a group and display greater levels of innovation. Because values are a guide for behavioral choices, group members who share similar values are more likely to agree about group actions, and vice-versa. In assessing the leadership team of a charity for maternal health, we found that it fell apart when it was unable to reconcile altruistic motives held by some members with new board members’ commercial imperatives.
Most leaders understand the benefits of collaboration — they’ve seen plenty of evidence that it increases firms’ competitiveness and solves thorny problems. But they’re straining against the fact that humans are naturally social animals within bounds — of geography, ethnicity, and loyalty. By building teams that can collaborate across those boundaries, they’ll be better equipped to deliver what their organizations need, even in this age of matrixed reporting and globally dispersed workforces.
About the Authors
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority on personality profiling, talent management, and people analytics. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems and a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL) and Columbia University.
Dave Winsborough is the managing director of Winsborough Limited. He has done extensive research on the role and performance of senior leadership teams and the personalities of chief executives.
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