Understanding workplace personas

Peter Strempel

An increased emphasis in recent times on algorithms and attempting to understand people and performance only through metrics has led to neglect of a people focus in management, particularly in IT and related specialist domains.

My experience tells me that there is a limit to the usefulness of algorithms and automation, neither of which are likely ever to equal the potential of human creativity and ingenuity.

That’s not to say all people are necessarily creative or ingenious.  Just that to unlock their potential you need to be aware that people are not all the same.  They each have their own particular workplace personas

To understand personas, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to adjust management styles to suit, I use four major tools–

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

American psychologist Abraham Maslow invented this framework between the 1940s and ‘50s as part of his practice of fostering psychological health on the basis of satisfying inherent human needs.

Figure 1 below illustrates the hierarchy as it is now used in management and HR practice.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs diagram
FIGURE 1: Maslow’s hierarchy amended to show workplace dimensions.

The pyramid sits on a base of very primordial needs, such as food, sex, and shelter near the bottom.

Once these are secure, people tend to seek safety in personal safety, security of property, health, and adequate income.  Beyond these foundational needs are those for intimacy and a sense of belonging in a partnership unit, a family group, and a tribe, which today may be a circle of friends and colleagues at work.

Within those groups, and perhaps extending beyond them, people then seek recognition as a key to status and self-esteem.

The pinnacle of this pyramid is self-actualisation, meaning the full development of one’s own potential and a maximum amount of self-determination within social and wider groups.

This framework of reference is useful in determining the readiness of employees to contribute to innovation and making new ideas work.

If people are struggling to meet their basic needs, they will be distracted from all higher-level tasks.

It is only when people’s basic needs are fulfilled that they will feel motivated to strive beyond minimal limits.

There are distinct corresponding workplace ambitions and behaviours as employees feel free to strive for successively higher personal goals, as shown in Figure 1 above.

It pays to be mindful that workplace changes and other organisational factors can undermine employee perceptions of their own security and sense of belonging.  By the same token, managers can actively work to encourage a greater sense of security and membership to make it more likely employees will aim for goal-driven teamwork as path to advancement, recognition, and professional development.

A caution here: perceptions are often not based on reality, so it’s not enough to say ‘you’re seeing this wrong’.  Also, counting on being able to manipulate people by offering positive messages not reflected in what’s actually going on will not work for long, and will actually destroy trust.

Personality typing: Myers-Briggs

We all know what we mean by personality when we chat about it, but we don’t really mean that a few generalisations actually define all that a person might be.  The same caution should be applied to personality typing systems.  Typing can give us clues, but can become counterproductive if applied too literally and rigidly.

What I look for from personality typing is some clues about the different strategies that might be employed to motivate people, particularly to ensure they are in job rôles they value and in which they can excel.  I have come across many instances where a team member was doing work she found dull and uninspiring, but then really came alive in a different rôle, even if at the same level of seniority or remuneration.  Often the employee won’t recognise this without being guided to think about it. 

I remember one pre-sales engineer being desperately unhappy in his role because of the sales and marketing component, and opting for a demotion in salary terms to step into a more junior role in hands-on infrastructure support, where he rapidly rose to become a divisional manager.

The first personality typing system I will examine is Myers-Briggs.  I consider it because it is quite widely known and used.

Myers-Briggs personality types diagram
FIGURE 2: the Myers-Briggs personality types.

Interpreting these types requires the following explanation–

E for extraversion: talkative, outgoing, lively, enjoys novelty and being the centre of attention.

F for feeling: bases decisions on personal values, strives for harmony, empathy, and pleasing others.

J for judging: prefers rules, deadlines, instructions, and planned processes.

I for introversion: reserved, private, contemplative, observing rather than engaging socially.

N for intuition: imaginative, strategic, intellectual, describes reality in metaphors and similes.

P for perceiving: prefers open options, flexibility, improvisation, spontaneity.

S for sensing: factual, detailed, realistic, practical, literally minded.

T for thinking: logical reasoning, values fairness, level-headed, analytical, reasonable.

Myers-Briggs relies largely on self-evaluation using a typing tool; there are many easily found online.  At first the array of types might be quite daunting and impenetrable, but if you use the system for a while, you come to recognise some key traits.

Personally I believe Myers-Briggs is often taken much too seriously and literally.  Many people possess more than a limited number of traits and characteristics.

That’s why I also employ the Enneagram schema illustrated in Figure 3 below.

The Enneagram

It is based on nine main personality types, each with two ‘wings’ that people move between depending on whether they are under stress or at ease.

Enneagram personality types diagram
FIGURE 3: the Enneagram personality types.

So, for example, the mediator at position 9 may become a devil’s advocate under pressure, or a performer when at ease.

In addition, each numbered position also involves a normal trait, and its ‘counterphobic’ opposite.  For example, sixes are said to be fear types who aggressively confront what they fear when they are counterphobic.

Again, there are many online resources to help explain this typing schema.

I mention personality typing here to draw attention to the infinite variability of people, and the advisability of not forcing a single kind of motivation or reward paradigm on people whose work you rely on.  Instead, it is well worth the effort to try and understand each person’s personality orientation and preferences to achieve the best possible collaboration, and to develop the right sort of motivations and rewards for different kinds of people.

Situational leadership

Once I have an idea of the kinds of personalities I will be dealing with I consider the simple situational leadership matrix illustrated in Figure 4 below.

Situational leadership diagram
FIGURE 4: a situational leadership matrix.

The model is fairly self-explanatory.  Depending on the workplace personas encountered, I may need to adopt different styles of leadership with different people, even if they are within the same teams.  This responsibility for being sensitive to staff needs extends to setting and measuring KPIs, which I discuss in a separate article.

To summarise, in a workplace setting I try to establish by observation and interaction how secure employees are in their lives, and what emotional and performance triggers they may respond to.

Following on from considering personalities, I move on to develop transparent metrics for setting team and individual goals and targets.  I describe some methods for doing that on my goal setting page.

Contact me to discuss how I might assist you with these or other organisational challenges and opportunities.