Personality tests like DISC, Myers-Briggs, Caliper, and others are a standard part of the hiring and onboarding processes in many organizations, but their results aren’t widely shared and discussed. For most employees, these personality tests can seem like a waste of time, or, worse, an invasion of privacy. What’s the value of these tests and how can we make better use of this kind of information while team building?
Nathan Smith has his own approach. One that takes the personality tests so many enterprises love to use, and builds a stronger, more collaborative work environment. The key? Openly discussing personality differences and strategizing together on what’s most effective for each individual and the group as a whole.
“You can build a great car,” Smith says, “but if if there’s nobody to drive it or people are trying to steer it in different directions, it really doesn’t matter how great the car is, it’s not going to go anywhere efficiently.”
In the spring of 2013, Nathan Smith encountered a staffing crisis that would change his life: Three of his five-person nonprofit team left in a matter of months. Not only did the shakeup push him into a more senior role, it also forced him to build an effective strategy for hiring, team building, and getting to work quickly. His solution was to head off any interpersonal issues before they began by understanding each personality type in the team and using that knowledge to build a plan, as a team. Today, Smith is a marketing and fundraising consultant who places a great deal of emphasis on interpersonal communication and understanding different personalities. Smith took us through his approach, along the way, addressing common issues that come up and how discussions around our individuality can benefit group work.
How did you decide to use this kind of personality-driven team building?
Nonprofits are almost all understaffed, underfunded, and overworked. And the nonprofit that I worked for was no different. We had a lot of turnover in a short period of time. It was a five-person team, we’d lost two people in three months and then the director of development left abruptly and I was asked to step up take over that role. So a five person team down to a two-person team. The organization had done a lot of restructuring we were just finishing the process of a rebrand, looking to add two roles to the team. So we were poised for growth. It was a bit of a crisis situation, but it became a call to action. And that’s what a crisis can do for you — it doesn’t have to be a disaster.
So you had to build a team from scratch. What did you do first?
The very first thing that we did as soon as we made the last hire was take off on a two-night, three-day retreat to establish relationships and cast our vision and talk about big, hairy, audacious goals. None of the them had any non-profit or fundraising experience — so it was kind of a fundraising and marketing bootcamp 101.
We also spent a significant part of the time talking about personality types, about expectations, about helping communication and facing conflict rather than stuffing it down. We still go on retreats to do team building exercises. We’ve built it into our calendar. Because words can inspire people for a short amount of time, but it’s experiences that change people. We did a lot of team-building exercises and those can be kind of trite and silly sometimes, but in that case they felt very genuine.
What made you decide to approach team building in this way?
Most people lead a very solitary life in the workplace. When I started with the new team, I knew that for most of them I was going to be their first boss and this was going to be their first real position. This was a group of young millennials. Millennials get a bad rap for being so self-centered and the reason why they’re perceived that way is because they want to make a difference, because they understand their uniqueness and they want live up to their potential. I was committed to make the job memorable and one that they would regret leaving. That’s where my passion really started to come out, watching the team benefit from working together.
Why is it important for a team to be aware of each other’s personality types?
Knowing how each team member deals with stress, that’s a really essential thing to understand. Because if I know your triggers, if I know what you look like when you’re stressed, I can capture you before you basically go off the deep end. For example, for ISTJs, they catastrophize when they get overwhelmed. Everything is wrong and it will never get better. I was just talking to an ISTJ this week and I said, “You know what? You like to control things and you can’t control anything right now, so let’s find something you can control.”
You have to know how to talk to people and if you listen to people’s words you will know who they are and then you can talk to them in a way that motivates them. But you have to know who they are, otherwise you say the wrong thing and you’re going to send them in the complete wrong direction.
What’s the secret to team building exercises that don’t feel cheesy or formulaic?
People can smell a phony a mile away, so if you are all talk and you don’t live it then you’ll just get eye rolls. For team-building exercises, its purpose is to create awareness. Personality types can help with the framework to use to build that awareness. So that people who have never been exposed to the idea that everyone is not like them — they need to understand that first. And then you do a team-building exercise to illustrate the point. The exercise isn’t the point, it’s what you talk about beforehand the unpacking you do afterwards. And then you have to decide how you’re going to apply this based on what you just learned about each other.
How do you know if you’ve got a balanced team, personality-wise?
There are kind of four approaches to work: Let’s just get it done, let’s have fun doing it, let’s do it right, and then there’s let’s do it together — and none of those are necessarily better or worse than one another. And ideally you’d do all of those. To me a healthy team is one that addresses all of those together.
How do you approach personality types? Do you have everyone take a test?
I try to babystep people along because Myers-Briggs is like throwing people into the deep end of the pool. And it can be information-overload if you’re not familiar with it. Myers-Briggs breaks down personalities into 16 types, but there are other common ones like DISC and Enneagram.
I usually just start by asking, “Are you more introverted or are you more extroverted? Are you more task driven or are you more people driven.” Those are four basic concepts that just start the conversation. If you are a very task-driven and extroverted person, you’re going to be one of those people who says, “Let’s just get it done.” But if you are one of those extroverted people who is very people-oriented, you’re going to say, “Let’s have fun doing it.” And then we map out the team. Who on the team is the outlier and how are they going to feel when all of us are pushing this way and they’re just not wired that way? And where are we weak? Who should we bring on to the team to balance it out a little bit? So that’s a very basic start, and that’s about as far as I go in the first retreat. During the next retreat, you say well you know this actually goes little bit deeper. We can divide this personality stuff into 16 categories, so you can go even deeper.
Do you ever encounter people who don’t believe in Myers-Briggs or other personality typing?
Oh yes. And those are typically your ESFPs and your ISFPs. It’s actually a joke with a friend of mine, you know you’ve tested an ESFP or ISFP correctly if they tell you they don’t believe in any of this stuff.
How you deal with that?
When people say that, they’re usually telling you they don’t want to be put in a box. And there’s probably good reasons why. For some people, their personality type is very much like tofu — they take on the flavor of whatever is around them. They’re very adaptable and that’s their strength. But because they’re so adaptable, they sometimes have a hard time seeing themselves as clearly as other people can see them.
Don’t push it, your goal isn’t to shove Myers-Briggs down somebody’s throat, your goal is to help them grow. If Myers-Briggs isn’t their thing, that’s fine. It’s about finding out what makes you tick, and helping you understand what makes other people tick. There are lots of ways to approach it. Take all the take away all the framework of Myers-Briggs and it’s really just a way of saying, “Look, life is hard we have ways of coping with it and sometimes those are not healthy strategies and you would like grow, improve your relationships, improve your career. And we can do that, we can move you one step in the right direction, but you have to acknowledge the hard stuff first.