Individual personality tests have a long, useful history in business. The most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), an inventory known for helping individuals understand differences in work style. However, I've found that MBTI has a life span in organizations and teams of about a year. After that, it's out of sight, out of mind. Part of the reason is that the MBTI has 16 categories. Decades ago, research suggested that once we get to the magic number of seven categories, issues or ideas, our memory takes a hit. My corporate bank account has twelve-digits, but though I’m no slouch at memorizing, it took a concerted effort to insert that set of numerals into my long term memory. Some of the more recent personality tests have upwards of 30 or more categories. You can be damned certain they will have a short life in the business memory. Still, we humans have an endless interest in understanding ourselves, so we're often suckers for this kind of material.
Yet, understanding my preferences for thinking, learning, gathering information, making decisions and communicating enables me to pinpoint strengths as well as potential loopholes, and point to needed changes. Although I have extensive background in complex testing instruments, I've found the four-quadrant Gregorc Thinking Styles to be among the most practical. A number of my clients have internalized it. Furthermore, it’s free on the web.
The Gregorc maps an individual's thinking and learning styles with two types of preference.
- Perceptual: abstract (reasons and intuition), and concrete (the senses)
- Ordering preference: sequential (linear), and random
By combining a person’s preferences, you get a person’s style. From there, you can draw on the test read-out for further insight.
Edgar Schein of MIT has said that “Taxonomies of personality give you only an illusion of understanding.” I like to say that they are a snapshot of your personality the day you took the test. That’s not to say that you will change drastically, but you can and probably should make changes with the information. It’s important to recognize that tests imply unchangeable characteristics, leading to a kind of personal determinism: the very act of labeling yourself may be used to justify staying stuck in a personal rut. However, tests can provide useful information to enable you to perform a kind of gap analysis of your strengths and weaknesses—and from there you can design your own interventions, and make changes to expand the range of your skills.
Using the Greorc for yourself
I happen to be very high concrete random which means that I don’t necessarily arrange data in linear fashion, but connect the dots for myself. One of my clients said to me years ago, “God, Erwin, your ideas can be off the wall, so occasionally you’ll have to tell me how you got there from here.” Furthermore, like many creatives, I can let data slip between the cracks. It’s unusual for a PhD to be random, and, of course, I had to make some thinking changes to earn that research doctorate. Since 40% of my clients have been technology people, the majority of whom are quite sequential, you can be certain that I’ve adjusted to an extreme linear model.
Using the Gregorc with others
As you gain familiarity with your own preferences, you’ll quickly learn that you can identify other’s preferences. Since most business people are fairly detailed and incremental in their thinking and communicating, I’ve learned to get out of my comfort zone and adapt to that style. With just a basic understanding of a person’s preferences, it’s possible to figure out what strengths and weaknesses they’re liable to have on a project, and build a supportive team around the weaknesses. You’ll know, for example, that strongly random people may be fairly effective at marketing ideas, and that sequentials tend to be quite thorough.
Although 95% of corporate managers tend to be concrete rather than abstract, you’ll wish you had a few experienced abstract thinkers around to satisfy your big-picture needs and help you think more solidly about strategy. People can learn to think big-picture when they put their mind and resources to it, but you won’t find many at lower levels. That kind of learning requires experience with successful big-picture people, so you’ll want to protect and develop them when you find someone with that preference.
Let’s get real. There is no fully, well-rounded person in business, so it’s very important to identify complimentary preferences, and access those people for your own managerial and personal success.
I worked, on one occasion, with an EVP of one of the largest firms in America. She showed herself to be merely an average manager of people and knew little about strategy. But she was highly successful. It took me a while to figure out how. After building a relationship with one of her directors, I revealed how I saw his boss. He chuckled and said that I was spot-on. Why was she the EVP of that group? She was a genius at selling multi-million dollar contracts to leading health-care organizations. Once her group had updated her on an organization’s possible needs, she could tie up a sale in the neighborhood of $10 to $50 million with little difficulty. She was a smart executive with a team that made up for her weaknesses.
Once you understand how you and others process information, make decisions, learn and communicate, you can begin to expand the repertoire of skills and aptitudes needed for particular problems.