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Personalities into Teams PUBLIC ACCESS

We Take Different Approaches to Problems, and the Best Solutions are Achieved by the Greatest Diversity.

[+] Author Notes

Doug Wilde is emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

Mechanical Engineering 132(02), 22-25 (Feb 01, 2010) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2010-Feb-1

This article discusses the significance of psychologically diverse individuals in the success of a team. As technology advances, products are increasingly being designed in the commercial world by teams of skilled collaborators. Each team member is chosen to bring a specific range of skills and experience to bear on the mission, and each contributor is essential to a successful outcome. Some studies suggest that performance improves when a team pays attention to its individual personalities. The basic principle learned, which may apply in corporations as well as universities, is that in the long run teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it takes longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve smooth communications and good cooperation. Before diverse team members can be integrated into a cooperative unit, they must not only cultivate an openness to opposing opinions, but also recognize the value of exploring a problem from various angles. Sharing personality information about each other facilitates this essential awareness.

It has become a generally accepted premise that our world—or at least the technology we use in it—is increasing in complexity. Smart cellphones, touch-screen ATMs, personal robots, labs on a chip—all those things and many more are intended to make our world easier and more fun to negotiate. In general, the easier the devices are for us to use, the more sophisticated they have to be.

The design of advanced medical devices, autonomous mechanisms, and tomorrow's technological miracles requires a cumulative knowledge that exceeds a single person's abilities. So as technology advances, products are increasingly being designed in the commercial world by teams of skilled collaborators. Each team member is chosen to bring a specific range of skills and experience to bear on the mission, and each contributor is essential to a successful outcome.

But it is not only different types of expertise that people bring to the task. They also have distinct personalities, and different ways of approaching and solving problems. The proper application of those traits can be as important as combined technical knowledge to a team's success.

What we are talking about is whether a person is introverted or extraverted, and which mental process one is inclined to use in finding answers to questions: sensing, intuition, thinking, or feeling. Many people may have the initial reaction that some of these characteristics are irrelevant, or perhaps disruptive, to meeting challenges that are primarily technical and scientific.

Informal studies at Stanford University strongly suggest, however, that all of these personality traits are indeed very relevant to a team's success. Almost a quarter-century of records of student design teams, mainly in Stanford University's mechanical engineering design program, indicate that performance improves when a team pays attention to its individual personalities. The basic principle learned, which may apply in corporations as well as universities, is that in the long run teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it takes longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve smooth communications and good cooperation.

Before diverse team members can be integrated into a cooperative unit they must not only cultivate an openness to opposing opinions but also recognize the value of exploring a problem from various angles. Sharing personality information about each other facilitates this essential awareness.

These and other principles have evolved from observing student project teams at work on realistic problems. Most compelling was the marked increase of design prizes awarded by the Lincoln Foundation to one course's teams over a ten-year period when no factors were changing except personality distribution. Personality information was determined by using an abbreviated form of the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

For the thirteen years preceding the decade of increases, a quarter of Stanford student design teams consistently won Lincoln awards. As recounted in the author's book, Teamology, this proportion was eventually tripled over ten years to the point where three-quarters of Stanford's teams won awards.

Especially convincing in a negative way was the one year in the middle of this period when students returned to composing their teams with no guidance from the personality questionnaire, just as in the thirteen years before the experimental decade. That one year, as in the earlier days, only a quarter of the teams won anything. But when questionnaire guidance was resumed in the year following, the prize yield tripled to three-quarters of the Stanford teams.

At first the causes of this substantial improvement were not well understood. The complete Myers-Briggs Type Indicator yields 16 type descriptions, too many to be convenient for constructing teams, so the questionnaire data had to be related to the underlying personality theory, which was developed by psychiatrist C. G. Jung. He partitioned the styles of human cognition into eight categories, later known as “cognitive modes”—essentially various ways of solving a problem creatively.

The key to good team performance then seemed to be to map each person's type indicator data onto Jung's cognitive modes. Four modes were extraverted sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling, and four were introverted sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling. They are the various ways in which individuals gather information and make decisions to solve problems. Each mode is a valid approach, and given the record of results, each one seems to be necessary.

Once it was known which mode or modes characterized each person (some people use more than one characteristic mode), it became possible in principle to form teams whose members could react appropriately to any problem encountered. Each cognitive mode has a keyword to summarize it. For instance, the Extraverted Sensing mode is keyed by “Experiment,” the discovery of new ideas and phenomena by direct experience.

Given the record of student teams, it seems reasonable then that information from personality questionnaires should be able to help managers predict worthwhile things about team behavior as well as performances of individuals on a team.

Corporations rarely have the flexibility enjoyed by universities to construct teams freely without considering rank, seniority, experience, or specialty. Yet any team can benefit from cognitive mode information about its members. Extremely valuable is a meeting devoted entirely to what might be called the “psychological organization” of the team. Everyone examines a chart or whiteboard displaying the team's “Mode Map” resembling Table 1. Then each member marks the cells corresponding to his or her preferred modes, making apparent which modes are covered—or missing.

Any unmarked cell identifies a mode for which no one has expressed preference on the questionnaire. There is some danger that matters associated with such an empty mode cell will be overlooked.

To prevent such a gap in the team's psychological make-up, the group is advised to examine together the description of the empty mode and resolve either to designate someone to pay attention to it constantly, or to take turns checking to ensure that the mode is not forgotten. Volunteering is encouraged, but if no one is inclined or competent to cover some important mode, outside participation from other teams or even from outside advisors—say, from the human resources department—may be called for.

Usually some modes will be preferred by several members simultaneously. With the help of the team, the duplicated members can decide whether to select a single person for the job or to share the responsibility. Some-times a more experienced duplicated person acts as mentor to a beginner. Sharing a mode may be made easier by referring to the “Role Map” of Table 2. There each mode has been partitioned into a pair of “roles” intended to identify specific tasks or skills associated with it.

Figure 1: Cognitive Modes

Each of eight cognitive modes that underlie the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can be summarized by a keyword. The Extraverted Sensing mode, for example, is keyed by “Experiment,” the discovery of ideas and phenomena by direct experience.

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 1: Cognitive ModesEach of eight cognitive modes that underlie the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can be summarized by a keyword. The Extraverted Sensing mode, for example, is keyed by “Experiment,” the discovery of ideas and phenomena by direct experience.

Figure 2: Team Roles

Each cognitive mode brings unique and necessary roles to a design team. The experimental bent of an Extraverted Sensing team member is the character of a tester and of a creator of prototypes for trial demonstration.

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 2: Team RolesEach cognitive mode brings unique and necessary roles to a design team. The experimental bent of an Extraverted Sensing team member is the character of a tester and of a creator of prototypes for trial demonstration.

If two people prefer the “Experiment” (Extraverted Sensing) mode, one might agree to concentrate on the more outgoing “Tester” role, leaving the more handson “Prototyper” role to the other. Working together, all teammates can assure a fair distribution of effort among themselves. This approach often brings out someone's previously unexpressed interest in some necessary role that can generate valuable experience for personal development. Overall, the psychological organization meeting guides team members into preferred activities in which they are likely to perform better. After the meeting each person knows what to expect not only from the others, but also from himself.

Managers may recognize this team role concept from the 1993 work of R. Merideth Belbin, Team Roles at Work (Butterworth-Heineman), who defined nine roles based on the results of a variety of psychological tests. His research dramatically demonstrated the ineffectiveness brought about by insufficient psychological diversity. The sixteen “teamology” roles in Table 2 put Belbin's ideas in a Jungian context identifiable from Myers-Briggs Type Indicator data.

Observation of graduate design teams and of sophomores doing short projects has identified several advantages of addressing cognitive modes. One advantage is to draw attention to the quieter introverted modes of knowledge, imagination, analysis, and evaluation, too often overshadowed by the more noticeable extraverted modes of experiment, ideation, organization, and community.

It often takes a questionnaire to find interest in such introverted activities. Consequently a good team procedure is to make sure every introverted mode is heard from in any group discussion.

Another advantage of identifying all the modes is that it increases use of the information collection modes (experimentation, ideation, knowledge, and imagination). These are sometimes unintentionally overlooked by managers tending to concentrate on the decision-making modes (organization, community, analysis, and evaluation). The scope—and effectiveness—of any team is broadened by paying attention to all eight of Jung's modes of cognition.

An organization meeting does more than just increase the efficacy of individual team members. It also raises the team's perceived COLLECTIVE efficacy. In a 1997 book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (New York, Freeman), psychologist Albert Bandura defines this perception as “a group's shared belief in its conjoint capacities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment.”

Although just having the organization meeting can generate some of this perception, having the assignments backed by a self-reporting personality instrument and a solid psychological theory greatly reinforces it. The enhanced team effectiveness observed may well be the product of each individual's increased understanding of his or her own roles on the team. Knowing that assignment to these roles has been guided by the individual's own preferences and the team's perceived needs should certainly generate a sense of capability and responsibility for those roles.

The Influence of Belief

According to Bandura the belief in one's own capabilities is important for every team member because “such beliefs influence the course of action people choose to pursue, how much effort they put forth in such endeavors, how long they will persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, their resilience to adversity, whether their thought patterns are self-hindering or self-aiding, how much stress and depression they experience in coping with taxing environmental demands, and the level of accomplishments they realize.” This sounds like something every manager would love to see strong in every member of every team.

The standard way for finding the modes corresponding to the Myers-Briggs categories was soon found to be impractically slow for grouping large numbers of students into teams, so an analytical spreadsheet method was developed. The new procedure turned out to be much better than the “Type Dynamics” approach used by certified Myers-Briggs practitioners. Not only did the new approach determine personalities more accurately, it also unveiled cognitive modes entirely overlooked by type dynamics. This additional mode information made covering all of a team's modes possible with fewer people. Put another way, it brought into play creative potentials that had previously been hidden.

It turns out then that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator really has twice as much power as had been attributed to it even by certified practitioners. The problem is not with the instrument. It has been rather the analysis of its data that has underused its innate power.

Corporate managers administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator through human resources professionals may therefore need to show them how to determine cognitive modes by the teamology transformation rather than by the “type dynamics” they were taught during certification.

A decade has elapsed now since Lincoln awards were used to evaluate the effectiveness of informal team experiments. Such comparisons had to end when the Design Division not only split off a Biomechanics Division with its own design course competing for prizes, but also began combining smaller teams with equally small teams from universities abroad. Although a theory for constructing such “superteams” has been formulated (Wilde, 2009 International Conference on Engineering Design, paper 106), it has yet to be tested because of communications, scheduling, and organizational difficulties.

Yet teamology has continued to develop even after the loss of the excellent measure of effectiveness provided by the Lincoln Foundation. At the University of California at San Diego, for instance, mechanical engineering professor Nathan Delson and Joan Connell of the psychology faculty conducted a double-blind experiment in 2004 with 150 lower-division science and engineering students divided into teams to pursue robotics projects. Some teams were formed using cognitive mode information and others were not. Only Connell knew how the teams were selected. Those in cognitively diverse groups said their teams felt less cohesive, but generally their projects were deemed more creative by Delson.

In 2007 the principles developed were tested on 195 freshman engineering students at Shanghai Jiao-Tong University in affiliation with the University of Michigan. Ninetyfive percent of their 38 quintets generated solutions at least worthy, in the author's opinion, of honorable mention by Lincoln standards. The morale boost to this entire engineering class was a welcome surprise that has implications for first-year engineering programs worldwide.

Preliminary experience with personality questionnaires has led to markedly improved performance of academic design teams as indicated by a noticeably increased fraction of prize-winning teams. Although corporate circumstances differ in many ways from those in the university, some of the academic experiences and ideas may help managers improve the effectiveness of their industrial teams.

Doug Wilde's book, Teamology: The Construction and Organization of Effective Teams, explains the use of cognition theory to build teams for group problem-solving, including the questionnaire and scoring methods used at Stanford. It was published in 2009 by Springer-Verlag London Ltd.

Wilde has also contributed a chapter to Emotional Engineering, a book edited by Shuichi Fukuda and due to be published by Springer-Verlag this year. The chapter expands on the scope of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and how to map it to Jung's personality theory.

Copyright © 2010 by ASME
Topics: Teams
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