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Improving Leadership by Understanding Personality Tendencies

Prevent conflict, improve teamwork, and enable belonging in the lab

by
Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Lab scientists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities. It is the lab manager’s responsibility to equitably lead all of these different people to deliver on the lab’s mission. An improved understanding of personality styles can be a significant tool for lab managers to prevent conflict, improve teamwork, and enable belonging in the lab. 

All people have some natural preferences in their personality. Understanding the basics of personality type can help lab managers to address the root of many interpersonal conflicts. Since these tendencies are natural preferences, many people don’t think much about them and look for other, more divisive reasons for conflict around the lab.

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There are many tools to illustrate the differences in human personalities. People are too complex to be perfectly described by these tools, but even with their imperfections, they can be very useful to lab managers to understand the actions, decisions, and behaviors of lab staff. When used properly, these tools can help identify the roots of some conflicts and help staff understand each other better.

Understanding the basics of personality type can help lab managers to address the root of many interpersonal conflicts.

One tool that can help lab managers explore human personality types is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). MBTI identifies preferences through four pairs of personality types. All combinations of types are valuable. The types don’t explain everything and should never be used to limit people or as an excuse for poor behavior. To get started, a shorter and simpler version of the MBTI test is available from 16Personalities at www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test.

The MBTI type pairs

    Introvert (I) or Extrovert (E). Introverts tend to get energy when alone and spend energy when interacting with groups. Extroverts tend to gain energy from interacting with others and spend energy when working alone.

    Intuitive (N) or Sensing (S). Intuiters are content to view the world through theories and abstract big pictures. They will rely on hunches when making decisions. Sensors view the world through their five senses and focus on facts and details.

    Thinking (T) or Feeling (F). Thinkers focus on objective logic and analysis in decision-making. Feelers prioritize people’s feelings and seek harmony in decision-making.

    Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). Judgers are structured and decisive decision-makers who seek closure and have a sense of urgency. Perceivers seek options and are more spontaneous and flexible in decision-making.

The differences in how different MBTI types see the world, interact with others, and make decisions lead to conflicts in the lab.

Conflicts around delivery

A common conflict in the lab is between J-type scientists who value delivering results on time versus P-type scientists who value delivering the right answer. Both have the stakeholder in mind. Both are doing their best to serve the best interests of the report recipient. However, they can be in conflict driven by their natural preferences. The J-type will accuse the P-type that they don’t care about deadlines and aren’t accountable to the lab’s turnaround time commitments. The P-type will accuse the J-type of rushing to deliver an incomplete outcome and don’t care about the quality of the results. Both have some of the truth, but in the absence of an understanding of personality types, they will find other, more sinister motivations in the other side. 

Lab managers can prevent these conflicts by educating staff to natural preferences and forming diverse teams that include both types. By including both types, they can map a delivery plan that optimizes both the schedule and the completeness of the report, taking advantage of the strengths of both types. 

Conflicts around decisions

Another common conflict in the lab is between T-type scientists and F-type scientists over the impact of decisions on staff. While there tend to be more F-types in the whole population, many labs have a majority of T-types. Some labs have very few F-types. As key decisions are made in the lab, T-types are much more likely to focus on the whole range of objective data that is available. The F-types will focus first on the impact on the people and the lab’s harmony. T-type scientists are likely to accuse the F-types that they are unscientific and using subjective data. The F-type scientists will likely respond that the T-types are uncaring and unsupportive.

It is important to get feedback from individuals about the roles they are asked to perform.

Much like the friction between judgers and perceivers, educating staff about personality types can help to avoid conflict between T- and F-type staff. Bringing both strengths together, the lab can benefit from this form of diversity. One solution to this kind of conflict is to adopt a Z-model for making big decisions in the lab. Start by emphasizing S-type skills by collecting the pertinent data and facts about the situation. Once the facts are settled, enable N-types to create options that might be effective in creating solutions. Do a first pass of the options focused on T-type thinking to reduce the options to ones that may be the most successful. Finally, review the final solutions with an F-type approach to assess the impact on the lab staff. By enabling different approaches to the different parts of the problem-solving process, individuals can use their strengths to help the lab find the very best options and solutions.

Conflicts around roles

Introverts and extroverts can have significant conflict around different roles, especially when those actions involve working with outsiders, public speaking, and brainstorming. Extroverts will tend to gain energy meeting new people and thinking out loud during brainstorming sessions. Extroverts might be more inclined to work in roles that require broad teams, interacting with other organizations, and jointly developing new ideas. Introverts, however, have to spend energy in those situations. They might be happier taking individual action items to complete, working in smaller, trusted teams, and submitting well-considered ideas to help find solutions. 

It is important to get feedback from individuals about the roles they are asked to perform. Having the flexibility in the lab to do some job crafting enables people to customize their roles to use their strengths and preferences. Job crafting can significantly improve team delivery and morale.

An improved understanding of personality types can help lab managers include all of the personality diversity in the lab to helping drive the science and the lab’s mission to greater success. At the same time, this knowledge helps to reduce and prevent conflicts based on natural preferences and replaces it with cooperation and understanding.