Hacking Your Way through the Interpersonal Jungle

Article excerpt

The analysis of interpersonal styles is an integral part of many courses designed to improve communication with people in our business life- clients, prospects, direct reports, peers, and the executives to whom we report. I don't deny they have their place, but they are certainly not the cure all their developers would like to believe. The old admonition, "Be true to thyself," brought up to date with 20th century insights into the complexity of personality can go a long way in helping you understand and deal with the people you encounter in your business day. Let me explain.

Most assessment instruments had their origin in the theory of psychological types that Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung developed. The most popular instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), classifies human behavior on four scales: direction of energy (extraversion/introversion), information gathering (sensing/intuition), decision making (thinking/feeling), and dealing with the world (judging/perceiving).

One interpersonal instrument I wrestled with in a practice development workshop asked us to determine where we, our clients, and prospects fit on a scale based on power and emotion. The high end of power was assertive, the low end, receptive. The high end of emotion was responsive and the low end, reserved. To help us identify ourselves and others there were groups of words, such as "challenging," "fast-paced," and "demanding" for assertive; "outgoing," "approachable" and "warm" for responsive; and, of course, a corresponding group of words for their opposites-reserved and receptive. Points were assigned to these words, and the totals let you pinpoint yourself and some of your customers or prospects on vertical and horizontal scales of zero to 10. I forget whether I was high assertive and low responsive or the other way around.

In my experience, these interpersonal style models have limited value in dealing with people inside or outside an organization and may not be worth the time they occupy in a workshop. There are several reasons for this.

* They oversimplify personality and behavior. People seldom fit neatly into the categories of a particular assessment instrument. The traits that strike you as important may be best characterized in many ways. One person may have an inflated view of his or her capabilities, another may be subject to extreme mood swings, still a third may be extremely bright, no nonsense, and highly cost conscious.

* The styles types approach provides few descriptive clues to alert you to personality types. The analyzing type, for example, is reserved and controlled, supports the status quo, and is usually technically superior. These aids may not be applicable on the spot, that is, if you can remember them. Clues to behavior frequently appear in ways not included in the workshop-a tone of voice, a habit of constantly looking at a wristwatch, a desk covered with papers.

* The mesh or adjustment between your personality style and that of the person you manage or the prospect you're calling on doesn't fall neatly into categories. In the world of MyersBriggs, a person used to emphasizing facts and detail in a presentation should move to broader brush strokes when dealing with an intuitive type. But in the real world the choices are seldom as clearcut.

Assume the business practice developer is in his sixties with a few degrees behind him and his prospect is a brilliant streetwise entrepreneur half his age, with a whole range of baby boomer interests and preoccupations. What is the proper accommodation to make? Should the developer pretend interests in the Bulls, rock groups, or weekends in Vegas?

Be True to Yourself

The temptations to become a chameleon and to fit in with any group were explored in a landmark book, The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman written almost 50 years ago. In his book, Riesman points out even then our society was becoming "other directed. …