Personality Impacts Leadership EffectivenessArticle by Maynard Brusman, April 5, 2019
Personality Impacts Leadership
Despite all of the resources available to leaders today – books, articles, seminars, coaching and training programs – employees remain dissatisfied with leadership, their jobs and the future. After decades of attention paid to building better leaders, overall workforce distaste and distrust show little improvement. The managerial mindset is also stagnant.
Only 28% of executives think their leaders’ decisions are generally good, reveals a 2009 McKinsey & Company Global Survey. Trends in trust, loyalty and employee satisfaction would point upward if the solution was as simple as improving leadership techniques or corporate practices.
Traditional approaches to leadership development merely scratch the surface. The real issues occur at foundational levels and are remedied only when directly addressed. Methods and practices are important, but companies benefit only when they delve into leadership personality.
The Complexities of Personality
Researchers have exposed a profound truth: While stock prices, market share and material assets are important, softer factors determine true organizational strength. Employee engagement, job satisfaction and creativity play greater roles in performance, effectiveness and profitability.
Leadership personality and style are the most crucial factors in organizational strength, asserts psychologist and leadership consultant Ron Warren, PhD, in Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017). Human personality traits have remained constant throughout history, so any progress in leadership training depends on addressing them.
The spectrum of human personality is extremely complex, with experts debating its intricacies and nuances. Dr. Warren cites five behavioral traits that determine whether leaders will be beneficial or detrimental to their organizations. Each includes a pair of opposing behaviors:
- Openness to other ideas / cautious or distrusting of other ideas
- Conscientious about their impact / careless about their impact
- Extroverted, people-oriented / introverted, socially uncomfortable
- Agreeable, cooperative / argumentative, confrontational
- Confident, at peace / neurotic, nervous
Every leader is an amalgam of these behaviors, which are demonstrated verbally and nonverbally. Each leader is a unique “personality package,” exhibiting these behaviors along a spectrum.
Dr. Warren harnesses the power of these behaviors to identify four key personality dimensions that affect organizational success:
- Social intelligence and teamwork (a positive trait)
- Deference (negative)
- Dominance (negative)
- Grit/task mastery (positive)
Socially intelligent leaders are known for their interpersonal skills, relational aptitude and positivity. These personality traits are most beneficial to leading people effectively. Employees are drawn to leaders who show them they’re valued. Alternatively, leaders who lack these traits are detrimental to their organizations’ well-being.
Sociability comes easily to socially intelligent, people-oriented leaders. Relationships are important to them, and interactions allow them to express care, kindness and support. They regard people as more than resources; they’re coworkers, even family.
Socially intelligent leaders treasure genuine personal connections. Communication skills are more critical to organizational effectiveness than IQ or past accomplishments, emphasizes Alex “Sandy” Pentland, PhD, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, in “The New Science of Building Teams” (Harvard Business Review, April 2012). Unfortunately, most leaders aren’t recruited or promoted for their communication skills.
Socially intelligent leaders are also helpful, and they consider caring for people to be a duty. They’re highly sensitive and focus on others, putting staff interests before their own. They aim to meet people’s needs in the spirit of unity and consensus.
Leaders who are socially intelligent are open to feedback. They’re humble and flexible enough to value others’ views. This inclusive, interactive approach to leadership draws people to them with engagement. Employees who work for open-minded leaders feel valued, which boosts morale and productivity.
The socially intelligent personality is clearly beneficial to organizations. Leaders who struggle with social intelligence have strained careers, but they can learn to shift their mindset toward the relational end of the scale. Outcomes are greatly enhanced when leaders take the time to engage people, show interest in them and develop mutual understanding. People respond favorably when they trust a leader’s motives and authenticity. Social intelligence cannot be faked; people easily see through such efforts. The consequences for faking it can be brutal.
The Deference Dilemma
Deference in leadership presents as complacency or a lack of assertiveness. Leaders who defer to others seek to avoid confrontation and approach their role with passivity. Overly humble or timid, they struggle with an inner turmoil that creates problems for their organizations. Deference can be attributed to ongoing challenges, a sense of futility or disdain for parts of the job.
These leaders ultimately become needy. They seek affirmation, try to fit in and crave acceptance. They often compromise to keep the peace and work overtime to avoid rocking the boat.
Leaders who defer yearn for safety and hope to avoid intimidating situations. They shy away from taking a stand, are better followers than leaders, and respond reactively rather than proactively. Work is severely compromised in a setting that appears peaceful, but which actually lacks direction, determination and vision. Staffers endure significant stress as they question their purpose and future.
Deference increases leaders’ internal tension, anxiety and self-doubt. As problems mount, they take on a life of their own, overshadowing day-to-day activities. A vicious cycle develops: Problems diminish leaders’ confidence, making their next responses less effective and causing new problems to be increasingly severe.
Self-assessment is ineffective in this situation. Without professional assistance, leaders cannot evaluate their issues, make necessary adjustments, or overcome their biases and blind spots. They must work with a trusted colleague, mentor or experienced executive coach to overcome their deferential tendencies.
Leaders can learn that a more definitive style mitigates many troubles. They can become more effective by adopting a more independent, confident mindset, thereby reducing anxiety and avoidance.
Of the four key personality dimensions, dominance has the greatest potential to impede organizational effectiveness. Self-centered by nature, dominant leaders need to control everyone and everything around them. While their passion, decisiveness and drive have occasional benefits, their inflexibility and overbearing nature are extremely harmful.
When passion becomes all-out competitiveness, a win-at-all-cost philosophy spreads. Winning over circumstances is one thing; winning over challengers or rivals is another. Leaders bent on defeating those who stand in their way can debilitate—or even destroy—a company. Emotionality leads to poor judgment, irrational decisions and potentially devastating outcomes.
Dominant leaders are intrinsically hostile, resentful and prone to feeling persecuted. Employees won’t tolerate poor treatment, nor should they. A rise in turnover may signal that a dominant leader is on the loose.
Dominant personalities are also rigid, stubborn and always want to be right. Once their minds are made up, they generally won’t budge. When challenged, they argue and try to shut people down. People find them to be insufferable and won’t put up with them for long. These leaders make business matters personal, exhibiting an opinionated, pushy or authoritarian style.
Dominance is the fastest way to defeat your staff and drive them away. Behavior must be addressed before consequences become irreparable. Training and coaching can help maintain leadership drive and zeal, while keeping ego-driven excesses in check.
Anger management training may be another option. Counseling aimed at increasing flexibility, agreeableness and accountability has benefited many dominant leaders. Dominance is certainly a challenging behavior, but leaders have more control over it than they think. Valued colleagues or a professional coach can help with ongoing feedback and reformative exercises.
Dominant leaders can learn to let their people breathe, function, share ideas and talk openly. With guidance, they can depersonalize issues and refrain from feeling attacked. Once they value unity as a vehicle for success, they’ll be motivated to monitor the self-sabotaging behaviors that inhibit it.
Leaders with grit—or “task mastery,” as Dr. Warren calls it—focus on execution and achievement, promoting and upholding high standards. They have a strong drive to succeed, are group-focused and pride themselves on being strongly motivational.
Personal initiative, ambition and a desire to make a difference characterize these leaders, who love to solve problems and set worthy team goals. Their people are drawn to their strength, determination and confidence.
Leaders with grit have the greatest success in engaging people (as long as they avoid setting unrealistic expectations). They’re extremely conscientious and disciplined, keenly aware of what’s best, what’s right and why. These organized and detail-oriented leaders understand the consequences of their actions and strive to provide the best outcomes for their people and organizations.
Curiosity motivates them to enjoy learning, thinking and creating, so it’s no surprise they’re born innovators who attract like-minded people. They can, however, get carried away with excitement and lose track of their leadership responsibilities. Surrounding themselves with administrative thinkers can help them avoid this trap.
Those who lack grit can work with colleagues, mentors or professional coaches to increase initiative, focus on achievement, work on planning and goal-setting, and create a vision worth pursuing. As these new skills become habits, very little prompting will be necessary. Their newfound desire for achievement will be contagious.
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist & Executive Coach
Trusted Leadership Advisor
Professional Certified Coach (PCC), International Coach Federation
Board Certified Coach (BCC)
I coach emotionally intelligent and mindful leaders to cultivate trust and full engagement in a purpose-driven culture who produce results.
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Tags: , leadership personality, coaching, communication skills, emotional intelligence, executive coaching, leadership development, mindful leadership