How To Manage Thinkers, And Feelers, Effectively

Your management style must flex to accommodate both the thinkers and the feelers in your office—even if their approaches to work are worlds apart.

Your success—and fulfillment—as a manager is neatly encased in one bite-size nugget:

Be who you are, just flex your style to manage others.

Flexing your style means being versatile in how you lead, communicate, and motivate. A tough approach propels one employee; mild-mannered encouragement inspires another. Being flexible requires proficiency in a range of techniques, to draw upon as needed.

This does not require disregarding your own temperament. It means maximizing rapport with others while maintaining your core of integrity.

Flexing your style does not mean holding people to varying standards—accountability remains consistent across the board. All that changes is how you manage and motivate different personality styles, particularly between thinkers or feelers.

Flexing requires customizing your communication to motivate different staff members. If you are a feeler, you need to behave as an off-the-chart thinker at times to accomplish your feeler mission statement. You can become so skilled at impersonating a thinker that an innocent bystander may confidently proclaim you to be a thinker. Yet you remain a feeler at your core, flexing your style brilliantly.

So what's the difference between a thinker and a feeler? And how can you tell who is who on your team?

Listen For Clues

For beginners, the first level is to listen for the frequency with which a staff member uses variations of the words think and feel. In conversation, these words are nearly always technically interchangeable.

As you tune in to the use of these primary words (think, thought, versus feel, felt), you will be amazed at the consistency with which many people favor one over the other. This is a solid clue for those on either end of the thinker/feeler continuum.

Sample words favored by thinkers:

  • Principles
  • Fairness
  • Analysis
  • Consistency
  • Validity
  • Rationale

Sample words favored by feelers:

  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Caring
  • Sensitivity
  • Intensity
  • Harmony

The next step is to practice both languages so you become equally conversant in both, with the ability to speak in thinker or feeler at will. With practice, you can match language in important conversations. For example, in an annual performance review with a thinker, shift into thinker language to ensure your message is heard.

Potential Problems

What comes naturally, with no effort, to those at one end of the temperament spectrum can take much conscious effort for those at the other end. Although one workplace interaction may roll off a thinker's back, the same event may upset or confuse an feeler, and vice versa.

When managing these personality types, keep in mind the potential for the following flare-ups:

Thinkers may:

  • lack awareness of the impact of their tone
  • make decisions solely based on logic
  • be unaware or unconcerned with interpersonal discord
  • value what is "true" over what is subjectively best for the team

Feelers may:

  • be particularly sensitive to conflict
  • make decisions based on relationships
  • react with strong feelings to interpersonal challenges
  • value what is "good" over what is objectively best for the team

If you are an auditory person, listening for the frequency of thinker and feeler language will be especially useful in identifying style preferences. Another way to identify thinkers and feelers is through visual clues.

Natural Habitat

A good place to collect visual cues about personality style is in the work environment. Begin by taking a peek at a few workspaces as you mosey down the hall.

The natural habitat of a feeler will usually have at least a few photographs, more likely many. It doesn't matter if they are old or recent, family or friends. Feelers are also likely to display certificates earned for one-day trainings or long-outdated events. Often a favorite quote is framed or just taped to the computer monitor for frequent reference.

Thinkers' work environments are quite different. I have entered clients' offices that appear recently moved into. To be more specific, not yet moved into. Any intended wall hangings stand leaning against the wall. There are virtually no personal items whatsoever.

Welcome to the thinker's natural habitat. This lack of decoration can be so extreme that one is tempted to wonder whether this is a shared workspace or the thinker is here only temporarily while his real office is renovated. Go ahead and ask. No worries. The question won't hurt the thinker's feelings. I've fallen for this misconception several times. More often than not, the response will be along the lines of what I heard from a vice president in global development: "No, this is my office. [Laughs.] I moved to this site about eighteen months ago. I keep meaning to put stuff up, just haven't had the time. I'm not in here much anyway."

Don't be fooled. The supposed stuff won't be up for display on your next visit either.

Why such an activity? Because in addition to awareness and sensitivity to differences, building cohesion among coworkers is one of the best things you can do for your team.

Flex your style to meet thinkers and feelers where they are—don't expect others to have the communication acuity to meet you halfway.

Adapted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, from Managing for People Who Hate Managing: Be a Success By Being Yourself by Devora Zack. Copyright (c) 2012 Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[Image: Flickr user Christa Lohman]

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12 Comments

  • Karen

    What a poorly researched article. Feelers are not personal and thinkers impersonal. Nor do thinkers and feelers decorate their office as described. And many questions do hurt thinkers feelings.

    Sounds to me like the author is a feeler who has "issues" with people unlike her. And certainly no expert in temperament or type.

    Please don't take the advice in the article, and instead read many of the great books published about effectively using the MBTI in the workplace.

  • Nathan Jensen

    I feel like some of these tools are overly simplistic.  Determining who is a thinker and who is a feeler based on vocabulary words and overall appearance is only going to help you find the most ardent thinkers and the most sensitive feelers.  In terms of Meyer-Briggs Personality Types, the Thinking-Feeling indicator is the 2nd most mutable characteristic (after Judging-Perceiving).  By the language rubric I could easily be mistaken for a thinker, but judging by the photos of my family in my office, I'm also a classic feeler.  Not so simple an issue.

  • Karen

     @Nathan - Your comment that "judging by the photos of my family in my
    office, I'm also a classic feeler." is exactly why this article is
    problematic. It does the MBTI a disservice by making erroneous statement
    that people then carry forward as knowledge, like you did. Having
    family photos in your office doesn't make you someone with a preference
    for feeling any more than not having photos makes you someone with a
    preference for thinking. Nor does the MBTI in any way support those
    statements.

  • Jarma

    I find it difficult to work with 'Feelers'.  In my experience, Feelers are highly sensitive and insecure.  I like the fact that I can talk with fellow Thinkers without feeling like I have to audit or carefully choose every word for fear of offending the person I'm communicating with.  There's a great quote in the section entitled Potential Problems: "Thinkers may value what is true over what is subjectively best for the team."  What's the alternative? To disregard the truth for the sake of harmony?  Does not compute.

  • Jthiare

    I'll respectfully disagree. I am a feeler who is also an effective straight-shooter - keeping it real with my staff and co-workers. Like everything else personalities and workstyles aren't black and white.

  • John McCormack

    The best way to identify the Feelers and Thinkers in your organization is through the use of personality assessment.  Learn not only who the Feelers and Thinkers are, but where along the spectrum between those polar opposites they lie.  Some people are balanced, some are extreme and the rest are somewhere in between.

  • Deepika

    Of my personal experiences, I have seen that most of the times, people are a mix of both.. how do we tackle them, becomes an extremely sensitive question.. 

  • Jerri Gillean

    I love your 'bite sized nugget'.  Fundamental communication theory says that 90% of communication is in the receiver.  Great managers need to be great communicators to really get the most out of their people.

  • Dan Ryan

    This article has some great thoughts and cues to use when managing people with different preferences.
    I have had the opportunity, as a recovering engineer, to see this from multiple viewpoints and being able to speak in both "languages" can be the difference between success and abject failure.

  • David Germain

    "The natural habitat of a feeler will usually have at least a few photographs, more likely many. It doesn't matter if they are old or recent, family or friends. Feelers are also likely to display certificates earned for one-day trainings or long-outdated events. Often a favorite quote is framed or just taped to the computer monitor for frequent reference.
    Thinkers' work environments are quite different. I have entered clients' offices that appear recently moved into. To be more specific, not yet moved into. Any intended wall hangings stand leaning against the wall. There are virtually no personal items whatsoever."

    I have tools all over and a label that says 'CAKE'