Humans have a remarkable capacity to understand what other people are doing.
This plays an important role in our ability to strategize about what the other side is likely to do in a negotiation and to make sense of why the people we work with act as they do.
The most common way we do this is by imagining ourselves in someone else’s position.
But the problem with simulating other people’s behavior by imagining what we would do is that there are systematic ways that other people differ from us. These differences lead to errors in our predictions about how other people will act.
One of the most obvious ways that people differ is in their core personality characteristics. Personality reflects relatively stable differences in the goals that people are motivated to pursue. If you understand the core dimensions of personality, then you can use that information to assess the characteristics of the people you work with. When you know their personality profile, you can make better predictions about what they will do.
A great place to start is with what personality psychologists call the Big Five personality characteristics. These traits reflect the most prominent ways that people differ from each other.
The Big Five traits are:
Extroversion reflects the degree to which people like to be the center of attention in social situations. Extroverts want that spotlight shown on them, while introverts shun the spotlight (though they typically have many friends and like engaging in smaller interactions).
Agreebleness reflects how much people want others to like them. People with agreeable personalities really want others to like them, while disagreeable people do not necessarily care whether others like them. Agreeable people have difficulty delivering bad news, giving criticism, and standing up for themselves to others.
Conscientious people are driven to complete the tasks they start and to follow rules. We often notice conscientious people, because they are likely to finish the tasks we give them. It is easy to undervalue the people low in conscientiousness, because they need a lot of supervision. However, those low in conscientiousness may try creative solutions to problems, because they do not feel the need to follow rules.
Openness reflects people’s willingness to consider new ideas. People who are open will try new ideas on for size, while those closed to experience will typically reject new ideas just because they are new.
Emotional stability reflects the amount of energy flowing through the motivational system. That energy reflects itself in the emotional reactions that people have to successes and failures. Emotionally stable individuals are stoic. They are unfazed by circumstances. Emotionally unstable individuals experience significant highs and lows in their lives. This instability can cause difficulties in the workplace when people get angry or upset at others.
To become better at understanding the people around you, start with these five dimensions. Watch their behavior, and get to know how they differ. Use that understanding to begin to predict how these individuals will react differently to situations than you would have. You can also use this knowledge of their personality to find tasks and settings in which your co-workers are likely to excel.
One thing you should note about these dimensions is that most people fall in between these extremes. That is, there are few pure introverts or extroverts. Instead, people have a combination of both traits in them. That is one reason to be wary of personality tests (like the MBTI) that categorize people along a set of dimensions. Those tests will make you believe that people are more extreme in their personality traits than they really are.
Finally, these five dimensions are just the most prominent of many that influence the way people act in the workplace. Learn about other key traits like Narcissism, Need for Cognition, and Need for Closure. There are many great resources out there (including my own e-book Habits of Leadership). The more you learn, the more effectively you can work with others.