Personality is a major factor to the workplace–understanding not just how your own personality affects the way you act and the decisions you make, but how the personalities of the people you interact with daily inform their behavior and your relationship to them. But some of us are better at reading and reacting to personality than others.
University of New Hampshire psychologist, John D. Mayer calls this ability personal intelligence. Mayer, author of the book Personal Intelligence has studied personality for years, developing a test to let people measure and better understand their own personal intelligence.
“If we can fathom what’s going on in our own personalities, we can make better choices,” says Mayer. “Personal intelligence is a sort of guidance system that can say, ‘How is my system functioning and who am I? How is that person’s system functioning and who are they?'”
Mayer spoke with Fast Company about elements of personal intelligence and its importance in the workplace.
Many times the conversation about personality focuses on whether people are introverted or extroverted. But while that characteristic can tell you a lot about yourself and others, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Irrespective of how introverted or extroverted you are, says Mayer, you can have varying degrees of personal intelligence. “It doesn’t matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, just as when you are playing in poker, it doesn’t matter what your hand is, but rather, how well you play that hand over time,” says Mayer.
He’s talking about the ability to recognize more subtle differences in people’s personalities, which can tell you a lot about individuals. For example, people vary when it comes to how “excitement seeking” they are. Recognizing this quality about the people you manage or work with can help you have a better understanding of the way they make decisions. “Some people like to take more risk while others are extremely cautious,” says Mayer.
A mental model is an explanation of the thought process a person uses when moving through the world. Everyone’s mental models are different because they’re founded in different experiences from the past. When you try to understand other people’s mental models, you attempt to make sense of why they behave the way they do. We all do this to a certain degree.
For example, you may know not to make a particular joke in front of your partner that you’d make with a coworker because you understand your partner wouldn’t see the joke in the same way. Being an accurate reader of how people’s personalities affect your interactions with them, means taking a step back to ask: “Where is this person coming from that makes him or her think this way?”
“We need to understand very well what’s driving us and the models we are using,” says Mayer. “To understand those mental models through which people look at things is a very deep way of understanding personality.”
When you meet someone for the first time, what personality traits do you tend to notice first? Some people pick up on whether the person they’re talking to is cold versus warm; others are judging them on whether they are competent versus incompetent or social versus reclusive. Becoming conscious of the personality traits you tend to notice first and then allowing yourself to think beyond those traits is one way to better assess and respond to personality. “I don’t know that we can raise personal intelligence,” says Mayer. “But we can surely get better at understanding people and understanding ourselves.”
One good place to start is thinking of people’s personalities in terms of the “Big Five” personality traits:
- Extraversion: How talkative, energetic, and assertive a person might be.
- Agreeableness: How sympathetic, kind or affectionate is this person?
- Conscientiousness: How organized and plan-oriented someone might be.
- Neuroticism: How tense or moody vs. emotionally stable is this person?
- Openness to new ideas: How imaginative, open-minded and insightful someone is.
One thing Mayer’s research has shown is that people who are able to better understand and react to people’s personalities tend to be happier in the workplace. “We find that on the job people with higher personal intelligence are happier and more likely to appear agreeable and helpful to more people,” says Mayer.
But understanding the various dimensions of people’s personalities isn’t a simple task. Mayer and colleagues are now in the process of assessing data and trying to figure out what specific qualities might be predictors of people’s personal intelligence and vice versa. “People are very complicated,” says Mayer. “Mostly we are all making mistakes at this, but some of us make more mistakes at it than others. We are all going to rush into the wrong situation based on our personality.”