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Reading your team: understanding the personality and perspective of your team members

“That’s what I am saying the whole time”

“Yes! Me too”

Have you ever had the infuriating experience of ending a long debate with a team member only to realise that you were agreeing the whole time? Almost certainly there was a lack of understanding from one or both sides.

Sometimes our misunderstanding comes from miscommunication. Miscommunication from using a poor selection of words, providing conflicting or badly presented information, or giving confusing analogies and examples. Or maybe the misunderstanding sits somewhat deeper. In that case we understand what the other person is saying but we don’t understand how they come to their conclusions.

There is no loss of information or facts. Everyone understands the details of the discussion. But we each arrive at a different decision, course of action or response. How does that happen?

We are all human and one of the most beautiful things about being human is that we are all different. Think about things like gender, age, nationality, education, culture, religious views, and family upbringing. So many possible differences. Combine that with preferences, personality, and past experiences we have each had in our life up until that point. It becomes clear that there really is no one like you.

But we know that right? Well… maybe. As people we all experience a phenomenon called Consensus Bias. Consensus Bias is the assumption that other people think, feel, believe and behave like we do. We know this isn’t true, but it’s a state of mind that we naturally return to.

Here is one of my repeat experiences of Consensus Bias: I love coming up with new ideas, I love to try out new things and I am not afraid of change. I get myself into trouble when I engage with team members out of that assumption that everyone is like me. When in reality many people dislike change and might even find new ideas frightening at first.

With that the first ‘team member’ we need to understand is in fact ourselves. What do we value most? How do we define success/failure? What do we need from others we work with? We then need to apply Consensus Bias in reverse; assuming others are NOT like ourselves.

If they are not like us, then what are they like? Exactly! This is the foundational question that drives our journey of getting to know and understand our team members. What do they value most? How do they define success/failure? What do they need in being part of a team?

Our ability to understand team members is directly tied to the depth of relationship we have together. If we share a deeper relationship then naturally, we understand more of each other’s preferences, values, needs, styles of expression, tendencies (both positive and negative) as well as their fears, concerns, past hurts and more.

One person I served on a team with was super relational. They needed time connecting personally before engaging in the business of the team. If we had a lot on for the coming team meetings then I would look to engage that person in the days before in personal conversation. Someone else I served with was a very practically minded person. Over time I learnt to not take offense when they asked critical questions to new ideas, and instead think through some of the obvious questions through before bringing up a new idea.

Are we actively perusing relationship with team members? When was the last time you had coffee or a meal with someone from your team? Do you know your team members’ life stories? Are you aware of the season of life each member is in now?

We need to keep in mind the holistic nature of people in our journey of building relationships. Their role on a team is only a small part of their life. Do you know your team members’ families, their spouses or children? How do they express their faith or spirituality? What do they do as hobbies, or to relax? Our understanding of our team members will grow as our relationship with them grows.

As we get to know people we work with, our assumption that they are different from us is confirmed. Maybe even to a greater extent than we have guessed. Thankfully those differences are a good thing. Awareness of our differences can leave us in a better place to ask good questions, to seek broader perspective, experience open dialogue and reduce team blind spots. Our strength as a team increases with diversity of team members as each brings their unique personality and perspective into the team.

My hope is that as our understanding of our different personality and perspectives grows, so too does the way we value that difference, to the point of celebrating the breadth of diversity in our teams.

Maybe some of you reading this are looking for concrete next steps in developing understanding of others on your team. Below I have included two points that might be helpful. Again, nothing will substitute authentic relationships, however, these points might help give you a starting point.

Use tools

There are a wide variety of tools you could use with your team to facilitate getting to know aspects of each other more deeply. The value in tools is really in getting help to start the conversation and in establishing some shared language within a team. It is important to remember that, while tools might give us initial insight into ourselves and one another, no tool can completely or with full accuracy represent a person. Results from tools also need to be discussed as a team to gain the benefit of turning the insights provided into actual deeper understanding of team members.

Some tools include: Myers-Briggs, Belbin Team Roles, Enneagram Types, DISC Profiles, Strength Finders

Team Building

People are complex. Sometimes even those team members we feel like we really know can still surprise us. Suddenly getting excited, or perhaps fearful of something we would never expect. That can often happen when we have only experienced team members in a fixed context and are then trying to function together in a new situation, environment, challenge, or team setting.

A major aid in the journey of getting to know team members can be to build in regular times of intentional team building. Keeping the same team together but change the context with the purpose to experience team members differently.

Team building can often be viewed by team members (and often by leaders too) as silly, embarrassing, inconvenient, expensive, unproductive. And it is true the immediate benefit isn’t obvious, but the increased understanding of one another will, most certainly, add value in the long-term. 

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