The Right Mix of Personalities Can Drive Teams to Great Achievement: The Wrong Derail Them

Feb 21, 2014 | Updated Apr 23, 2014

Look around the office. It's easy to describe the behaviors of those who travel the offices, meeting rooms and hallways. We can range from awesome to awful, and points in between. The right mix of personalities can drive teams to great achievement. The wrong mix can derail them.

Most of us focus on the external -- what our bosses and co-workers do and say. But relationships can benefit if we spend a little time on what is behind behavior -- the human wiring that makes up each of us.

A long-time HR executive told me that a strong culture, with clear values and expectations, creates guardrails. But every culture is a creature of the personalities that comprise it. "The rules tell us what behaviors are valued in a culture," he said, "and which ones are unacceptable. And most of us follow the rules. But within the guardrails, there is a lot of room for personality types to shape the workday. It's how those types come together that has a huge influence on the work experience."

Typing people, of course, is subjective at best and complex enough to keep a lot of psychologists in business.

To simplify, let's go old school. Sigmund Freud's thoughts on personalities evolved over time. But he boiled us down to three main types that are still heavily referenced today: erotics, obsessives and narcissists. Just going that far can be a useful exercise in relationship building.

I talked with a group of interviewees to get a look at how Freud translates to their experience in the office.

First, the erotics.

Erotics (not what you think) want to be loved and be loved in return. They would generally rather be liked than respected. They are concerned with others, and need acceptance. They forge deep bonds with colleagues. As managers, they are big on development, and they are quick with praise. But they tend to avoid conflicts that would disrupt connections.

Said one woman in marketing communications: "Looking back, I worked for three years in my first job for somebody who might have been a text book erotic. For somebody starting out, he was a fabulous boss. He pushed me to stretch my abilities. He gave me experiences. He gave me confidence. And he was always there with support. When you turned something in, you could pretty much count on one of his two go-to critiques: 'awesome' and 'outstanding.' But he had a hard time letting you know if something was bad. Over time, I figured out the code, if it's not awesome or outstanding, it's probably wrong. So I would go in and ask if he had any ideas to improve it."

Bottom line: erotics are great people to work with and for. You can trust them. They want you to succeed. They have your back. However, they may get overly attached and are uncomfortable with conflict. As bosses, they won't fire you unless they absolutely have to. As colleagues, they'll probably bring the doughnuts.

Obsessives live for the details and behave by the book. They set high standards, create order and enforce the rules. They push hard for continuous improvement. They tend to be superb on-time and on-budget managers, but can fall short in creating visions and executing abrupt turns of direction.

Another person I talked to remembers one well. "I think a person's obsessive tendencies are in direct relation to their affection for PowerPoint. It's like if you can't chart it, it's not real. I worked with a great guy who saved us a lot of times by catching details others missed. If he stated a fact, you could take it to the bank, and move on. But the presentations were brutal. Some of his slides looked like the wiring diagrams for a nuclear sub. And he liked to go through them line by line.

One of the women on the team told me as we were leaving one of the 'presentationathons': 'I think I just went through the change of life.'"

Bottom line: If you work for an obsessive, double check the numbers, source the facts, and know that he or she will find the typo in a 30 page report. If you work with one, and you're two hours into presentation, just remember that what they're saying is probably right - at least on the facts. The good news is that obsessives are coachable. They want things to be right, and they'll listen if you tell them they aren't. But you'll need examples and dates.

The narcissist is in many ways the most explosive of personality types - things change when a narcissist is in the room. It's said that every great thing and every disaster happens when a narcissist is in charge.

They are creative and determined -- natural leaders, often gifted with vision and the ability to rally people to a cause. They can also be disruptive and their self-obsessions can lead teams, companies and even economies over the cliff.

One of the managers I interviewed had been having trouble with her logistics unit boss for more than a year. She spent many hours analyzing her own performance, only to realize she wasn't the point. "I found my way to a Web site on personality disorders," she said, "and started reading about narcissists. And it all made sense. It was a list of what I was living with every day.

I understand now that narcissists don't give credit because there is room for only one person in the sunlight. From my own experience, I know they can't admit mistakes; they refuse to listen; they get angry if you disagree with them -- and anybody who does disagree can find themselves banished. They can be really hard on you if they think you're an inferior representation of the species. Even if they like and respect you (or at least act like they do,) they won't think twice about throwing you under the bus if it helps them get what they want."

Bottom line: Working with a narcissist can be distracting to irritating. Simple advice: if you have the leverage, don't play the game. Those non-stop details like their weekend cleaning out the garage are kind of dominance -- a decision that their desire to tell the story far outweighs any concern about whether you want to hear it. When dealing with a narcissist co-worker, direct confrontation is the only way to end your suffering.

Working for a narcissist can be a little more problematic. Their failings can be consumed by the blaze of their accomplishments. Steve Jobs publicly humiliated employees and parked in the handicapped spots. But he transformed six different industries.

Rule number one, remember: a true narcissist doesn't care about you; no matter what they may work very hard to have you believe. Empathy is just not in their emotional playbook. You are another moving part in a grand machine of their creation. And like all parts, you are replaceable.
Once you accept that, you can get strategic.

First, be self-reliant and good at what you do. Narcissists are notoriously poor at developing talent. Don't challenge the true narcissist - at least not directly. It won't work, and it could cost you big in the long run. That old virtue of telling truth to power may be dangerous, especially when the truth is bad news.

Also, find contentment in the shadows. Send all the credit in their direction because you likely won't be getting it anyway, and they will be unhappy if you do. Flattery works.

One very important thing to keep in mind. Don't wait for the narcissist to change. Psychologists know that narcissistic personality disorder is notoriously hard to treat. Those who believe they are perfect have little motivation to talk about change

Does adjusting to personalities mean changing yours, or selling your soul?


But at the same time, personality is the heart of how we relate to others and how others relate to us. It's the force that builds or breaks relationships. Understanding the human wiring that has such a powerful force on behavior, might get you a running start on making those relationships work