Next time your friendly office robot puts its hand on yours and offers you a piece of professional advice that absolutely nails your emotional state, don’t be shocked. The machine may know your personality better than you know yourself—and all from looking into your eyes.
Okay, we’re not quite there yet. But researchers have now used machine learning and artificial intelligence to track human eye movement and, having analyzed the data, believe they’ve found a correlation between eye movement and personality.
Finding ways to identify someone’s personality type without formal testing is nothing new. Just last year, researchers identified a connection between personality and music preference. IBM’s ‘Watson’ software/entity will write you a personality profile based on your Twitter account or analyze your most hard-to-crack client from the emails they’ve sent you.
(My personal Twitter shows that I’m “solemn” and “don’t like to joke much,” so we can assume either that robots can’t detect deadpan British humor, or just that I’m not very funny.)
Frightened? Don’t be. While we each have a responsibility to ourselves to be vigilant about the data trail we leave online, these techniques are really just the latest iterations of the tools we already have, and which everyone around you uses to judge the personality type of the people around them: intuition and experience.
A good boss is a sensitive boss
From the initial interview to those heated moments when neither of you are willing to compromise, the relationship between an employee and his boss is one of ongoing negotiation.
And the better your boss has you figured, the better the leader she may be.
She may be naturally intuitive, but strong leaders never settle for what nature has given them. They research and practice techniques that will aid them in the workplace and beyond, for the good of the business and hopefully for your benefit, too.
That’s one reason why interview panels ask questions that require ‘creative’ answers, such as “what’s your greatest strength?” or “can you tell me a time you solved a problem like x?” They don’t only care about the meat of your answer; they want to get you talking on a topic that is personal to you, so they can see what else you give away.
It’s also why they might ask you about you about your weekend when you meet at the water cooler or observe the way you open a stubborn bottle-top in the canteen. It doesn’t mean they’re a personality-robot, trying to glean you for clues to use against you. It just means they have a human instinct to learn about what makes those around them tick.
One of the best rules to learn in professional life—and it applies from the interview stage onwards—is to interrogate the questions you’re asked before you answer them. What is your boss really asking? Do you need to respond directly? What will you give away in between the words you choose?
Working with a boss who’s got you figured
A boss or colleague who is curious and empathetic can use their understanding of you as an aid to communication, mediation and collaboration.
And a less-sensitive boss will use, more or less consciously, what they think they know about your personality. Even if someone doesn’t think in terms of personality typing, they’ve got you down as a ‘type.’ The trick is to own that type.
Advertise your strengths, don’t be pigeonholed by your perceived weaknesses, and know when to surprise your colleagues.
If you’re an Introvert and your boss has you tagged as too ‘shy’ to represent the business at seminars, coming to work in your party clothes and tooting an air horn probably won’t convince them otherwise. But identifying a particular task that you can focus on at the seminar—for example, strengthening a company contact that you’ve already made, or creating a detailed report of what goes down—can reveal fresh potential to those around you.
A great leader will also see how best to utilize her team as a team, and not just a bunch of individuals. But if you’re aware of being pigeonholed, it can help to re-contextualize your strengths by suggesting new collaborations. If you’re a thinking-introvert, for example, suggest somebody with whom you can split a task to get richer results—maybe using your analytic skills to make sense of a report, and a colleague’s extraverted-feeling skills to create a plan on how to get those findings out into the workplace.
Whatever your type, make a note of the times you feel you’ve been pigeonholed, and think or talk through what an alternative outcome may have looked like. Your colleagues may expect you to respond in certain ways or excel (or otherwise) at certain tasks because they’ve observed you in action. But expectation can be just another word for assumption, so sometimes it falls on ourselves to challenge those assumptions.
Questioning human nature is human nature
The thing that makes being ‘judged’ by human intuition a little more pleasant than the idea of being read by a robot is that we’re just exercising our natural social skills. Life wouldn’t make much sense if we weren’t at least a little equipped to understand those around us.
But when it comes to understanding ourselves, it’s tough to replicate that outside perspective. This is one reason your boss is more likely to ask you for an example of how you solved a problem rather than how good you are at problem-solving. But they might have another way to figure you out: by chatting with you about other colleagues.
A study at Wake Forest University revealed that our assessment of other people’s personalities can actually act like a mirror on ourselves.
For argument’s sake, let’s suppose you were asked to rate your co-workers on their levels of kindness, enthusiasm and anger levels. If you consistently rate your colleagues as being particularly kind, it is quite likely that you yourself rate quite highly for kindness. If you tend to see the anger in people, it may reflect your own tendency towards ‘negative’ personality traits.
It’s something we actually witness on an informal level every day. A colleague that is known for highlighting the good deeds of others is probably considered a bit of a shining light themselves. The ones who gossip about other people’s perceived character faults tend to drag us down.
This tells us a couple of things. Firstly, that we give ourselves away, no matter what. It’s a long working week, and it’s not all question-and-answer sessions. It’s what you mutter under your breath. It’s how you speak to the interns. It’s how you respond when someone interrupts your concentration. It’s how you gossip, or don’t gossip.
But secondly, it reveals that personality type—and by extension, self-development—is not about navel-gazing. It’s an applied science. Let’s take a gooey example: if you don’t see the goodness in other people, you can’t just say positive things about them: you have to engage and search for that goodness before you can give it a name.
But the act of doing so makes you a little more kind and empathetic, too.
The quantified world
Admittedly, the researchers in the robot-eyes experiment based their results on a group of just 42 participants (from a relatively homogenous group of students). But despite claims that the technology will enable robots to become more socially aware and natural-behaving, it’s difficult not to feel creeped-out in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the sale of DNA data to ‘Big Pharma.’
Worrying or not worrying about which of these trends prevail is not the point. We are going to be judged and measured in ways that are increasingly automated and which seem on the surface to be objective—although these machines are programmed with both consciously and unconsciously biased algorithms.
What we can do is to find a careful balance between protecting our privacy, working on the traits that we ourselves wish to develop, and optimizing what our data gives away about us by learning to utilize our social and professional profiles.