When Your Team is Remote, Does Personality Even Matter?

Understanding the various personalities on your team is important for getting people working together in the way you'd like. That is why so many organizations use the personality assessment created by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers when putting together effective teams. Personality assessment tools can help select the right team members - people who are likely to bond, innovate, and follow through on the company's goals such that the output of the team is greater than that of its constituent members.

What Briggs and Myers couldn't possibly have imagined when developing their personality instrument, is how work has evolved. Today, people are as likely to work in remote and geographically distributed teams as they are in face-to-face teams. Virtual teams communicate and collaborate solely through the interface of technology; this is a marked departure from the traditional team dynamic where members get to know each other through conversation, socialising and water-cooler moments. With fewer social ties, teams in virtual settings arguably have less opportunity to develop rapport, build trust, and establish lines of authority than conventional teams. On the flip side, there's also less scope for interpersonal conflict since the workforce never actually meets face to face. 

Considering the challenges posed by virtual teams, does personality matching still provide a successful strategy for effective team formation? What impact does personality have on a team's functioning and value-added where the team is missing a vital ingredient - familiarity with other members?

The Psychology of Team Building

It's well established that team members - whatever the team type - perform two roles. A person's "functional" role is defined by her position or title - accountant, customer service representative, web developer and so on. "Psychological" roles are roles to which people gravitate based on their personalities, and most people will lean toward one or perhaps two of the following five functions:

Leadership - High-energy, results-oriented people who enjoy competition typically seek out opportunities to drive others and direct the team toward business goals, for example, ENTJ and ENFJ personality types.

Relationship - The relationship role is generally taken up by friendly, approachable and sensitive individuals who listen to others and have a strong desire for cooperation between team members. INFP and ISFJ personalities might gravitate towards relationship-building roles.

Process - Those with a preference for a process role tend to be task-oriented, organized, and excellent with structure, implementation and follow through. Examples include the ESTJ and ISTJ personality types.

Innovation - Imaginative, curious and open-minded individual types are attracted to the role of innovator within a team. They bring a variety of big-picture solutions to the table, for example, ENTP and INTJ personality types.

Pragmatic - Pragmatic individuals are levelheaded, good in a crisis, and hands-on when problem solving. They troubleshoot problems in the moment without worrying too much about the bigger picture; for example, ISTP and ESFP personality types.

During the early stages of team building, there's an awkward period when team members challenge each other for their preferred roles and seek to establish how they might fit in - this is the process of finding psychological roles. Some researchers refer to this process as a series of recognizable stages, namely:

  • Forming  - team members meet for the first time; they are enthusiastic but uncertain about the task ahead
  • Storming - members give different ideas and approaches; individual workstyles appear and conflicts occur
  • Norming  - differences are resolved and the group finds its work norms
  • Performing  - roles are clear, work is done, and the addition of new members won't disrupt performance
  • Adjourning  - group completes its task, members part on good terms.

In traditional work environments, teams with balanced and compatible psychological roles are far more likely to reach all five stages compared to groups with insufficient diversity among team members to fill every psychological role. A recurring research finding is that groups formed with complementary personalities communicate more effectively, work more collaboratively, and exhibit stronger levels of commitment towards the organization's goals. Imbalanced teams, by contrast, tend to get stuck at the "storming" stage, and this is where most teams fail.

What hasn't been clear, is whether personality compositions - and specifically the establishment of psychological roles - has the same impact on team performance in online settings as it does in conventional teams. Recently, a team of researchers led by Ioanna Lykourentzou of the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology set out to answer this very question.

Personality Differences Amplify Problems in Remote Teams

Looking specifically at "crowd teams" - an extreme type of virtual team that tends to be more short-lived, transient, and culturally diverse than virtual teams within a large organization - the researchers asked, how does personality composition affect team outcomes under the unique conditions of virtual crowd work? 

After assessing each participant's personality using the DISC (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance) assessment tool, subjects were placed into five-person virtual teams that either comprised a balance of personalities (one Dominant personality, one Inducement personality, one or two Submission personalities and one or two Compliance personalities) or an imbalance of personalities (a surplus of leader-type personalities i.e. multiple Ds). Each group was then tasked with the collaborative task of developing a creative advertisement.

The results were unequivocal. The balanced teams outperformed the imbalanced teams against every single metric the researchers measured. Specifically, the balanced teams:

  • Produced more creative, original and valuable advertisements as assessed by an independent panel of judges
  • Created an encouraging atmosphere using positive vocabulary and expressions. Imbalanced teams, by contrast, used sarcasm and shouting (using capital letters) to make their point 
  • Discussed how to best organize the work and made constructive comments for maturing each contributor's initial ideas. Imbalanced teams, on the other hand, were dominated by the D personalities who competed for influence and spent their time trying to support their own ideas, such that the groups did not make much progress beyond the brainstorming stage.
  • Reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction and acceptance by the group
  • Experienced far less conflict.

Interesting Study. What Does It Mean?

The results show that placing people together in a way that covers all psychological roles in the group significantly improves the project outcome, the quality of communication, and the team members' perceptions of being accepted and appreciated, compared to teams that have an imbalance of psychological roles.

This fact is as true for virtual teams as it is for physical teams.

What is interesting about this experiment, is the fact that the virtual teams underwent exactly the same forming-storming-norming-performing model of group development as has been observed in traditional teams. As we might have predicted, the imbalanced virtual groups reached only the "storming" stage of group formation, whereas the balanced teams reached the fifth stage and many participants expressed a desire to work together as a virtual team in the future.

For employers and team leaders, this research provides practical implications for designing virtual teams. By using a relatively simple team formation strategy - a personality test to balance the personality composition of teams - organizations can significantly increase the productivity of their virtual teams.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writer and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. She lives with her ENTX husband and children in Yorkshire, UK, where she drinks a lot of tea and loves winding people up. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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