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How Personality Matters in Software Development

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Leaders have to orchestrate diverse contributions from individuals with different personalities to build great teams. Occasionally, team members might decide to act out of character and engage in behaviour that is outside their comfort zone to advance the team goal. To reduce the risk of burning out or compromising physical health, there should be restorative niches in which they can be their natural selves again.

Dr Brian Little, Research Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, will speak about how personality matters at Agile Cambridge 2017. The conference will be held on September 27-29 in Cambridge.

InfoQ interviewed Dr Little about the role that differences in personality play when people are working together, how introverts and extroverts differ when it comes to working in teams, how "free traits" drive our behavior, how to deal with personality problems in teams, and how to build great teams.

InfoQ: What role do differences in personality play when people are working together?

Dr Brian Little: Personality psychologists distinguish five major dimensions of personality. They spell out an acronym: OCEAN.

  • Openness to Experience vs. Closed to Experience
  • Conscientiousness vs. Carelessness
  • Extraversion vs. Introversion
  • Agreeableness vs. Disagreeableness
  • Neuroticism vs. Stability

Where one stands on these dimensions is a good predictor of important consequences for our working lives. For example, those who are open and conscientious are more likely to perform better, but they differ in how they excel: open individuals excel because they bring new ideas into the workplace; conscientious individuals because they are reliable and able to get routine tasks done effectively and efficiently. Similarly, extraverted and agreeable individuals also contribute well to the social features of work-life: extraverts are gregarious and seek out stimulation while agreeable individuals are especially adept at nurturing and motivating others. Neurotic individuals are particular sensitive to some of the threatening aspects of their environments; like canaries in a mine they may be aware of legitimate concerns that are missed by their more stable colleagues.

InfoQ: How do introverts and extroverts differ when it comes to working in teams?

Little: There are many areas in which they differ, but here are five that have implications for working in teams:

  1. They differ in their need for stimulation: relative to introverts, extraverts have lower levels of neurophysiological arousal in the brain areas involved in effective performance, so they need to seek stimulation from their environments. Introverts, in contrast, need to lower their level of stimulation so will often retreat from group activities in order to do so. They may be seen, incorrectly, as being unsociable.
  2. They differ in how the process information when they learn. Extraverts need engagement when they are learning, preferring verbal exchange and discussion. Introverts do not perform as well in such exchanges, preferring instead to have clear and well organized communications before meetings.
  3. They differ in their interaction styles. Extraverts stand closer, speak louder and communicate more bluntly than introverts. Introverts adopt a more tentative, complex and oblique style. Different cultures vary in whether their interaction styles are more extraverted or introverted, resulting in risks for miscommunication.
  4. They differ in the way they approach their daily environments. Extraverts are primarily motivated to seek out rewards, while introverts are motivated to avoid punishment. As a result, extraverts may not see the downside of actions they take, while introverts may not see the upside of theirs. Both extremes can create problems for groups.
  5. They differ in the impact alcohol and caffeine have on their performance and in their sexual behaviour. But who on earth would be interested in those topics?

InfoQ: What are "free traits" and how do they drive our behavior?

Little: Free traits is a term I use to describe individuals who act out of character. For example, a person who is biologically introverted may act as an extravert (her free trait) in order to advance a core personal project. Or a highly agreeable person may act disagreeably all of August (his free trait) because his work role requires him to do so. We act out of character for professional reasons and we also do it out of love. There are both benefits and costs to engaging in free traits. The benefits are that we are better able to advance our core projects and, by engaging in behaviour that is outside our comfort zone, we expand our agility in dealing with challenging situations. But there are costs if we are protractedly acting out of character. We run the risk of burning out and, in the most serious cases, compromising our physical health.

We can protect against these costs be using what I call "restorative niches." These are places in which we can slip out of our free trait mode and indulge our more natural traits. For example, I am a natural introvert, so after a highly extraverted performance as a professor I need to find a nice, unstimulating, quiet place in which to restore myself. And natural extraverts who have had to act as introverts all day in the office will restore themselves by seeking out places that are stimulating, loud, and energizing.

InfoQ: How can we deal with personality problems in teams?

Little: Awareness of how personalities function is critical to dealing with problems that can arise. That is why I find that even a short overview of personality dimensions, personal projects and free traits can stimulate communication among individuals who can share their personal experiences. This is particularly effective in helping individuals to see themselves and others as people rather than as problems. A sense of humour is critical to this enterprise of humanizing our workplaces. Especially if access to coffee, alcohol and other delights is not available.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for building great teams?

Little: Personality is critical to building great teams. A team comprised solely of warm, agreeable individuals is likely to be happy, rewarding but unproductive while a team that is predominantly stable, goal focused and disagreeable may be efficient but will risk losing motivation. Ideally, then, a great team takes advantage of have diverse personalities as their members. For example, conscientious individuals can contribute to the effective implementation of standard operating procedures while group members who are more open to experience can contribute more creative ideas. Individuals at both ends of the OCEAN traits have something important to contribute to a team and a good leader will orchestrate those diverse contributions. The leader should also be aware that, depending on the work being done, some individuals may have to enact free traits to achieve the common aspirations of the group. Here is where the group needs a "free-trait agreement" in which they agree that they might act out of character to advance the team goal as long as they are afforded restorative niches in which to be their natural selves again.

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