I recently read an interesting
article in the Toastmasters Magazine on the Power of Introverts by Susan
Cain. The article prompted me to share some of my own thoughts on personality theory and communication. These ideas informed
my research into The Psychology of
Collaboration
, carried out on behalf of Herman Miller, which I hope to be published soon. Hopefully you will
find my review useful in you day-to-day lives and at work.

So what is personality? Well
“Persona” is Latin for “mask”, so it suggests personality is the mask we
present to the world. But interestingly there does not appear to be any agreed
definition of personality amongst psychologists. My own mash-up of definitions
is: “Personality
is an individual’s unique set of traits and consistent pattern of thinking and
behaviour that persists over time and across situations”.
Personality is stable but not absolutely fixed. It is a proclivity for
certain traits (or characteristics) that in turn affect our behaviour.

Personality theories date back to ancient Egypt but it was the Greek
physician Hippocrates (circa 400 BC) who is attributed with developing the first structured theory of
personality. He proposed thatt
personality is affected by
the (in)balance of bodily fluids, termed the four temperaments. He believed that levels of phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile are associated
with four core personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.
His theory sounds antiquated but modern-day neuropsychologists
acknowledge that the presence of certain chemical transmitters in the brain
affect our mood and behaviour.

Today’s most popular personality theories are based on attempts to
identify and describe personality in terms of traits, or characteristics. In
the 1930’s Allport and colleagues found nearly 18,000 words in the English
language used to describe
characteristics of personality. Since then Psychologists have competed
to reduce the number of key traits that describe our personality. If you work
for a large corporate you have most probably been subjected to a Myers-Briggs
Inventory or the Cattell’s 16PF (16 Personality Factors). They both categorise
us according to one of 16 personality types. I find them a little complicated
and prefer Eysenck’s super-traits model.

Eysenck has boiled it all down to two core personality factors which not
only appear in all other personality theories and tests but also relate back to the Hippocrates’ four
temperaments. The extroversion scale ranges from introverted to extroverted,
and the neuroticism scale (which is more to do with anxiousness) ranges from
stable to unstable. We may lie at extreme ends of the scales or in the middle, the
so called ambiverts. I am going to discuss the extreme ends of the extroversion
scale.

An extrovert is a social person who seeks company and interaction; they get easily distracted
when on their own. They act
on impulse, require
lots of stimulation, they are
thrill seekers and takes risks – they are fans of roller-coasters. In contrast, the introvert prefers the quiet
life, they are reflective people preferring their own company and solitary
activity; they do not enjoy large social events and get easily distracted when with others.
They prefer reading a book to
roller-coaster rides.

In terms of communication, extroverts prefer face-to-face interaction, and large meetings;
they also tend to gesticulate
a lot. Extroverts like impromptu and informal meetings to share ideas. But it can be difficult to extract details
from an extrovert. On the other hand, introverts prefer written communications (email and text), and if meeting they prefer them small
and planned with advance notice.
Introverts are the ones who
send you a detailed and lengthy email in response to a simple question, whereas
extroverts will mention it over a coffee. Web-conferences are potentially a good format for
the introvert as they provide a good means of interaction and sharing data without actually
meeting face to face.

One explanation of the
behaviour of introverts and extroverts is Arousal Theory. Arousal Theory is a
psychological meta-theory that relates to how alert we are in our resting state and the affect it has on
performance. If our
arousal is too high we may get stressed out, and perform poorly, and if it is too
low we may fall asleep and
perform poorly. Arousal
somewhere in the middle leads to optimum performance. Now extroverts have a
low level of arousal so constantly seek stimulation. Introverts have a
high level of arousal and so
prefer calm and serenity.

Now here is the tricky
bit. Complicated tasks can
increase our
level of arousal whereas
detailed repetitive tasks will reduce it. As extroverts have a low level of
arousal they are better at complex tasks. However, as introverts have a
high level of arousal they are
better at detailed
and repetitive tasks. Research has also shown
that extroverts are more creative but their behaviour can inhibit precision or
logic. On the other hand, introverts are good at sieving through large datasets
and fine detail. The
more successful teams have been found to have a mixture of personality types; we need both extroverts and introverts in the workplace.

Social networking, like Facebook and Twitter etc, is a relatively new
form of communication. As
introverts can suffer anxiety
when meeting people, it was hypothesised that they would use social network sites more
than extroverts who prefer face to face interaction. Unexpectedly, it was
discovered that extroverts use social networking sites much more than
introverts. However, this
is because extroverts seek more interaction than introverts regardless of
whether it is on-line or face-to-face. More recent studies have indeed find
that introverts use online interactions as a replacement for face-to-face ones,
termed Social Compensation Theory.

So in conclusion introverts prefer the quiet life, are good at detailed
repetitive work and
prefer to communicate through email, text and well-planned small meetings. In
contrast, extroverts are social animals who are more creative and like
communicating through face to face interaction and presenting creative ideas to large audiences.

I have focused on
introversion-extroversion but there are many other traits that affect our
perferred means of communication. For me
introversion-extroversion is the key one and hopefully you will now appreciate
that the way you like to communicate may not be the most natural or preferred method for
your work colleagues, managers, clients or audience.

This blog formed the basis of my
CC2 presentation at Toastmasters.