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Team productivity: personalities or culture?

When interviewing candidates for positions in their team or organisation, employers want to know two things: can the candidate do the work (or can they be taught it) and, will they fit in? Or, do they deliver and is it a pleasure?

Teams are the sum of their skills and personalities

In their HBR article ‘Great Teams Are About Personalities, Not Just Skills’ Dave Winsborough and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic put it slightly more formally:

“ . . . consider the two roles every person plays in a working group: a functional role, based on their formal position and technical skill, and a psychological role, based on the kind of person they are.”

They also say that there is “ . . . wider scientific evidence, which indicates quite clearly that individuals’ personalities play a significant role in determining team performance. In particular, personality affects:

  • What role you have within the team

  • How you interact with the rest of the team

  • Whether your values (core beliefs) align with the team’s.”

They go on to say, “Importantly, the above processes concern psychological factors (rather than the technical skills) underlying both individual and team performance. These psychological factors are the main determinants of whether people work together well.”

If the team in question were a marriage, they would have a point.

The rise of personality testing

And so the rise in demand for personality testing and ideal team combination formats such as Myers Briggs.

I took a couple of personality tests for my reading of Strategic Coach’s book Unique Ability 2.0 by Catherine Nomura, Julia Waller, and Shannon Waller, - in particular, the Kolbe A Index and the Barrett Personal Values Assessment, - and was impressed with their accuracy in what I knew about myself already, and how illuminating they were in what they revealed to me about what I did not know but which rang true. I was also struck by their congruency.

So great claims are made, and surprising performance results in seminar role-plays achieved, when teams are compiled by optimum personality types. In my experience, however, I have never come across a team comprising the desired personality types, nor even an analysis of a working team, by personality.

But in practice . . .

That’s not to say they don’t exist but I suspect that they are in the minority. We just don’t have the time to hold team positions open while we sift populations for skills, personality types, and the multiple interviews that then ensue.

Practically speaking, as a leader, it is more likely that you will have to work with and be effective with those team members you have, whatever their personality types.

How can you get the most from your team despite a lack of hard team personality-type information? The conclusions of Google’s project Aristotle may provide you with some answers.

Google’s Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google’s People Operations Department set out to find out how to build the perfect team. This is critical information as, nowadays, the bulk of our activity in our service/knowledge economy is team based.

Conventionally, we have assumed that we need to pack our teams with the best, most talented people, or that team members should be palsy-walsy and visit the paint-ball centre for a team building day.

The Google People Operations Department set about reviewing previous academic studies on how teams work, and then analysed 180 teams from all over Google. As you may imagine, Google’s analytics (and resources in this regard) are second to none. This is what they found:

Hiring stars may not be necessary

“No matter how the researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns - or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference . . . there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter” - Charles Duhigg in his 2016 New York Times article ‘What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.’

What they did find was that teams that did well on one assignment, generally did well on all the others while teams that did badly on one assignment, did badly on others, irrespective of the number of stars within the team.

Establish the right norms

Eventually, they found that what distinguished the effective teams from the dysfunctional ones was the teams’ cultures, reflected in their ‘norms’. ‘Norms’ are a team’s behavioural standards, traditions, and unwritten rules that will override individual predilections in deference to the team.

What norms were critical to creating consistently effective teams?

How teammates treated each other and, in particular, a team climate of ‘Psychological Safety’ - a climate in which team members are comfortable being themselves and expressing themselves freely, without being judged or undermined.

In the effective teams, Google found that all team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, AND there was high ‘social sensitivity’: they sensed and respected how each other was feeling. There was a climate of trust in pursuit of the team’s objectives.

Productivity is key

Why is this so important? Because right now in our economy, we need to boost performance through improved productivity, to provide much more with the much less that we have.

There is only so much that can be achieved in boosting productivity by working harder. In the end, high productivity is a function of innovation and creation, and these require an unceasing supply of whacky, stoopid ideas, just one or two of which canl transform the way we work.

Many of the advances in the human condition came about because of a whacky idea from someone in a minority of one, who was willing to put themselves out. The cave man, or woman, who spent a week hacking off the end of a log and found they could roll it about. Those who announced that the earth wasn’t flat and that it went round the sun! Heresy! Edison and his lightbulb.

When people meet in the freewheeling sanctuary of psychological safety, such seemingly odd ideas can be advanced and combined, joining the dots in novel ways leading to the innovation and creation that enables exponential performance improvement - higher productivity.

Productivity is a function of innovation and creation, is a function of culture, is a function of your leadership style

Whether your team enjoys psychological safety has less to do with its personality types than your leadership style. How you are, your team is. Psychological safety is a function of your relationship with your team.

If your style is ‘Command and Control’ you suffer two disadvantages: first, you are relying on your own singular intelligence which is limited and exhausting for you, and, secondly, your team meetings will reflect your controlling nature and be tempered by interruption, domination, showcasing, maneuvering, positioning, etc.

Knowing that when speaking, they are likely to be interrupted, team members will resist this by saying, subconsciously, what’s acceptable which means what is known and agreed, so that team discussions will comprise what’s also known and accepted and which can only ever lead therefore, to incremental performance improvement.

If your style is that of the servant leader, or conscious leader - a sort of servant leader plus - whose role is to support your team members in pursuit of the vision you and they have created, team members will have no need to defend their power bases and will speak freely in meetings. Perversely, this tends to result in shorter meetings as team members can say what they really think rather than having to manoeuvre and position themselves.

Creation arises in a judgement free zone

Thus innovative and creative ideas will be floated and then worked-up in a trusting, free-wheeling, fun atmosphere that taps into the combined intelligence and experience of the team, until they provide a workable innovation to what’s being considered. That is how you achieve high performance, high morale, and increased productivity.

Your role as leader

Your role as leader is to:

  • identify through others - your team and stakeholders - what needs to be done

  • Identify and clarify through your team and stakeholders your purpose

  • Create with them a compelling vision

  • Create with them their mission

  • Create with them a high level plan to get there

  • Lead by creating a climate of psychological safety in which you support your team members to each utilise their skills and experience to work the plan, fulfil on the mission, and achieve your vision.

  • Maintain the relevance of the mission and plan by REGULARLY conversing with each of your stakeholders.

  • Develop your people so that they and you can leave:

    • In such a wonderfully purposeful, supportive, team environment, they won’t want to;

    • In this climate you must be expendable. If the operation could fail because you were not there, consider that your leadership has failed. A leader is only as good as when they are not there.


There is scientific evidence to indicate that combining the right personality types can improve the effectiveness of a team, yet Google’s project Aristotle did not support this. What it did find was that the team’s culture, evidenced by its norms, determined the effectiveness of their teams.

Your primary role as leader, whether or not you have the ‘right’ personality types, is to create a climate of psychological safety which will give you access to the collective intelligence of your team, leading to innovation, creation, and high productivity.

And much more fun.

By Christopher Jones-Warner

Further reading:

  • HBR: Great Teams Are About Personalities, Not Just Skills - Dave Winsborough and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

  • New York Times 2016: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team - Charles Duhigg

  • Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity - Charles Duhigg

  • Teaming - Professor Amy C. Edmondson

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