5 Ways to Think About Personality Types

02/24/2012 07:50 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2012
  • Delia Lloyd American Journalist/Blogger Based in London

I've always been fascinated by attempts to document personality types. Part of that fascination surely stems from the fact that in another life, I'd be a psychotherapist. And part of it is that as I go about the networking process that is part and parcel of looking for a job, I'm coming into contact with all sorts of personality types along the way.

If you pay someone to advise you on changing careers these days, the very first thing they'll likely do is administer a personality test to see what career paths you're suited to. Personality tests are also increasingly part of the recruitment and promotions process at top firms.

I've had my own brush with them along the way, recounted in this post about how -- for better or for worse -- my own essential personality "type" doesn't seem to have changed much over the years. But I'm always excited to learn about new ways to parse personality.

So, how should we think about personality types?

1. Extrovert vs. Introvert. Extroversion/introversion is one of the four key dimensions of the famous Myers-Briggs type indicator, which remains the gold standard for many in assessing personality types. But until I stumbled upon this informative (and extremely funny) piece in the Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch entitled "Caring For Your Introvert," I think I'd misunderstood the essential difference between the two. It's not -- as many people think -- a distinction between shy and gregarious. Introverts are not, in fact, necessarily shy if that means that they hate being around other people and/or other people make them anxious. It's that their relative need to be around other people is much lower than that of the extrovert, who feeds off of constant interaction. For the introvert, as Rauch puts it (borrowing from Sartre), "Hell is other people at breakfast." Whereas if you leave the extrovert alone for two minutes, "he will reach for his cellphone." Love it!

2. Personality Style. I'm thinking here of the widely-used DISC personality assessment, which focuses a bit less on "type" than on "style." DISC identifies four key behavioral styles, which they label D (drive), I (insight), S (steadiness) and C (compliance). What I like about this way of thinking about personality (as opposed to the more nuanced but complicated Myers-Briggs assessment) is that it gives you a sort of over-arching "flavor" for people you encounter, each of which has a set of prevailing traits, strengths and weaknesses. In my old job, for example, once I learned that as a (high!) D (dominant/forceful/task-oriented), I was sharing an office with a high S (reliable, dependable, process-oriented), so many things came to make sense and I could adjust my own interactions accordingly.

3. Birth Order. Another way to think about personality types is that of birth order. In brief, birth order suggests that where you fall in a family vis-a-vis your siblings has a huge impact on how you behave. So, for example, the eldest (according to this theory) tends to be sharp, responsible and success-oriented, the youngest is more rebellious and risk-seeking and the middle child is an agreeable team-player. I know plenty of exceptions to this rule, but as an armchair theory of personality types, I think it shows a lot of promise.

4. Manager vs. Maker. A useful dichotomy of personality within the workplace is the manager vs. the maker. On one side of this divide, you have a group of workers -- usually managers -- who divide their day into tiny bite-sized chunks and for whom meetings -- even spontaneous ones -- constitute the essence of their job. On the other side, you have "makers" -- i.e. computer programmers, writers, artists -- who need large blocks of time to carry out tasks and who find meetings onerous and inefficient because they cut into their productivity. I love this schema, because it cuts across professions to get to the core of what matters in a job: how you like to spend your day in terms of tasks.

5. Personality for Play. I learned about this personality matrix on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project blog. Gretchen borrows it from Stuart Brown, who's written a book about the importance of play. Brown identifies seven key personality types for play -- things like the joker, the collector, the explorer and the narrator. Again, no science here, pure observation. But I think there are some important insights to be gleaned for everyday interaction.

What about you? How do you sort people by type?

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