Understanding diversity primer: 8. Personality

By Gabriele Bammer

primer_diversity_8_personalityWhat is a useful way of understanding personality and why is it important? How could personality affect how problems are framed, understood and responded to? How does personality affect how well those contributing to the research work together?

Personality is one of the most evident ways in which people differ. A useful way of coming to terms with this aspect of diversity is to focus on traits that predict behaviour. The HEXACO model is considered to be valid across cultures and focuses on 6 traits:

  • Honesty-Humility
  • Emotionality
  • eXtraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience.

This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • manipulates others for personal gain, including through flattery
  • is tempted to break the rules for personal profit
  • is motivated by material gain and interested in lavish wealth and luxuries
  • has a sense of self-importance and entitlement to elevated social status.

This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • is deterred by the prospect of physical harm
  • experiences anxiety in response to life’s stresses
  • needs emotional support from others
  • feels empathy and sentimental attachment with others.

This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • feels positively about themselves
  • feels awkward when they are the centre of social attention or feels confident when leading or addressing groups of people
  • enjoys social gatherings and interactions
  • experiences positive feelings of enthusiasm and energy.

This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • forgives wrongs or holds grudges
  • is critical of the short-comings of others
  • is willing to compromise and co-operate
  • can control their temper.

This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • organizes their time and physical surroundings
  • works in a disciplined way towards their goals rather than avoiding difficult tasks or challenging goals
  • strives for accuracy and perfection in their tasks
  • deliberates carefully when making decisions rather than making them on impulse.

Openness to experience
This trait describes the degree to which a person:

  • becomes absorbed in the beauty of art and nature
  • is inquisitive about various domains of knowledge
  • uses their imagination freely in everyday life
  • takes an interest in unusual ideas or people.

Personality differences and how problems are framed, understood and responded to

Although personality is not generally thought of as a factor in how researchers and stakeholders approach problems, it may well have some effects. For example, those who are open to unusual ideas and inquisitive about other areas of knowledge may well approach the research differently from those who are not.

Differences in personality and how well those contributing to the research work together

So-called personality clashes are one of the factors getting in the way of researchers and stakeholders working together effectively. These can have multiple origins, for example, stemming from differences in: levels of conscientiousness in doing the work, willingness to compromise, being critical of others, and levels of self-importance.

An appreciation of differences in personality can also be an asset to working together. An example is when tasks are matched to strengths. For instance if aspects of a project involve some physical risks, these might be best undertaken by those who score low on emotionality. Another way in which differences can be an asset is when team members with particular strengths coach those who want to improve their skills. For instance, extraverts, as well as introverts who have learnt to improve their public speaking, may be able to provide tips to and coach others.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about the role of understanding personality in research on complex societal and environmental problems?

Particularly welcome are examples from your research about how personality was relevant and how you incorporated personality differences in your work.

If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding personality that would be useful?

Sources and references:

The main source is the revised HEXACO personality inventory by Kibeom Lee and Michael Aston presented at https://hexaco.org/scaledescriptions. They have drawn on the work of others, which is cited in their articles on the same website.

I have expressed the six scales as gradients, rather than following the original in contrasting the attributes of those with high scores against the attributes of those with low scores.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)

This blog post:
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)

Still to come:
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

5 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 8. Personality”

  1. This Primer has contributed a lot to self-reflection and self-criticism. How do we bring this to a team level at the beginning of projects?

    • Many thanks for this additional comment (following a comment on the primer blog post about culture). You are good at asking the hard questions! As you know, all this primer has set out to do is to increase understanding. But as you rightly say, understanding is only the first step and application is important.

      I am most interested to hear what others think. My view is that there are so simple or single answers and it is up to the team leaders to do what seems most appropriate for their leadership style, their team and their circumstances, bearing in mind that it wont be perfect and suit everyone. My own preference is to get started on the substantive work and to look for learning moments to introduce these kinds of understandings (eg about differences in personality, mental models, culture, values etc). For example, wait till something happens, such as a disagreement or an aha moment, and then take time out to develop a particular understanding in a team. This has to be done with great caution so as not to offend the people involved in a disagreement, for example, so it’s often useful to use one’s own mis-steps as the trigger (although that then runs the risk of appearing very self-centred or losing authority with some people in the group – but there’s no perfect answer!).

      An alternative is to weave exercises into the workplan, so perhaps every month or two the team is invited to enhance their own professional development (in understanding, integrating and managing different aspects of dversity). Some prefer to do a lot of this work up front before starting on the substantive group work.

      • hahahaha! Exactly!. The ego and self-perception plays a fundamental role here. I would like to read a post reflecting on this issue from you!
        I throw a hypothesis saying initial activities for sharing expectations about all these dimensions would be useful.

  2. Thanks for this Gabriele, after 2-4 years of setting up TRUUD, the issues you describe above really get to the heart of one of the main challenges of collaboration of this kind in my view. So much hinges on relationships and that has so much to do with personalities. Most people rub along well together in my experience, and there’s so much good will within our area of academia generally, not to mention the genuine passion and excitement there is about the prospect of having positive impact on the world, but all those ‘countervailing forces’ start piling on pressure, not to mention Covid, so personality and character (patience, flexibility, determination, wellbeing, ability to stay calm, see others point of view, compromise, while also holding your own) becomes the only thing that holds it all together. Without that, things can become very time and energy-consuming. In hindsight, I wonder whether we could have built in some kind of personality/character test to our recruitment process as we built out team, though I’ve not idea of the ethical and practical ways one might go about that, and in reality I’m not sure really how possible it would be – I see it more as part and parcel of the research development cycle. And I’m not convinced it would be that beneficial as relationships change, tension is often good and can lead to stronger relationships when resolved. On the other hand, having more of a pre-emptive focus on that team-building up front could help, which funders and academic leads need to make the (business) case for, which is precisely what your blog is helping with, so thanks again!

    • Many thanks for those reflections, Daniel. The best way that I’ve seen personality tests used is as a method to help a group of people understand how different they are. Suddenly you realise that ‘Joe,’ who always seemed to go out of his way to annoy you, was not settling out to be deliberately irritating, but rather is a different personality type. It can help a team rub along better.

      My recollection is that the evidence for using personality tests to select people is pretty weak. I think you are right that a better option is to use personality tests as one tool to work through tensions in a team.


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