Personality Styles and Collaboration

We’ve been hearing a lot about collaboration lately.  As I read the articles, I am starting to wonder if personality preferences/cognitive styles might play a role in explaining different approaches to collaboration.  Whether you use the MBTI, the Creative Talents, the Five Factor Model, or some other assessment of cognitive preferences, do you see patterns in the way individuals approach collaboration?

First, let’s start off with a definition of collaboration.  I see collaboration as more than teamwork.  Although it certainly involves working together, that work is designed to achieve something new and different as a solution to a complex problem.  There is informal collaboration which happens among learning community and collegial networks and more formal collaboration, where individuals are charged with coming up with a solution to a problem. For the purposes of this post, we can probably address both types.

Nilofer Merchant has written a very insightful post about the dangers of collaboration (http://nilofermerchant.com/2011/12/01/8-dangers-of-collaboration/). She points out that the complex problems requiring collaboration are full of ambiguity and uncertainty around the problem, the ultimate solution, and the roles individuals will play in the effort.  Not everyone has the same comfort level with this type of ambiguity and lack of clarity.  Individuals who prefer details and clear paths to solutions may struggle with the cloudiness inherent in a collaboration effort.

In addition, there is research suggesting that other personality differences can affect collaboration.  For example, individuals with extraverted/introverted preferences tend to have different types of networks that support collaboration.  Those with extraverted talents or preferences will build wider, larger networks that are “sparser,” or less connected.  Those with introverted talents or preferences will have deeper and denser networks, with more interconnections.  We might also hypothesize that those individuals who favor extraversion will prefer to interact face to face in groups or teams, and those individuals who favor introversion might prefer more written communication or more one on one interactions.

It’s clear to me at least that cognitive preferences for data collecting and decision making could play a role in the actual work of collaboration.  Individuals who prefer logical, objective information might clash with those who prefer subjective data, considering people and relationships.  There might be disagreement around the type of data considered – details and specifics or patterns, trends and concepts.  Personality preferences for closure could come up against those who prefer open ended loose conversations.  We know these biases impact team results so isn’t it safe to assume they will influence collaborative efforts as well?

Personality preferences might also influence the type of collaborative tools that are used.  Brainstorming may or may not appeal to everyone, for example.  Some individuals might prefer more reflective idea generation tools, such as Brainwriting or more structured techniques, such as TRIZ.  And what about comfort levels with conflict, a crucial component of achieving creative results from collaboration?  Preferences can play a role here as can abilities and knowledge on how to disagree constructively.

We know that the cognitive differences impact the shape and form of creative contributions.  Might they also cause hurdles to collaboration that need to be recognized?  If we are going to break down barriers to collaboration with the intent of producing more innovative outcomes, perhaps we need to consider cognitive obstacles?

Collaboration expert Morton Hansen in his book “Collaboration: How Leaders avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results” argues for more research on this topic of personality traits.  What are your thoughts?

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