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How Personality Affects Our Ability To Work Remotely

July 2020
Manos Panorios
Hector Postantzis Samaras
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Certain traits and behaviors in leaders and their teams contribute to effective remote work

As companies swiftly took action to protect their employees following news of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread and subsequent lockdown measures, some people have rejoiced at the chance to work from home. Conscientious, agreeable, emotionally stable introverts, in particular, have benefited from the shift to remote work, as their personalities are able to shine best in a virtual work environment. But for others, not going into an office every day has proved a challenge as they work best with face-to-face encounters and the hum of collective productivity. For everyone – leaders included – this is a chance to take a close, honest look at our traits and habits and how those might be affecting our effectiveness.

While it’s still too soon to gauge exactly how this shift to remote working will impact our collective attitudes, behavior, motivations, and performance in the long term, we have all experienced the psychological toll it has taken on us and our coworkers to some degree. There have been such diverse reactions to working remotely that is worth considering the factors that are involved in how different people respond to such changes. We should use this insight to better manage ourselves and those with whom we work so that we can continue being effective during this time.

Myriad factors play a role in how people experience the new reality of remote work: existing habits, a company’s readiness and willingness to adapt, and, of course, individual circumstances, not the least of which is personality.

We are accustomed to utilizing personality theory to predict role fit, understand motivation and performance, modify management approaches, evaluate culture fit, and analyze team dynamics. Now we are able to make the most of personality models and tools to identify how we can keep vastly different people engaged and productive in evolving and sometimes uncertain times. Here are some of the aspects of personality that influence a person’s response and ultimately their successful adaptation to remote working.

Conscientiousness: People who score high on this dimension are self-disciplined and well-organized while low scorers are flexible and free-thinking. When working remotely, the former will easily manage their own schedules and meet deadlines but probably need time to adjust to the change. The latter will easily accept the new framework but may be less effective at prioritizing and meeting deadlines.

Agreeableness: Highly agreeable people are friendly, pleasant, supportive, and empathetic. In the frame of remote working, they will be considerate and understanding toward others but may become demotivated as they miss the support of and connection with their coworkers. On the other hand, low scorers who are pragmatic and business-like may come across to others as unsympathetic and distrusting in a remote working environment.

Openness: Some individuals are open to new ideas, places, and people, and some prefer the familiar. This will have an effect on the time needed to become comfortable and start being effective under new circumstances.

Extroversion: Extroverted individuals are energized by interaction and seek it out. They would much rather work face-to-face than virtually. Introverts are more apt to work alone, and they would be happier adapting to a virtual environment.

Emotional stability: This is about an individual’s sensitivity to a perceived threat. High-level emotional stability will be demonstrated with a positive perspective and resilience during turbulent times whereas a low level will mean a tendency to be disturbed or distracted and volatile.

For Leaders, Taking the First Step

Which of the above describes you best? What about the people with whom you work? How can you mitigate challenges, and how can you get and give support to others, considering your personal needs and expectations?

When you are a leader, your reactions during a transition have an even bigger impact. And transitions of any kind can be stressful, which creates a risk for the leader to display some dysfunctional behaviors.  In Hogan methodology, these are called derailers: personality characteristics that may be strengths under normal circumstances but under pressure can become crippling career obstacles. Those weaknesses can derail a leader, and potentially their teams and organizations, too.

For example, cautious leaders may convey the illusion of control and risk management in the short term; however, being overly cautious may cause them to be so risk-averse that they obstruct progress and innovation. Being excitable may help you display passion and enthusiasm to coworkers and subordinates, but it can also make you volatile and unpredictable, which is taxing to others. Diligence helps you pay attention to details and strive to produce quality work, yet in excess it can morph into procrastination and obsessive perfectionism.

On the flipside, being too cautious may enable a leader to present their thoughts and opinions precisely, but it can also lead to indecisiveness. Additionally, people who tend to be highly reserved might stay calm under pressure while at the same time tending to be uncommunicative with teammates — a vital behavior when put in the frame of COVID-19, wherein managing a team of remote employees and communicating frequently and clearly are paramount.

Additionally, highly reserved people have disappearing tendencies when times are tough, thus moving away from others. Teams need their leaders even more, being more visible than even before, even if it is in virtual terms. With imaginative individuals, it’s quite possible for them to overwhelm their teams with too many ideas and their blue-sky thinking, something that can further deviate people from their initial goal attainment in an era of constant distractions.

What impact do you have when you are under stress and no longer self-monitoring? What is the effect on your team’s morale and productivity? And how can this self-awareness help you mitigate those faulty coping strategies?

In such turbulent times, change is inevitable. This often leads us to ponder changing ourselves and our lives, too. But can we change our personality?

In addition to the most widely accepted personality theory where people’s scores of the Big Five remain relatively stable for most of their life, Professor Brian R. Little introduces the concept of free traits — behaviors that arise from the pursuit of core personal projects and give one’s life meaning and emotional richness. Free traits help us complete goals that we find meaningful and do things that otherwise might be out of character.

While in the past an individual’s personality was considered quite stable, more recently personality has been deemed flexible, and we may see change in an individual’s characteristic pattern of thought, emotion, or behavior over time. The goal, however, should never be to reconstruct one´s personality but rather to control it in critical situations. Identifying the traits that hold some back and modifying certain behaviors will greatly enhance the possibilities of reshaping reputation and thus career and leadership potential.

In this current time when we are all adjusting to the new parameters of working during a pandemic, there is an opportunity to put more conscious effort into how we work and how we interact. However, what must come first is honest self-reflection followed by candid discussions with our coworkers. Only then we can leverage these insights for personal growth and company success.

About the Authors:

Hector Postantzis-Samaras is a Consultant at the Stanton Chase Athens office.

Manos Panorios is a Managing Partner at the Stanton Chase Athens office.

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