Confession: I don’t understand the way other people think. Do you? Hmmm, maybe you do. You are, after all, a natural-born leader and you’re gifted at connecting with people. Even I like you, and I don’t really like anyone.

That’s why I’m fascinated with all these personality profiling tools out there. No, I don’t mean the social media “Which Canadian animal are you?” or “Which superhero are you?” quizzes (however, the answers for me are osprey and Batman, respectively, if you were curious). I mean the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Learning Styles Inventory, the Emotional Competence Inventory, the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, NEO PI-R, the DISC Assessment … I keep on waiting to find the one that makes sense of other people for me.

“We communicate – or should communicate – differently with different people based on their personality attributes.” – Tara-Lee Goerlitz, partner, NexLevel Challenge

(I’ve given up on making sense of myself. True story: I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test six times over the last two decades. Want to know my type? Me too. Those six tests yielded four different answers.) Now, I know you’ve taken the MBTI at least once – you can’t graduate from high school, much less an MBA program, without having to endure it – but here’s a quick refresher of the four areas it types: extraversion/introversion; sensing/intuition; thinking/feeling; and judging/perceiving. Remember what you are? I’ve been an ESFP, an INFP, an ENFP and an ISTJ. And fine, on at least two occasions, I took the test with the goal of getting a specific tag. I succeeded because … I have no idea why.

The Psychology Behind Personality Profiles

So when Tara-Lee Goerlitz, partner with NexLevel Challenge, a team-building training company in Calgary, introduces me to the Emergenetics profile, I’m skeptical. As she enthuses about the neuroscience and psychology behind it, and how its measurement of “the seven fundamental thinking and behavioural preferences” is more flexible, less limiting, less judgmental and more comprehensive than its competitors, I keep wondering whether the homophonic similarity to Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (a.k.a. John Travolta and Tom Cruise’s Scientology) is purely coincidental. Did I mention skeptical? Just a bit.

So was Goerlitz. But in her line of work, profiling tools that work are critical. “Here’s the quandary of a team that works,” she says. “It’s composed of diverse people who think, communicate and make decisions in vastly different ways. Such teams give an organization the greatest opportunity for productivity and creativity, but they also have the biggest potential for conflict and miscommunication.”

The way you turn that potential for conflict and miscommunication into mega-productivity and innovation is by teaching all the team members how other people think.

Most leaders know this. That’s why there are so many profiling tools out there. Like many of its competitors/predecessors, Emergenetics offers four main “how you think” categories: analytical, conceptual, social and structural. Unlike most of them, it doesn’t type you as one type, but presents your results in pie charts and percentages. The guinea pig to whom Goerlitz and I administer the profile comes out as 39 per cent conceptual, 38 per cent social, 18 per cent analytical and five per cent structural. This means he’s pretty intuitive, visionary, enjoys the unusual and learns by experimenting (conceptual attributes), and is also relational, socially aware, empathetic and learns well from others (social attributes). He has an analytical side – the attributes of which are logical problem-solving and rationality – but it’s not his preferred place to be. And his structural aspect (practical thinker, cautious of new ideas, predictable, learns by doing)? At five per cent, effectively nonexistent.

“So, he can’t make a list or, say, document a process to save his life?” I ask. Basically, Goerlitz agrees. Don’t make this guy your controller, or your operations manager. But he’d make a stellar CEO, VP cutting-edge strategy or marketing director. Provided he was supported by a team whose members included people with strong structural and analytical attributes – because they’d be the ones who’d create the processes and implement his ideas.

Personality Determines How We Communicate and Interact With Others

Now, those four attributes describe how a person thinks. An added, and just as important, compoent is how we behave. Emergenetics pegs our behaviours into three sliding-scale categories: expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility. “It’s not true that all social people are extroverts,” Goerlitz explains. (Or that all structural people are inflexible. Really.) Points on the expressiveness scale include quiet, introspective, talkative and gregarious; points on the assertiveness scale run from peacekeeping to driving; and the flexibility scale moves from focused through firm and adaptable all the way to “welcomes change.” A structural person can welcome change; a social person can be quiet. A conceptual person can be driving on the assertiveness scale – and thus push their ideas through – or introspective on the expressiveness scale and unable to really articulate them.

My guinea pig thinks Emergenetics has nailed him, both in terms of how he thinks and how he behaves. But now what? What does one do with that information?

“It starts with understanding yourself,” says Goerlitz. “That self-awareness is a very liberating tool.” She stresses that what Emergenetics really measures is what ways of thinking excite, energize and get people into the flow? If you’re a social person whose job is full of structural tasks – well, no wonder at the end of the day you’re exhausted. If you’re highly analytical – and low on the expressiveness scale – but you need to motivate people, maybe it’s time to rethink your career. Or find a business partner for whom that’s a strength while you retire to the behind-the-scenes analytical tasks.

But what excites my guinea pig the most about the process is the flash of insight he has into how his business partners and clients think and communicate (it’s that social aspect of him, homing in, immediately, on the relational consequences of this knowledge). Goerlitz applauds. “We communicate – or should communicate – differently with different people based on their personality attributes,” she says. “That has been one of my largest lessons, as I’ve worked through this tool and in my overall work with clients’ teams. As a result of our genetic makeup and combined with our life experience, you and I are going to look at the exactly same scenario in completely different ways. Neither is right or wrong. It just is. When you build that awareness around how people function and what makes people tick into your team, your communication, your decision-making – that’s a very powerful tool.”

So powerful that Emergenetics client Microsoft – yeah, that Microsoft – has all its people display their profiles in their offices so their colleagues know what the thinking-behaviour-preferences of the people they’re working with are. Goerlitz’s team at NexLevel does something similar: “We bring our profiles to our meetings,” she says. “The more you embrace the tool, the more you make it part of your language and not a flavour of the month, the more you get out of it.”

The Dark Side of Personality Testing

There is, of course, a dark side to personality testing. Lawyer and ethicist Jack Marshall, founder of ProEthics and author of the Ethics Alarms blog, warns that personality profiles can be traps. “Personality is far too complex to be measured with absolute precision, especially in a 60-minute multiple-choice test,” he cautions in The Ethics of Workplace Personality Tests. “The tests reduce everyone to a predictable stereotype, and in many of the tests, there are negative qualities assigned to each category as well as positive ones. Sometimes, ominously, the test-givers have access to descriptions of the types that the test-takers do not. How does an employee know that the results of that ‘fun’ personality test won’t disqualify him or her for certain positions, opportunities and promotions?”

Ultimately, Marshall says, the employee should be the only person who knows the results of the test. From an organization’s point of view, that dilutes much of a profile’s utility. Self-awareness is wonderful, but it is knowledge of what makes others tick that’s the real power.

Now, do I think you should run out and make everyone in your company get a personality profile? Well, nah. I mean, you can, absolutely. As I said, self-awareness is wonderful, and knowledge of what makes others tick is power. But even the knowledge and awareness that others think differently than you is power. Your takeaway for the day: prepare the content and delivery of your investor presentations, employee townhalls, and client meetings with the awareness that your audience has a variety of processing styles.