The colour of success

exploring the impacts of personality

Introduction

We are quickly moving beyond the traditionally accepted stereotype of project managers as operating in a driving, command-and-control hierarchy. The ‘softer’ skills of communication, collaboration and consultation are increasingly seen as equally important. When asked what makes the ideal project manager, however, we often revert back to inherent stereotypes and biases, often without awareness of what these biases represent.

Managers and executives struggle with how to select the right project manager for a task, and what they should be looking for to distinguish success. Project managers are challenged with a business environment of greater complexity, where the ‘right’ response or answer isn't necessarily clear. We are faced with making choices with imperfect information, and are often forced to rely on our gut instinct to guide us. Our choices often come down to our core preferences and our personalities

The inevitable questions that results is whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘better’ personality for project managers? What factors of personality most influence the ability of project managers to be successful? What should executives be looking for in the project managers they hire? What biases do we need to be aware of in the making the choices we face?

Drawing on research of over 480 project managers, this paper explores the impact that personality has on how we approach the project management role, and the degree to which different approaches influence success. The research findings provide practising project managers with important insights into how to strengthen their capabilities, and will have serious implications for organizations that are developing career paths for project managers and training programs for project management.

Introduction to Jungian Typology

There is a common sense appeal to the assertion that some psychological types are more likely to be successful in certain occupations than others. And in fact, research studies have shown some relation between personality types and aptitude and competency in certain jobs. However, to date in project management there has been very little work looking at the impact of psychological type on project management competence. In fact, there is very little empirical evidence that project managers form a distinct personality group and even less that personality type is related to the exercise of specific project management competencies.

Psychological type theory originated in the work of Carl Jung (1921, 1971). Based on his practical experience in counselling individuals over a period of many years, Jung recognized that while these individuals were all unique, there was a pattern to their primary modes of psychological functioning. One of Jung's most important discoveries was his realisation that by understanding the way people process information, we gain insights into why they act and feel the way they do. In particular, he noted that understanding the way people characteristically perceive, and then act upon information, made it much easier to understand them.

Instruments measuring Carl Jung's theories of psychological types have been widely used in various counselling contexts including career counselling, marital and family therapy and team building to name a few. A wide array of instruments have been developed to assess and measure these personality types, including:

  • The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI, 1949, 1985)
  • The Grey Wheelwright Jungian Type Survey (GW-JTS, 1964)
  • The Singer-Loomis type Development Inventory (SL-TDI, 1984, 1996)
  • The Keirsey Temperament Sorter (1984)
  • The Murphey Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children (1987)
  • Personal Preferences Self Description questionnaire (PPSDQ, 1996)
  • Insights Discovery Preferences Evaluator (1995)

Many more instruments have been developed for specific purposes, such as for diagnosing team roles (Belbin, 1981). At the same time, many other instruments have been developed, and are widely used in psychological research, based on exploring the relative strength or weakness of various personality characteristics, such as the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970) or 5 factors models.

The Insights Discovery tool has been designed to focus on the work environment. It is specifically designed to address the role of personality in the context of job, profession and organization and to recognize the shifts in preference that are realized through the career and assignment choices that individuals make.

The Insights model is based upon the core Jungian psychological types (the attitudes, rational functions and irrational functions, as discussed earlier), and uses colour as a metaphor for type preferences based upon the 4 rational Jungian preferences:

  • Blue – Introverted Thinking (IT). People that have a preference for introverted thinking tend to be detail oriented, analytical and precise. They prefer to gather a full range of facts and information before making a decision, and are logical and reasoned in their thinking and decision making processes.
  • Green – Introverted Feeling (IF). People that have a preference for introverted feeling tend to place a greater emphasis on emotions and relationships. They prefer to assist and support others, and have a strong values focus and sensitivity to when values are being threatened or compromised.
  • Yellow – Extraverted Feeling (EF). People that have a preference for extraverted feeling tend to be outgoing, engaging and enjoy interacting with people. They thrive on variety and the stimulation of new situations and opportunities to work with others, and are often highly creative and effective communicators.
  • Red – Extraverted Thinking (ET). People that have a preference for extraverted thinking tend to be very driven and goal oriented. They have a high need for accomplishment and are stimulated by challenges and opportunities to introduce significant change or deliver on meaningful or challenging goals.

As well as identifying primary types associated with the four Jungian rational preferences, the Insights Discovery model also evaluates the individual's flexibility associated with these preferences. The wheel position indicates the nature of this flexibility:

  • Focussed. A focussed wheel position indicates a preference for a single rational type (Blue, Red, Green or Blue), and less likelihood to adapt to any other rational types.
  • Classic. A classic wheel position indicates a preference for two adjacent rational types, and relative flexibility in the ability to shift styles between these two types.
  • Accommodating. An accommodating wheel position indicates a preference for three adjacent rational types, and a high degree of flexibility in being able to shift styles between the three types.
  • Creative. A creative wheel position indicates a preference for two opposing rational types (Blue/Yellow or Green/Red) and the ability to flexibly shift styles between these two opposing types.

Personality & Project Management

The use of tools to evaluate psychological type in a workplace environment lead to questions regarding the relationship between type, the selection of jobs and roles, and the effectiveness of different psychological types within specific roles. In the context of the field of project management, there has been limited research published to date on the impacts of psychological type on either self-selection into the project management field or the effectiveness of different types to manage projects successfully.

Mills' et al. (Mills, Robey & Smith, 1985) study of project managers using the MBTI found specific personality types, ESTJ and ISTJ, to be associated with traditional managers who would be hard-nosed and insensitive to workers' needs. Managers with the (S) preference were found to be efficient in project management practise.

Max Wideman (1996, 2000) also explored the role of personality and project management, speculating on a correlation between different project manager types and the dimensions defined within the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). While Wideman suggests four stereotypes of project managers, and explores the distribution of the different MBTI types within the general population, there is no attempt to understand whether there is a comparable distribution of types amongst project managers or whether a specific ‘type’ of project manager is more or less likely to be successful in managing projects in general, or whether specific kinds of projects are likely to attract or require specific personality types.

While both these references imply specific characteristics for project managers, they are primarily drawing inferences as to psychological types that are likely to be effective in managing projects based upon assumptions regarding desired qualities, rather than actually evaluating based upon empirical evidence which types select or are more effective in the project management role.

In addition, Black and Seaker (2004) propose that in complex project environments, double loop learning is a required element to facilitate project success and that different personality types correlate with the propensity to engage in double loop learning. Specifically, they suggest that individuals who have a strong preference for intuition, particularly as their dominant function, tend to more frequently use double loop learning and therefore according to their theory would then be more successful leaders of highly complex projects.

Based upon the traditional modes by which project management as a profession is perceived, there is a greater apparent emphasis on the thinking styles (embraced by the blue and red rational types) than the feeling styles (which are defined by the green and yellow rational types). In particular, the analytical focus of the traditional project management practices, as reflected in models such as Project Management Institute's (PMI®) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (2004), would suggest a strong tendency for those with an introverted-thinking (blue) rational type to self-select into the project management role. However, as project managers take on roles of greater authority and responsibility, it can be expected that project managers will need to exhibit behaviours associated with other psychological types, including greater leadership tendencies that are more naturally associated with intuitive thinking styles, as well as greater emphasis on people, teams and relationships that are much more strongly aligned with the feeling rational function.

Introduction to the Research Study

This study was conducted to help to better understand the relationship between psychological types and the project management role, and to evaluate whether the theoretical assumptions discussed above have any validity based upon empirical evidence. In particular, the research is designed to help answer the following questions:

  • Are people who choose project management of like personality?

    Are there specific personality traits that are typical of the project management role, and do those that select project management as a career have specific common traits or personality types? Is there a difference in distribution between those who have selected a project management career and the general population?

  • Is there any relationship between personality type and the ways people manage projects?

    Do the personality types of those who have selected project management as a career influence the means by which they manage projects? Are there certain types that are likely to be more effective in the project management role? Is there a relationship between personality type and relative competency as a project manager?

Project managers were asked to complete a personality assessment survey, allowing an analysis of the distribution of participants across each of the different psychological type categories relative to the general distribution of results within the population. This analysis enables an identification of whether project management as a profession tends to most attract certain styles or types, and understand the degree to which certain types are valued within the profession.

The larger question that needs to be asked is whether the psychological types and personal preferences of project managers has a bearing on how successful they are in managing teams and delivering project outcomes. A subset of the original group also completed a secondary evaluator, developed by Interthink Consulting, which is designed to directly evaluate the skills and effectiveness of project managers in approaching their roles, and provides a means of contrasting the natural preferences of the individual with the styles they exhibit when managing projects.

The analysis of these results enable an assessment of the degree to which project managers shift styles in approaching the project management role, and the degree to which behaviours associated with specific styles and psychological types contribute to project management success.

Subjects for this study were either participants in consulting engagements, students in project management training sessions or participants in project management conferences. Thus there is an inherent bias in the data towards those interested in project management in general and towards the “soft” side of project management in particular. Care must be taken to keep this in mind in the interpretation of the data. In addition, all data was collected in North America.

In general, the subjects for this study are entry level to mid level project management personnel, who are drawn from a wide array of industries and organizations. In total, there are 482 Insights Discovery respondents included in this study, with a near-even mix of male (238) and female (244) respondents.

Research Findings

For the purposes of evaluating the differences in psychological type preferences between project managers and the general population, a recent analysis of random respondents to the Insights Discover evaluator was also utilized. This analysis is an un-published overview that identifies the distribution across each of the different Insights types. The sample is based upon 36,492 randomly selected evaluators collected primarily in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America, providing a high degree of statistical validity (Lothian, 2002).

Preferences

Using the Insights Discovery tool, we can make statements about the respondent's rational type, their flexibility of selection of types, and the correlation of these results the general population. This section addresses the first research question “Are people who choose project management of like personality? And if so what type?”

Rational Type

One of the primary comparisons to be made in evaluating whether different personality types have a greater tendency to self-select to the field of project management is through a comparison of the distribution of respondents who have a primary preference for each of Jung's rational types. This can be determined by evaluating the percentage distribution of primary preference types of the general population with that of this study's respondents. The resulting self-selection ratio identifies the degree to which a particular primary type is more or less preferred, with a number greater than 1 indicating a greater percentage of respondents self-selecting that type over the general population.

Comparison of primary preference for each rational type

Exhibit 1 – Comparison of primary preference for each rational type.

As illustrated in Exhibit1, there is an appreciable increase in the self-selection ratio for those whose primary type preference is Blue (introverted thinking). This correlates with the expected response identified earlier, and is reflective of the analytical perception of the project management role that is reflected in many competency models and frameworks. As well, there is a noted tendency away from the opposite primary type preference of Yellow (extraverted feeling), with a self-selection ration of only 0.82.

Comparison of primary preference for each rational type by sex

Exhibit 2 – Comparison of primary preference for each rational type by sex

While the overall distribution behaves in a manner that is relatively predictable, evaluating and comparing the primary type preferences by sex indicates some key differences from the overall results. While the trend with respect to the Blue type preference is maintained for both sexes, it is more pronounced for female respondents. More significantly, there is a higher self-selection ratio associated with the Green (introverted feeling) rational type for males, and a corresponding decline in the opposite type of Red (extraverted thinking), despite the Red rational type being the highest single preference for men in the general population. As well, there is a slight preference for the Red rational type for women in the project management field, despite with Blue being the least preferred rational types in the general population, and a corresponding decline in preference for the Green rational type.

Flexibility of Preferences

Glossary of Earned Value Terms

Exhibit 3 – Comparison of distribution of Insights wheel position

In evaluating the relative distribution between the wheel positions of the Insights model, there is little meaningful variation between project management respondents to this study and the general population. While there is a slightly higher self-selection ratio for respondents with a focussed wheel position, the number of respondents is low enough that this difference is less significant.

Competency Profiles

As discussed previously, a subset of the sampling of project manages also completed a project management assessment survey as well as an Insights Discovery evaluator, and this provides a basis to be able to evaluate whether the psychological type preferences of individuals has an influence on the existed competencies. This section attempts a response of the question “Is there any relationship between personality type and the ways people manage projects?”

37 respondents completed a project management assessment survey, which represents a relatively small sample. A larger base of responses is currently being gathered to provide a greater level of statistical reliability and validate the early findings using this evaluator. However, this dataset at least hints at issues that will be of interest for further study.

Scores of Project Management Competency by Primary Rational Type Preference

Exhibit 4 – Scores of Project Management Competency by Primary Rational Type Preference

As indicated in Exhibit 4, there is very little variation in the overall scores between the different scores, suggesting that there is not a correlation based upon the primary rational type preference of the individual.

Scores of Project Management Competency by Wheel Position

Exhibit 5 – Scores of Project Management Competency by Wheel Position

In evaluating the flexibility of respondents between different rational types, however, there is a marked progression in overall skill capability. While there is only one respondent each that have focussed (one preferred rational type) or creative (two opposite preferred rational types), there is a clear progression in measured competency in both general business skills and technical project management skills for those that have a classic profile (two adjacent preferred rational types), and a further progression for those that have an accommodating profile (three adjacent preferred rational types). Statistical significance of these differences will be tested in the next phase of the study.

Conclusions

This study was conducted to help to better understand the relationship between psychological types and the project management role. In particular, the research set out to answer the following questions:

  • Are people who choose project management of like personality?
  • Is there any relationship between personality type and the ways people manage projects?

We believe that we have made a contribution to answering these questions. While these preliminary findings are based upon descriptive analysis, the datasets that we currently possess provide a basis to continue to validate both the statistical reliability of the assessment tools and the correlations and conclusions that we have drawn.

The results of the study demonstrate that there is an appreciable difference in psychological type of those that self-select into a project management-related role, as measured using the Insights Discovery evaluator, as well as a strong tendency to self-select for people with an Intuitive preference. As well, there is a significant difference between the results for females, who adopt a very strong thinking type (Red & Blue rational types), with the males, who have a stronger preference for the introverted-sensing types (Blue & Green rational types). We have also found that there is a significant difference in preferences reflected in different age ranges that have selected a project management role.

While the common preference of the Blue (introverted thinking) rational type aligns strongly with assumptions about project management types as well as research into the preferred modes that align with project management standards and framework such as the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004). What is most interesting is the differences between the sexes; while in the general population the Green rational type is the second most popular type among females, there is an extremely strong self-selection to project management by females with a preference for the Red rational type, which is diametrically opposite the green. As well, the Red rational type is the most preferred type by males, but there is an extremely strong self-selection to project management for males with a Green type preference. There is a need to continue to pursue the underlying reasons for these variations in self-selection, and the aspects of the project management role that produce such a different response.

The findings also demonstrate that while there is little impact of actual rational type preferences on demonstrated competency, reinforcing the expectation of project management as learned skill that draws on strengths of diverse range of rational types, there is still a strong correlation between type and competency. In particular, there is a strong correlation that is suggested between the level of flexibility individuals have to adopt different rational types and their degree of competency. This reinforces the thesis that project management requires a degree of flexibility and accommodation, and the ability to adopt different modes of interaction in order to be fully effective in the role.

From our preliminary review of the data, we have been able to demonstrate that the project management role today is predominately occupied by individuals with strong thinking and sensing characteristics, but that there is also a strong self-selection of those with an intuitive type, as well as those that adopt extraverted thinking and introverted feeling modes This supports the need for further research into the impact of codification and standardization of the “hard” stereotypes of project management. This strongly reinforces our initial thesis (and that of Black and Seaker, 2004) that successful project managers – particularly in emerging professions where projects are focussed on managing significant aspects of organizational and cultural change – are demonstrating traits associated with feeling and intuitive psychological preferences, even while the literature and standards of project management much more strongly value and emphasize thinking and sensing traits.

Combined with a growing need for project managers to be able to draw on communications, collaboration, team building and consultative abilities, these findings will have serious implications for organizations that are developing career paths for project managers and for organizations that develop training programs for project management. While there are significant number of training programs aimed at imparting the relatively straightforward “hard” skills, few have developed the next stage of project management training aimed at developing the “softer” skills associated with increasing a project (and organization's) adaptability, reflexivity and ability to deal with complexity.

To be successful in the future, project managers need to create organizational value by carefully shepherding complex undertakings through the chaos of competing demands and expectations. The skills this will demand of our project managers will be balanced between the traditionally recognized project management skills and tools and the more recently valued skills associated with people, empathy and communication. This means that project managers will need to move closer to the ‘centre’ of personality scales, where they are able to embrace the feeling and intuitive aspects of the role as much or more than they currently emphasize the thinking and sensing disciplines more traditionally associated with project management. Without broadening this context, and attracting project managers who are able to embrace collaboration, consultation and team work, project managers will struggle in fulfilling their roles and companies will fail to realize the expectations they are increasingly placing on projects to drive organizational success. To add value in the future, project managers need to be much more than tactical experts, they need to be capable of strategic leadership and motivation much like any other corporate executive.

Belbin RM. (1981). Management teams. New York: Wiley.

Black, K. & Seaker, R. (2004) Project Performance: Implications of Personality Preferences and Double Loop Learning. Journal of American Academy of Business 4 (1/2) p292-297.

Cattell, R. B., Eber, H. W., & Tatsuoka, M. (1970). Handbook for the sixteen personality factor questionnaire (16PF). Champaign, IL: Institute for Personality and Ability Testing.

Jung, C.G. (1971). The collected works of C.G.Jung; Vol. 6 Psychological Types. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Original work published in 1921)

Mills, J., Robey, D. & Smith, L. (1985) Conflict-handling and personality dimension of project management personnel, Psychological Reports (57, pp 1135-1143.)

PMI. (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Newton Square, Pennsylvania: PMI Publishing.

Wideman, M. (1996) Dominant Personality Traits Suited to Running Projects Successfully (And what type are you?) presented to PMI Symposium, Long Beach California.

Wideman, M (2000) Optimizing Success by matching Management Style to Project Type published on PMForum website in September of 2000 and updated in April of 2002.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2006, Mark Mullaly & Janice Thomas
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington

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