On Project Teams, Personalities Can Matter More Than Skills

illustration of astronauts and rover on Mars

NASA hopes to send a team of astronauts to Mars one day. The journey requires putting a group of people in a confined space for hundreds of days. In such a situation, NASA is less concerned about the past work of the team and more concerned about whether they would all want to kill each other by day 30.

In their own words: “…We assume that astronauts are intelligent, that they’re experts in their technical areas, and that they have at least some teamwork skills. What’s tricky is how well individuals combine.”

Examining this problem reveals why some teams stacked to the ceiling with talent fail to make a project succeed. The issue is that some groups with highly complementary skillsets may also have highly incompatible personality types.

To prevent this from rendering your team ineffective, you must consider how their personalities dictate the roles they end up playing on the team. You must have highly personable motivators, for instance, to balance out the people who do good work yet have trouble staying focused.

Product managers interested in building productive, highly functional teams must therefore keep personality types and work tendencies in consideration when handpicking members and assigning roles.

Why Complementary Skills Are Less Important Than Complementary Personality Types

Envisioning why some team dynamics work and others do not requires a bit of mental exercise. So, let’s warm up.

Say you have a formidable “A-Team” of software engineers. One is a master at building APIs. Another cranks out code at lightning speed. A third can spot bugs emerging within the code before they even test the product live. A fourth is an expert delegator, able to arrange priorities for each build and determine the ideal team member to work on them.

A deadline emerges… and nothing about the build works. The bug-spotter has slowed everyone down because he insists that people are writing code that will lead to instability down the line. The API-builder has crafted an incredible back-end that unfortunately will take a ton of work to implement within the current product iteration. The supersonic coder hid away in his office for weeks writing features that don’t really fit the project scope. In the meantime, everyone has daydreamed a plan for how they want to kill the delegator, who has been nagging everyone non-stop to shift their focus to something else.

In this example, you can see how seemingly beneficial skills won’t work without the right personality to channel those skills into a team-driven effort and a singular vision.

For the above situation, the “master delegator” alone cannot lead the team, because they transitioned into a reactive role when they should be enforcing an established project timeline. The quick coder also needs someone with vision to guide their skills and provide supervision. Leaving them to their own devices only resulted in trouble.

Overall, complementary personalities matter more than complementary skills.

Personal vs. Interpersonal Skillsets

People have two completely separate skillsets when it comes to team dynamics:

  1. Personal skills that make them excel at particular tasks when by themselves
  2. Interpersonal skills that make them excel in particular situations when interacting with the team

Therefore, someone with a high degree of emotional intelligence who can help serve as the “glue” for the team by understanding everyone’s mindset will be highly useful, even if they don’t have strong engineering skills.

Someone who is inventive and creative may be beneficial at the start of a product but disruptive if they try to deviate from the project scope. But, someone with strong interpersonal skills can help understand their concept, file it away for later and explain how they can apply ingenuity to current project goals or challenges.

As a generally workable team dynamic, the Harvard Business Review suggests that at least one role is assigned to each of the following personality types:

  • Relationship-focused people, who value keeping team sentiments positive and team relationships healthy
  • Results-oriented people, who have confidence, energy and vision to see things through to the end or pull others away from deviations
  • Innovative and disruptive thinkers who are creative, devise novel solutions and anticipate problems through their imagination and curiosity
  • Process and rule followers who are detail oriented, reliable and productive
  • Pragmatists who challenge ideas and focus on available resources while staying level-headed

This list is by no means exhaustive, and it can also be ambiguous since some people tend to fall into two or more categories or only share partial traits.

The bottom line is that your “A-Team” should not be solely based on personal skillsets but also consider how they work with their peers. Think about personalities. Imagine the consequences of putting them in a spaceship together. Then, come up with a crew that wouldn’t be at each other’s throats after weeks on end. Building teams this way will benefit project outcomes far more than even the most impressive stack of resumes.

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