When I gaze into my crystal ball, the future is unclear. Are we heading for a recession, and if we are, how severe will it be? It’s difficult to predict, and for some of us, that lack of clarity is even worse than knowing for sure that there are dark times ahead.
We all deal with change and uncertainty in different ways, and this is strongly influenced by our personality. For example, in research that my organization carried out in 2020, we found that people with a personality preference for thinking were less concerned and stressed by the changes caused by the pandemic and associated layoffs and recession than were people with a preference for feeling.
Thinking versus feeling, one aspect of the Myers-Briggs model of personality, looks at whether we prefer to make decisions on the basis of objective logic (thinking) or on the basis of our values and how other people will be affected by the decision (feeling).
Among those who still had a job when co-workers had been furloughed or laid off, survivor guilt was significantly higher among the feeling respondents.
Two other aspects of our personality have a big impact on how we deal with change, extraversion versus introversion and sensing versus intuiting:
- People with a preference for extraversion focus on the outside world and get their energy from interacting with other people and the environment; people with a preference for introversion focus on their inner world of thoughts and feelings and are energized by reflection and thinking things through. We all do both, but we have a preference for one side or the other and may become very single-minded in this respect when things get stressful.
- Sensing versus intuiting concerns the sort of information that we pay the most attention to—something especially important during change. People with a sensing preference focus on the practicalities, and questions like what, where, when, and who. They want to know what their specific role will be in the change process and what exactly is and isn’t working. Conversely, those with an intuitive preference want to know the big picture, the overall reasons for the change and how this links to other initiatives and future plans. They will be less concerned about specifics and practicalities.
It’s the combination of these two dimensions that gets to the core of how people typically react to change.
Extraverts are more action-oriented; introverts want to think things through first. Those with a sensing preference need to know the practicalities; those with an intuitive preference, the big picture. This applies to how we like to deal with change, but also to how we tend to present change to others, and this can lead to problems when managers have a different personality profile from their reports. For example, a manager with extraversion and intuition (EN) preferences will typically see change as exciting, full of possibilities, and as a way to be creative; they are likely to present their overall vision as a way to convince others and they want things to change as soon as possible.
However, while the EN pairing is over-represented amongst executives and high-level managers, the most common pairing amongst employees is introversion and sensing (IS). These people want to know the details and the practical value of the change. They like to conserve what works and want time to think things through before they change anything. The two parties are at risk of talking at cross-purposes and becoming increasingly alienated with each other; the IS folks see ENs as changing things just for the sake of it without thinking it through, the ENs see IS as obstructive and nit-picking. This sets the stage for a dysfunctional reaction to any recession or downturn.
There is, fortunately, a way for talent development professionals to prevent these problems. As we approach a potential downturn, it is important to ramp up employee development. In particular, we can build the self-awareness of employees so that they understand their reaction to change and managers understand the differing needs of their reports.
In turn, this will help employees and leaders understand and advocate for their own needs during change and facilitate a more inclusive style of leadership. Personality measures such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment can be an extremely useful tool during this process. Alongside measures such as paying particular attention to employee well-being, this can make a real difference, even as the storm clouds of recession roll in.