Understanding Personality Types: Communicating Effectively in the Workplace

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

“We all bring our lives to the workplace,” said Kathy Barnes, the associate director and operations manager of USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education. Understanding employees as individuals – each with unique personalities, strengths, and life experiences – is an essential leadership skill. Let’s take a closer look at how leaders can take steps toward understanding personality types and communicating effectively in the workplace. 

Coworkers with different personalities eating together at work and communicating effectively.

Use Personality and Strengths Assessments

One way to understand your team members’ personalities is to use assessment tools such as the Birkman Method, DiSC, or CliftonStrengths. For example, USF’s Corporate Leadership Program uses the Birkman Method to assess an individual’s interests, needs, and stress behavior.



When you understand your employees’ personalities, you can place them in roles that emphasize their strengths, Barnes said. If an employee is struggling in their position, assessments can help you reframe a difficult conversation in a positive light. Instead of blaming an employee for underperforming, focus on how you can maximize their strengths and give them what they need to thrive. You can even consider placing them in a new role that better fits their personality. “If a person’s not doing well, maybe they can really shine in another area,” Barnes said. “And as a leader, you need to be able to identify that and not be afraid to make that move.” 


Whenever you discuss the results of an assessment, make sure you aren’t stereotyping employees. Instead, use assessments as an opportunity to let employees tell you more about themselves. Do they truly consider themselves big-picture thinkers? Are their interests more artistic or scientific? How do these factors contribute to their ideal work environment or communication preferences? 


As this BBC article explains, personality assessments are really conversation starters: “It’s about acknowledging differences – even those that might drive others nuts – and working out how to give each other feedback in a way that’s respectful, plus learning to appreciate complementary differences and how best to use them in a workplace setting.” 


Avoid Personality Test Pitfalls

Remember, there are no right answers to these tests, no passing or failing. They’re used to identify personality types, and the best teams include a variety of personalities. 


Make sure you do not discriminate against employees based on their tests. Some workers have reported being “staffed on less desirable projects or denied leadership opportunities because of their personality types,” according to this New York Times article. That obviously is not the kind of work culture you want to create. 


Personality tests should not decide whether you hire an applicant, either. Always review results within the context of the applicant’s “experience, education, references and conduct during the interview,” says this SHRM piece. SHRM also recommends that you choose your personality assessments carefully: “Ask vendors for the technical documentation that shows what the test was designed to measure, what group it was tested with and what workplace behaviors it can predict.” 


Encourage Social Interaction 

Don’t rely solely on tests to get to know your colleagues. Sometimes the best way to understand your employees’ personalities is to engage with them in events outside work. 


During the coronavirus crisis, consider hosting virtual events (book clubs, happy hours, game nights, even dance parties). Every Wednesday afternoon, Barnes and her colleagues hold an online office coffee chat that’s all about social bonding: “You cannot say a word about any work at all. It’s just strictly catching up and checking to see how everyone’s doing.” 


Possible conversation starters for your virtual chat: What have you been watching on Netflix? What recipes have you enjoyed lately? What’s your favorite book? 


Understand Employees’ Life Challenges  

The more you understand the lives of your employees, the more equipped you’ll be to meet their needs. Foster a safe, supportive environment where team members feel comfortable sharing important life events. Barnes tells her team members that her door is always open, even if they just need to “have a good cry.” 


To encourage employees to be honest about their lives, lead by example, Barnes said. Although you don’t want to overshare or complain, be real with employees about your challenges. Barnes gave the example of saying, “I’m sorry, I’m having a really rough day today. You know, my child’s not doing well in school.” 


When you display authentic vulnerability, it can lead to stronger emotional connections with your colleagues. “And it has to be genuine because people can see through stuff. Trust me, if you’re just trying to put on an act, they will definitely see through that,” Barnes said. 

employees with different personalities communicating effectively in the workplace.

Follow Communication Best Practices

All employees, regardless of personality types, want a leader who knows how to communicate effectively. Here are three tips to enhance your communication skills: 

  • Listen. When you actively listen, you demonstrate compassion and open-mindedness. You also learn more about your employees’ true needs. 
  • Use diverse communication tools. With five generations in the workforce, you need to reach both the millennial who likes instant messaging and the baby boomer who prefers a face-to-face meeting or a phone call.
  • Say “why.” During a crisis such as the current pandemic, employees need to understand why they are asked to take on a project or engage in a new initiative, explains this Harvard Business Review article.

Advance Your Leadership Skills

If you’re interested in advancing your leadership abilities, consider USF’s Corporate Leadership Program. You’ll learn how to create an engaged team, understand how to communicate through change, and develop your emotional intelligence. 


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