Personality Parade

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 09-28-2005 Print Email

Personality Parade

While most other IT staffers tend to fall within the ranks of those made most happy while exploring the technology itself, rather than its business function, there are distinct differences among various specialties with IT as well.

Personality researchers have noted that many IT job functions like programming and network administration require a certain introverted perspective, which allows them to focus on difficult, complex tasks without the need for abundant social action.

"If anyone has a propensity toward being a functional psychopath, it could be the network admin who's in the data center all day," said Berg. "Some of them are tempted to pull the plug on the whole thing, just to get people to affirm that they matter."

Another job role that benefits from emotional detachment tends to be database administration, Berg has observed. "DBAs go job shopping when they don't feel appreciated for their contributions," he said. "But they're so introverted that the company will never realize they want to be appreciated until they're gone."

The Myers-Briggs personality test, designed to match individuals with careers based on their preferences and inclinations, pegs most computer programmers and system analysts as ISTJ (introverted, sensing, thinking, judging)-- meaning they have a talent for detail and memorization, but prefer to work behind the scenes, shaping something with their own hands, rather than in a leadership role. Other career types that fit the ISTJ mold include mechanical engineers, auditors, electricians and, somewhat curiously, dentists and militia members.

Those job functions that do require some interaction, such as technical support, are notoriously high in turnover because they combine seemingly conflicting personality types, said Adrian Furnham, a professor in the department of psychology at University College London, and a researcher on personality issues.

"Technical support is a highly unusual beast," he noted. "The person has to be very skilled technically, but to succeed in the job, they have to be sociable as well. As many companies have found, this is a somewhat rare combination."

In response to the turnover rate, many companies have shipped their tech support overseas, but Berg has said the challenge of finding that mix of skills is not a uniquely U.S. phenomenon.

"Companies are finding that they're spending about 75 percent of training time with offshore workers in helping them to deal with irate customers," he said. "And despite the claims of an eager workforce in other countries, the turnover rates there are surprisingly high. But it makes sense. Why would the personality of a tech support employee in India be significantly different than that of one in Indiana?"

Another challenge for companies that want to match the personality type to the job is the potential for promotion. Since IT has become so integrated with larger business goals, boosting a programmer into a management role can become a lesson in personality and job mismatch.

When the company asks a technical type to take on a CIO role--which has a much larger social component as well as a need to navigate among different departments--other executives might be surprised by how quickly those technology-leaning personality traits present themselves.

"Many organizations will tell you that it's very problematic to promote IT experts into management," said Furnham. "It's a dilemma, because you can't change someone's personality. You can't ask them to be an extrovert if they're an introvert, just because they're next in line for a management job. Sometimes you have to tailor the position to the individual, not the other way around."

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