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What to know about personality type and social distancing as employees return

John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership - The Myers-Briggs Company
black floor lamp on living room sofa

Social distancing. It’s not a phrase that most of us were familiar with until very recently, yet now it governs our lives. The government originally put these measures in place on the 23rd of March, but it seems likely that we will need to continue social distancing for some time to come.

Although most people now seem to be obeying the rules, it’s clear that some seem to find social distancing easier than others. The ways that we react to this crisis, and the strategies we find effective, are likely to relate to our personality. Social media has already noticed this, with many seeing a link between social distancing and Introversion. But the ways in which different personality preferences relate to social distancing and its consequences (home working for example) go beyond memes, allowing workers to adapt to the new reality and creating a framework through which learning and development and HR professionals can help. 

One of the most popular ways of describing personality is the type approach, as used by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessmentThis looks at four areas: whether we prefer to focus our attention on the outside world (Extraversion), or on our inner world of thoughts and feelings (Introversion); whether we prefer to deal with detailed, concrete information (Sensing) or the big picture (Intuition); whether we prefer to make decisions on the basis of objective logic (Thinking) or on the basis of our values and how people will be affected (Feeling); and whether we prefer to live our lives in an ordered, structured way (Judging) or in a more open, spontaneous way (Perceiving). Individuals who know their MBTI personality type can use the framework to help them adapt to social distancing and virtual working, and L&D practitioners can facilitate this process. Here are some hints and tips for each type: 

Extraversion and Introversion
Social distancing means just that, a physical distance between people. This may be difficult for some with an Extraversion preference, so it is important that they find other ways to keep in touch, by making full use of online communication tools for exampleGovernment guidelines suggest that we can exercise outdoors once a day; Extraverts should make full use of this, but not as an excuse for socialising too closely.

Extraverts prefer a busy, lively environment with plenty of opportunities for interaction. This may be difficult to achieve when social distancing and working from home. They should take a regular breaks and think of ways to make their environment more stimulating, for example by playing music. Communication is important, so organisations should make online tools such as Skype easily available and schedule regular informal meetings and virtual get-togethers. Extraverts may need to plan timeslots that are free of distractions for focused work.

Until COVID-19, society encouraged and rewarded behaviours seen as typical of Extraverts, and many Introverts felt under pressure to behave in a more ‘extraverted’ way. Some Introverts will appreciate the peace and quiet brought about by social distancing. They typically enjoy a calm, peaceful environment and might quite enjoy working from home, provided that there are not too many other people, especially children, around as well. But Introverts do need some contact with people and the outside world, so it is important that they do not forget to engage and communicate with their family, friends and colleagues, else they may become isolated. And other people should remember to include them too. For some Introverts, there is a danger that they become so engrossed in work or a hobby that they neglect everything else; they should always remember to take regular breaks. 

Sensing and Intuition
Those with a Sensing preference may find themselves becoming obsessed with the minutiae of social distancing rules, or the physical aspects of their home (or home working) environment, or worrying obsessively about missing exercise, or snacking far too much. Maintaining contact with others is a good way to keep in touch with the real world. For those with an Intuition preference, the temptation is to over-complicate things; getting together (virtually) with someone with a Sensing preference may help to bring them back down to earth provided that both parties have the intention to be constructive. 

Thinking and Feeling
People with a Thinking preference may be less motivated to maintain (virtual) social contact with friends and colleagues than those with a Feeling preference. It is also the case that stripped of the usual social cues, the online communication of Thinking individuals can be very direct and task-focused, with terse, impersonal emails for example, leaving whose with a Feeling preference wondering what they have done wrong. Being aware of other’s needs can reduce stress for both. 

Judging and Perceiving
Those with a Judging preference enjoy a planned, organized life and may be particularly unsettled by the ways in which social distancing has disrupted their routine, and the imposed change of suddenly working from home. It will be useful for them to get into a new routine as soon as they can, and important for organizations to facilitate this. Setting clear work and personal goals at the start of each day will be useful, as will setting boundaries around working hours and allowing for other activities, such as shopping, to take longer than before. 

For those with a Perceiving preference, the consequences of social distancing are a double-edged sword. They may for example enjoy some aspects of working from home, such as the freedom to be flexible around hours, especially (if they have a garden) when the sun is shining. However, they will find the difficulty in being spontaneous and the routine of being at home demotivating. Moving between different activities or between different work projects so as to maintain variety, can help keep these individuals fresh. Informal virtual meetings and get-togethers that have a ‘playful’ character can also be useful. 

Building for the future
By taking the time to understand how people will react to this crisis, employers can equip their workforce with the tools required to manage stress, remain engaged, and be productive – and to come out the other side. 

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