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Making your temperament work for you

If there’s one thing we each truly own, it’s our personality. A mixture of nature and nurture, personality includes some aspects we can change, and others we tend toward no matter what. We might favor idealism, or be more pragmatic; we may lean towards open expression, or keeping our emotions hidden. No matter our tendencies, there are ways to make them work for our benefit, and shore up the areas where we’re naturally deficient. Before we can do that, however, we have to understand our own temperament, and how it affects us on the job.

Which type are you?

Though few personalities fall completely within any one category, temperaments have long been sorted into these four helpful types, each based on an “element” of nature:

Fire. Emotionally, fires tend to be dynamic, energetic, principled, and confident. They often have a compulsive need for change, and must correct wrongs. Strong-willed and quick, they also fear failure and can be impatient. They prefer being right to being popular; think Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol.

At work, Fires tend to be goal-oriented and tuned into the big picture. They take action quickly and know how to delegate, but can be blind to their effect on others and often thrive on opposition. They are good thinkers, but can create unnecessary work.

Air. These people are natural storytellers and tend to be the life of the party. They are expressive and have a good sense of humor. They are quick to anger, but they soon forget their irritation; think Sally Brown, Charlie’s little sister from the Peanuts comic.

While working, Airs contribute to a positive atmosphere and like volunteering to help out. Because they have difficulty saying no, they often do too many things at once. They can also get bored with a task when the novelty wears off, and struggle to complete things.

Water. Waters are low-key, easygoing, and slow to anger, but can get explosive when pushed too far; think about The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ character in the movie The Big Lebowski.

On the job, Waters are steady, and skilled at seeing projects through from beginning to end. They avoid conflicts, but find it hard to be heard. They are good under pressure and, in fact, require deadlines to be successful.

Earth. Deep and thoughtful, philosophical and purposeful, Earths appreciate beauty, are sensitive to others, and can be self-sacrificing. They tend towards idealism, can very self-critical, and abhor change; think Eeyore, the woebegone donkey from Winnie the Pooh.

At the office, Earths see the big picture and use time well. Detail-oriented and economical, they pursue high standards and can even be perfectionists, but they often expect the worst and resist change.

Responding by type: Your personality and others’

Once you’ve figured out your type (or types), what do you do next? Aim for balance, by challenging yourself to practice the behaviors of your elemental opposite. Some suggestions:

- If you tend to be a Fire, look to Water qualities: Be conscious of your effect on others, and wait patiently for wider participation or for things to develop.

- If you lean toward Water, you should find your Fire: Learn to be more action-oriented and decisive.

- If Air is more your temperament, seek Earth skills: Learn to listen more carefully, to complete your follow-through, and to find and respect boundaries—your own and other people’s.

- If you’re Earth-centric, work on Air qualities: Learn to look beyond the worst-case scenario and be more forgiving of yourself; finding the lighter side of things will help.

You’ll also want to think about your colleagues’ personality type, and how best to work with them. Say you’re proposing something new:

- When dealing with a Fire, get straight to the point, support arguments with details and facts, and prepare to be challenged. Think through the consequences and bring back-up plans. Because Fires like to go it alone, help them see the need to bring others on board—remind them what’s happened when they haven’t, and how much better things go when they have.

- If your coworker is a Water, be sure to take your time, be clear, and provide all the important information without too many details. Allow them time to consider your proposal, and give them the chance to pitch alternatives. Have patience, and they’ll move when the time is right.

- If Air is your counterpart, be relaxed and less formal than you might otherwise be. Don’t rush to the point or get too structured in your proposal, but instead communicate with vivid images. Be sure to provide limits and hold them to deadlines.

- An Earth can be trickier: Understanding that change is difficult for them, provide Earths with full descriptions of each possible plan, including strengths and challenges. Don’t be overly positive unless there’s a good reason, and think about using reverse psychology: Sometimes, feeding their resistance will provoke an Earth to be more positive.

Once you do some thinking about personality, and its impact on the way you and your colleagues work, you can adapt your collaboration style to get the job done as effectively and painlessly as possible.

Sir José Bright is Vice President, Nonprofit Consulting Group.

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