Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Business of Psychology in the Psychology of Business

Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur, Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god."

I repeatedly recalled this quote while reading this book. Dr. Dawna Markova, internationally recognized specialist in learning and perception styles, starts with the premise that we must interact with many diverse personality types in today’s go-go technological society. Aided by research assistant (and daughter-in-law) Angie McArthur, she commences a detailed examination of what that means for most people, particularly in the workplace.

I initially had high hopes for this book. Principal author Markova writes differently than, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Jack Hitt. Being a scholar rather than a journalist, she writes with tight, erudite focus, with emphasis on reasoning and research. And she has no pretense of journalistic dispassion: these are her discoveries, darnit, and she’ll expound them with fierce mama-bear love, never pretending to offer conflicting viewpoints or false balance. Her specificity is bracing.

Markova wants readers to cultivate what she calls Collaborative Intelligence, or CQ. This involves broad, detailed understanding of how other thinking styles work, including recognizing both their strengths and their blind spots. We already know not everybody is good at everything; from there, we must collaborate, to bundle everybody’s strengths. A poorly managed group is chaos; but a well-managed group can accomplish more than members can individually.

To achieve CQ, we must better understand ourselves. Markova begins by subdividing thought patterns into three core categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (hands-on) thinking. We all have all three, though to different degrees. Prioritizing this gives us six starting templates; below that, thirty-five further “thinking talents” subdivide the personality styles, which can be charted into quadrants, parsed for strengths and “shadow traits,” and partnered for ultimate strength.

Dawna Markova, Ph.D.
So far, so good. Markova more than doubles the personality categories available via the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), meaning we have increased room for individuality. This liberating latitude permits Markova’s target audience, primarily corporate middle- and upper-management professionals, to customize their relational skills to their companies. As Markova repeatedly insists, we cannot change problem personalities, only how we relate to them.

Great. However...

Around this book’s midpoint, Markova discusses thinking styles with an ambitious young CEO, a discussion spanning several chapters. The CEO expresses trepidation about interactions with his chairman, stemming from their very different personalities. Markova guides the CEO through the thinking styles, arriving at an awareness of their respective strengths and mutual blind spots. Which sounds great, but the whole time I’m thinking: why can’t they sit down and have a conversation?

This exemplifies my problem with this book. Not that it’s wrong, because I don’t believe it is; indeed, handled judiciously, I believe it could potentially thorny interactions between divergent personalities. However, used flippantly, it provides potential excuses to avoid talking with strangers, subordinates, and competitors. If we ramrod everyone into somebody’s pre-scripted identity templates, we needn’t bother getting to know their real characters and aspirations.

Markova’s CQ model, like the highly influential but scientifically sketchy MBTI, basically assumes personality types are constant. Though she acknowledges some wiggle room, there’s little concession for differences between workplace and home personalities; for personality shifts based on physical and mental health, nutrition, and sleep levels; even for personalities’ tendency to shift with age. Markova stuffs everybody into respective boxes, willy-nilly.

In myself I’ve noticed, with encroaching middle age, distinct personality shifts: increasing extroversion, openness to novelty, and adaptability. That’s largely the opposite direction most aging brains travel, but still, it reflects that personalities aren’t fixed. Though Markova repeatedly asserts that her categories are mainly guidelines, not rules, she doesn’t particularly stress that. And we’ve seen, with MBTI’s popularity, how lay psychologists turn thumbnail categories into rules.

Modern multinational corporations don’t permit employers to know every employee, admittedly. Organizations must often think in categories, painting subordinates with a broad brush, because knowing everybody is cost-prohibitive. But common sense and personal experience tell me that organizations which adopt Markova’s approach will inevitably misuse it, believing certain personality types slot cleanly into certain jobs, even when overwhelming evidence says otherwise.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe Markova’s approach is wrong. Her techniques derive from legitimate research, both her own and others’, and trained psychologists and managers could potentially apply her approach to great profit. But as long business books often do, Markova’s keeps going after its point is proved, inadvertently revealing its own weaknesses. We’re all individuals, not categories, and deserve treated as such.

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