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Complexity: Are We Speaking the Same Language?

How often in professional, or even personal, settings have you encountered a situation like this:

Caroline works in the Marketing department at the bank. She is very structured and loves to check off tasks on her to do list. It gives her a great sense of accomplishment and she feels like she is always moving forward. She has a knack for focusing on the specific problem and proposing a solution. Many of her co-workers have mentioned, more than a few times, that they are surprised at how quickly she completes her work. Many seem envious of this fact. Sometimes she gets feedback that perhaps she should consider some other factors when performing her task.

The bank, where Caroline works, recently acquired a small bank with one branch in Murphy, NC.

Anne also works at the bank and has been managing the acquisition project. Anne thinks very strategically and is focused on how her work today impacts the bank in the next year or two or five. She holds several meetings a week where the participants are analyzing many data points related to the customer’s perception of their brand, using this acquisition to prepare for future acquisitions, and more strategic issues.

One of the tasks on Caroline’s list this week was really easy and should only take one discussion with Anne and she could mark it off of her list. Anne was sometimes hard to understand, but this was so simple that there was no way that she shouldn’t get a straight answer from Anne on this one.

Caroline, being responsible for proofing and editing the bank’s quarterly regional newsletter, just wanted to get Anne’s approval on one short article about the latest branch acquisition. The article was just an announcement about the acquisition. She had sent it to Anne on Thursday and was just going to pop in to make sure Anne was ok with it.

Anne agreed that Caroline could come to her office at 12:00. When Caroline arrived, Anne started talking about the market in Murphy, the new branch manager’s personality, how the media had positioned the acquisition, and more. After Anne listed about 6 people who needed to be consulted about the article, she excused herself to go to her next meeting. Caroline was dumbstruck. Why did these things matter? It was a simple, short, factual article. She was going to have to explain to her boss and let her boss straighten it out. But this task was not getting marked off her list today, for sure!

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

The Narrative Big Five sub-trait of Complexity is one of four sub-traits within the Openness category. Complexity measures comfort with analyzing issues thoroughly and reviewing implications.

When we look at personality differences, and particularly in how we define those in the Narrative Big Five, Caroline is someone we would see landing on the far left of the complexity scale – she likes to keep things simple. Anne, on the other hand, would land on the far right of the scale – she seeks complexity. At least in this example we see an illustration of that behavior.

Someone with Caroline’s personality likes to keep things simple and generally looks at issues very narrowly, sometimes even looking at situations too simply or narrowly.

Anne, and individuals like her, seek complexity; often analyzing the implications of a situation and even secondary and tertiary implications. This pattern can, at times, lead to “analysis paralysis”, delaying decisions and resolution.

People who score in the middle of the spectrum often help people like Caroline and Anne find a common language and a middle-ground by interpreting Anne’s complex thought-process into the key take-aways that Caroline needs to accomplish her project or goal.

Sometimes the best solution is simple and in different situations analyzing potential implications is crucial. People who keep things simple, generally thrive in a structured environment where they are given very specific direction on what is expected of them to complete specific tasks. Those who gravitate toward complexity thrive in a more strategic, creative role where they are given autonomy to achieve a goal with less specific direction on how the goal should be achieved.

How do we, in circumstances of opposites, find a solution to help these different personalities better communicate? In this situation, if the two parties are aware of their differences, then an opportunity for a more fruitful conversation exists. If Caroline can understand that asking questions like “Tell me more about that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion based on this information?” will help her better understand the connections and implications Anne is exploring. Anne, understanding Caroline’s need for succinct simplicity, can explain her thought process, the desired outcome and the steps required to get there. With these changes in communication, built from understanding each individual’s style and strengths, we begin to see two different personalities that are able to find a middle ground and a common language.

The Message for Everyone

Awareness is the first step in understanding that there is a disconnect. Understanding the different personality traits and their sub-traits helps us to better understand ourselves and others, and helps us to strategize and leverage the strengths of each individual within the team.

Appreciation and respect of diverse personalities and opinions is the next step in ensuring that individuals and teams develop a successful solution.

While it’s easy to relate to people that are “like us”, to be successful, teams generally need to be comprised of individuals that fall all along the spectrum so that they’re able to leverage their respective strengths to drive progress and success.

The Message for Caroline

When faced with a complex personality it’s often helpful to ask questions. Thoughtful, interest driven questioning can help connect the dots of complex thinking and provide additional perspectives not previously considered.

The Message for Anne

When speaking with people who like to keep things simple, it may be helpful to focus complex thoughts in order of importance or a bullet point format. Help others follow your train of thought by simplifying the message and making the connections that may seem vague to others.

Where do you fall on the Complexity spectrum?