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New study examines role of personality dimensions in project improvement teams

picture of Todd Creasy

Todd Creasy

Although the importance of conflict management style, self-monitoring and change orientation is well-established in the management sciences, recent research by a Western Carolina University professor suggests that those personality traits are frequently overlooked when organizations assemble teams tasked with improving business practices.

That is among the findings of a study by Todd Creasy, professor of management in WCU’s College of Business, following his survey of 42 managers selected for membership on improvement teams, especially those utilizing the popular Six Sigma or Lean methodologies. 

When organizational leaders ignore important personality traits as they select improvement team members, they may unintentionally diminish the possibility of the project reaching its fullest potential and put the entire project at risk of failure, said Creasy.

Creasy has authored a paper on his research titled "Improvement Manager Selection – Equipped for the Trip?” that appears in the February 2024 edition of Quality Progress, the official publication of the American Society for Quality.

Creasy said he believes the study is important because businesses and organizations worldwide spend billions of dollars every year on efforts to improve their processes. This means they should focus on ensuring that the proper people are involved in those improvement efforts because of the potentially devastating impact of poor results  on quarterly financial results and customer relations, he said.

Too frequently, organizational leaders looking to improve their business practices tend to focus on the so-called “hard skills,” including technical skills such as project chartering or flow charting, he said.

“When considering those applicants to lead projects or teams, there should be more deliberation given to soft skills such as taking the lead to initiate change and successfully manage team conflict than those simply having a good grasp of the tools necessary in leading a project team,” Creasy said.

And that’s where individual personality traits come into the mix. For his research, Creasy assessed personality dimensions relating to self-monitoring, change orientation and conflict management as self-reported by the 42 members of his study sample. Improvement project managers comprising the sample represented diverse industries and sectors including nonprofits, health care, government agencies, mining and road construction.

In general, a high level of self-monitoring on the part of project managers tends to lead to less successful outcomes in project improvement processes because the need to be a “people-pleaser” often conflicts with the overall best interests of an organization, Creasy said.

“People who are more apt to try to ‘be all things to all people’ operating in a spirit of people-pleasing often experience more burn-out and project failure than those that are more goal-oriented,” he said.

The personality dimension of change orientation also can have an effect on the success of a project improvement initiative in multiple ways, Creasy said. For example, some team members may be averse to change, clinging to the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset. On the other hand, some team members may be too eager to seek a change simply for the sake of change – and to stake an ownership claim in a new way of doing things.

“Selecting an improvement manager who initiates change where and when necessary seems to be a judicious decision,” Creasy said.

Finally, conflict management is an important part of an organization’s improvement process because when different people with different perspectives and personalities are involved, conflict will inevitably arise.

The management sciences typically focus on three styles of conflict management – collaborating, competing and accommodating. Of those three, collaborating is preferred, Creasy said. However, based on the sample size in his study, many people leading projects still employ too much of the accommodating style, thus jeopardizing the project’s goals and timeline.

“Conflict forces a company and its employees to pursue answers to problems they are facing. This quest often leads to improvements and creates energy when handled constructively,” he said. “Based on these findings, it seems that a project manager who encourages healthy debate and conflict within their team meetings will experience more success than those that do not.”

Creasy found that, when considering all the personality dimensions of the project managers in his sample, the majority (79%) did not possess the optimum personality traits necessary to improve the probability of success.

“This may help explain why so many projects exceed their budget or schedule and experience less-than-desirable product and service quality and more-than-desirable team turnover,” he said. “As such, leaders who are tasked with improvement manager selection will be keenly interested in the rubric-addition of personality dimensions to their manager selection process.”

Creasy’s paper is available online in the Quality Progress publication.

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