In early January 1942, Isabel Briggs Myers sat down to write her mother a letter. It had been eight years since she had given up a promising career as a mystery writer because she was (in her words) too “lazy” to be a wife, mother, and author. But an article in Reader’s Digest about personality testing had piqued her interest. What if she could develop personality tests to ensure that people involved in the war effort were placed into the right jobs, where they could be most effective? With the nation’s human capacity stretched, it seemed like the country couldn’t afford to misassign even one person.
With that letter, a woman with no formal training in psychology or statistics, acting on inspiration from Reader’s Digest no less, took the first step in developing a spider’s web of a process that would eventually ensnare workers around the world.
Isabel Briggs Myers, of course, developed the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) personality test. Based on the theories of Carl Jung, the test uses a survey about perceptions and decision-making to assign people into one of sixteen groups. The theory is refreshingly uncynical: an employer can use each person’s type to slice through the ambiguity and place each one in the perfect job — a managerial paradise where milk and honey would flow from the water cooler.
Despite its widespread adoption, the MBTI has some major holes. Beyond the mind-numbing sixteen categories, the whole system is built on a Mary-Poppins, all-preferences-are-equally-good, superfragilisticexpialidocious worldview that cannot stand up to the experience of anyone who interfaces with humanity on a daily basis.
So, with as much formal preparation for the task as Isabel, I would like to propose a personality typology for the internet era, one that you can apply with simple observation to every single person you meet in a given day.
I have learned to sort people on two dimensions: competence (how smart are they?) and niceness (how difficult are they?). This allows me to place every person I meet in one of these four boxes. I call it The Four People You Meet on Earth.
It is certainly an understatement to say that I have provided a less intellectually rigorous test than the Isabel Briggs Myers did — it is more Henny Yungman than Carl Jung.
But intentionally so. It is a superficial model for superficial relationships.
Beyond its numbing simplicity, my theory also appears insulting. People just aren’t comfortable talking about competence — it feels unfair and judgmental. I submit that when you understand my theory, you will realize that the inclusion of competence is not an affront. It represents a lifeline to the insufferable among us: Smart Assholes contribute, while Dumb Assholes spread like kudzu though our personal ecosystem.
Our ultimate question is no different than Isabel Briggs Myer’s was: What do we do with these people, besides placing them into boxes? How can we help them be more productive and make our life easier at the same time?
Let’s look at a morning in an American workplace, first from the perspective of the unenlightened, and then from the perspective of a practitioner of the Four People method.
You arrive at work, grab your coffee, and head to a staff meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a new marketing program for a client. As often happens, this group has locked onto the first appealing idea to come before it. For the sake of illustration, we’ll say that the approach was to emphasize the benefit of beauty in a new shampoo. Everyone is throwing ideas out, and they are pretty good. What a way to start the day! The meeting might even be over early.
Our Smart Asshole — who has been curiously silent — can take it no more. He launches himself into the meeting with one of his favorite icebreakers: faint praise.
“I think we have some really good ideas here. I just think we’re missing the big picture, again.”
Having softened the beachhead, he proceeds with the invasion.
“It is obvious — to me, at least — that our customers aren’t motivated by their hair, anymore than a man who buys Viagra is motivated by his dick.”
Here he snorts a little, amused by the idea.
Speaking slowly, enunciating each syllable, as if in the presence of the mentally infirm, he continues, “Women want to be pretty because they think it makes them empowered and free. Free to choose their men, free to finally feel at ease with themselves. I hate to trash all our work this morning, but that’s the answer.”
He is right. Everyone knows it. And it bugs the shit out of them.
The Asshole looks around the table and senses this. He decides that today being right is not enough and demands submission. Maintaining an even tone of voice, as if he were discussing the most recent financial results, he proceeds to belittle and demean both the ideas and the people who created them.
Using his native intelligence, he makes sure that he exposes each person at their most vulnerable. He questions the worth of those with low self-esteem and the arrogance of those with high self-esteem. He lets junior staff members know they aren’t ready and senior staff members that their time has passed.
When the meeting is finally over, the office is filled with the sounds of closing doors, pounding keys, and muffled voices on the phone. People have re-discovered their energy.
But now, it is invested in killing the Smart Asshole’s idea. What, primally, is motivating these people? The desire to keep the Smart Asshole from getting his way. And the desire to be there to see his face when it happens.
You leave the meeting and head down the hallway, passing the office of another colleague — the Dumb and Nice one. She is slumping at her desk, a protoplasmic distress signal.
You remember that weeks ago she agreed to develop a Request for Proposals for a new vendor program when no one else would. This is a detail-oriented project that requires assembling a wide set of information and putting it all together in a coherent whole that makes business sense for the company. Today, you realize that she has strolled into the forest, has no idea how to get out again, and night is coming fast.
You know that you should help, but two people doing the work of one isn’t a winning business model. This is a bill that will come due. Whatever she comes up with will need to be fixed, and it might take longer to fix than it took her to mess it up. You sigh and walk back to your office.
Thanks to these two people, the company showed up for work and threw the gearbox into reverse.
You sit down at your desk. You have an email from your least favorite person, the Dumb Asshole. It is addressed to most of the company, right up to the president.
The email starts with the Dumb Asshole’s pet phrase: “It has come to my attention…” He proceeds to say that he has learned that a project meeting was held without including the account team. He objects, and then demands that the creative team produce an immediate status report on all work, and then create a daily update which will be sent to everyone in the chain of command.
You know what happened. The Dumb Asshole had walked by some of the creative team members who were holding an impromptu meeting in the hallway, enthusiastically brainstorming work for a new project. You envision the time and energy that will be wasted creating these reports that are destined to remain unread.
You decide to ignore the email and hope it is forgotten. Right before you leave for lunch, you receive a message from the Senior Vice President’s BlackBerry. As tersely as a raven, he says, “Good idea.”
That message is followed shortly by another message, this one from one of the senior vice president’s direct reports. He is summoning the entire creative team to a meeting to discuss the problem of excluding the account team, and the creation of an accountability structure.
Not only is the company moving in reverse, it has tied a brick to the accelerator.
You head to lunch. At last, a respite. You are meeting with one of the Smart and Nice people you know on a project for a new client. You spend the first fifteen minutes of the lunch talking about the project. Compared to the wreckage you have seen today, you are pretty sure that you are already ahead of the game on this one. So, you spend the remaining part of the lunch talking about your family and friends. As you leave, you feel good.
So, that’s a morning in the life of the unenlightened. How could a “Four Person” ninja have glided through this day and left everyone better off?
Let’s start with the staff meeting, where the Smart Asshole has succeeded in making it wrong to be right. In general, for people with one good trait (smart) and one bad trait (asshole), our job is to complete them, with apologies to Jerry Maguire.
What the Smart Asshole really needed in that meeting was a real-time translator — someone to recast his ideas in a way that did not feel like a judgment to the rest of the team. This is harder than it sounds. At that exact moment, you have to figure out how to support the Asshole without losing your credibility with the remainder of the team.
“Okay,” you might say, pre-empting the smart asshole’s monologue, “I think we are going in the right direction. I love this beauty stuff and I think the empowerment platform is a great place to put it. Is there anyone here who doesn’t agree that we can put these two ideas together and create a campaign we can get excited about?”
Positioned this way, the people in the room will almost always all agree. You have conceded the contest to the Smart Asshole (and he knows it), but you have explicitly agreed with the room. No one feels threatened, and everyone leaves thinking they were right. The hours that would have been spent torpedoing the idea now become productive time. And the right idea will drive the project.
Let’s move on to the Dumb and Nice person who is in the process of steering her project into the swamp. We need to complete her, too.
In this situation, you would have done your best work back at the moment she volunteered, when you could have suggested that everyone in the room hold a one-hour status meeting each week to review the work in progress. People know it will save time, so they agree. By adding everyone’s brain, the project will stay within waving distance of the track.
The next person is the most difficult. A Dumb Asshole doesn’t need completing. Ideally, they would be eliminated, but their ability to survive and even thrive is proof of the inherent imperfection of human enterprise. No, we are talking damage control: they need to be mitigated.
In this situation, for example, you might have responded to the email immediately. Against your instincts, you will hit Reply All, so your rebuttal can fall onto the same ears as the original missive. You will have to swallow your pride and acknowledge (but not validate) the Asshole’s concern, and offer a fifteen-minute stand up meeting the next morning to clear the air.
Is this right? No. Is it a waste of time? Yes. But it is less of a waste of time than it would have been. By leaping into the breach, you can create a solution before the senior vice president’s BlackBerry rattles, and he inflicts a decision on the whole company.
Finally, you head to lunch. This is that rare person whose traits we don’t need to complete or mitigate, but maximize. We leave more on the table with this group of people than with anyone else. We ride the comfort zone with the good people, content to get as far as we would have with the flawed people. Weakness determines our ceiling.
I submit this to you: When we work with Smart and Nice people, we should be going for more than very good work. We should be looking to break records. When we get as far as we ever do with anyone else, we should keep going. We should write our agenda on their strengths whenever we can. So, rather than breaking off from the project after fifteen minutes, you and your friend challenge yourselves to make it better than you had ever imagined. You spend an extra half hour playing off each other, feeling the excitement of new ideas. The two of you are smarter together than you are apart.
Then, you spend the last fifteen minutes catching up. That’s important too.
So that’s the same day, lived two ways.
Rinse and repeat.
The ultimate point is simple, and it is one that I suggest that Isabel Briggs Myers would understand. You get up in the morning and deal with the people in your world, more or less as you find them. If you can accept this fact without becoming disillusioned, you can begin to react to them the same way you react to a rainy day — not by shaking your fist at the sky, but by popping open an umbrella.