What leaders need to know about personality and motivation

Have you taken an assessment describing your personality profile? Your “type” is a set of characteristics proven to hang together statistically. For example, if you’re an introvert who tends to accept what the environment offers rather than control it, you are grouped with people sharing your pattern of behaviors. Your type is assigned a name such as an S, Stabilizer, Supporter, Air, or the color yellow. Your group shares preferences to act introvertedly and express ideas indirectly rather than directly. You prefer to listen rather than talk and prefer routine over spontaneity.

susan fowler

As a student of personality theory and coauthor of a personality-based assessment, I encourage people to investigate their behavior patterns to understand themselves, appreciate differences among people and gain the skill of versatility. Your ability to recognize differences in people’s personalities is akin to speaking the native language in a foreign country. It makes navigating the world less challenging than it already is!

But here’s the rub. Many personality assessments declare they are about motivation, answering the question, “What motivates you?” They claim to reveal the “essentials of motivation” by describing what motivates each personality type or temperament. I hope you’ll join me in exploring why I believe these “motivation” assessments are misguided.

What personality tests get wrong about motivation

Motivation is a ubiquitous, broad, often misconstrued and misunderstood concept. No wonder we can be easily confused by what motivation is and isn’t — and what assessments claiming to measure motivation are actually measuring.

Motivation is “the energy to act.” Motivation is at the heart of everything we do and don’t do, so it is wise to take advantage of empirical evidence. And that includes calling out commercial assessments based on personality theories misrepresenting the truth about human motivation.

To be clear: Just because your profile reports that you’re an introvert doesn’t mean you’re motivated to be alone. Just because you have a tendency or preference for listening doesn’t mean you’re motivated to listen. Your dispositional behavior (DISC type, Myers-Briggs temperament or other variations of personality models) describes your preferences and tendencies.

For example, a popular “motivation” assessment refers to an extroverted personality type as the Achiever with these characteristics:

“The Achiever is energetic, possesses high motivation and drive, with strong goal orientation and high productivity.”

My question is: What if you’re an introvert and not in the “Achiever” group? Does this mean you have low motivation and productivity?

The mistake these personality assessments make is conflating motivation with personality preferences and tendencies.

Motivation is not a personality preference or tendency

Instead of tossing these personality assessments and their four-square models out the window, I urge you to reframe what they’re telling you about your motivation.  Science has proven that motivation is a function of psychological need fulfillment. Three basic psychological needs for choice, connection, and competence are foundational to creating the motivation required for thriving, well-being, and generating vitality.

Let’s say that according to a popular DISC personality model, I’m categorized as a “D.” Like that “Achiever” type described earlier, I tend to act extroverted and direct. I prefer talking over listening and controlling over going with the flow. My personality type may be a “D,” but as a human, I have three psychological needs essential to my motivation: choice, connection and competence. When I’m in a situation that thwarts my sense of choice, my desire to fulfill that psychological need is triggered. I crave the autonomy I don’t have.

Personality determines how I react to my missing psychological needs. As a “D,” I’m inclined to outwardly express my dissatisfaction, demonstrate low self-regulation, and act directly on my environment — all in search of that missing psychological need. My “D” personality prefers situations where I can be extraverted and control my environment. However, I’m not motivated by extraversion or controlling my environment. I’m motivated to fulfill my psychological need for choice, connection and competence.

Let’s say you find yourself in a similar situation where you feel your choice is restricted — but unlike me, you’re an introverted personality type. Just like I did, you crave your missing psychological need for autonomy. But you express your craving differently than I do. You may become withdrawn and suffer in silence.

No matter your personality type, you are motivated, as all human beings are, to fulfill those three psychological needs — whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Should you continue reading or stop now?

Why do I propose this choice? To emphasize my point: Depending on your personality type, you may become impatient because this article is already too long. Or maybe you find this topic fascinating and crave even more detail. Your personality type gives you insight into your preferences and patterns of behavior.

But, regardless of your personality, it’s motivation that determines if you keep reading or quit. And your motivation depends on whether your psychological needs are being fulfilled.

For example, you may choose to keep reading because you are experiencing choice (you’re aware that you’ve decided to read this article to learn more about personality and motivation), connection (you’re finding meaning in the topic because you value learning and self-reflection) and competence (you are keen to build skills you can use as a leader or coach).

If you’re still reading with optimal motivation, allow me another point.

Motivation explains why people act “out of character”

Motivation science explains why people venture outside their personality type or act out of character, so to speak. Imagine a man with an introverted personality type. His profile claims his preference — indeed his superpower — is supporting others from behind the scenes. He’s the glue that holds everything together. Most of the descriptions of his personality appear on target.

So why would this introverted man agree to host and present the opening keynote at a charity event? Why would he act so out of character? That’s where motivation comes in. Fulfilling his three psychological needs through his choice to advocate for a group of underprivileged children he feels a deep connection to and apply his competence to a greater good is more compelling than his personality preference to remain in the background.

Insights from motivation science about personality and energy

Our introverted gentleman may believe that exerting extroverted behavior will drain his energy. However, motivation science proves the opposite can be true. You will feel drained if your job or goal doesn’t “fit” your personality profile and psychological needs.

But even if our introverted friend doesn’t tend to do extroverted activities, he won’t be drained of energy by delivering that keynote because his optimal motivation generates vitality. And that’s the great news: Optimal motivation generated when our three psychological needs are met overcomes mismatches between personality and role.

You can embrace personality typing and training. They shine a light on your preferences and patterns of behavior. But beware, the motivation hype is tied to personality. Your basic psychological needs are foundational to experiencing optimal motivation regardless of your personality type.

So, whether someone is a D, I, S, or C; M, B, T,  or I;  red, yellow, blue, or green; fire, earth, water or air; Achiever, Expressive, Stabilizer or Analyzer, they will experience optimal motivation when all three psychological needs are fulfilled.

As a coach or leader who coaches, understanding the interplay between personality theories and motivation science is critical to your communication and leadership. It also provides an opportunity for robust conversations, significant insight and guidance for your clients and team members on how to shift to or maintain optimal motivation — no matter their personality type.