Analyze This

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

With Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s “temperament” a point of contention in the battle over her U.S. Supreme Court nomination, it’s a good time to look at the role of disposition in a work setting.

Temperament refers to one’s characteristic way of relating to the world: a tendency to be irritable, shy, outgoing, excitable, or calm. Your disposition is in part genetically determined, so it doesn’t budge much. But you can modify some of the behaviors it produces.

That’s important, because your temperament can determine the way others relate to you, starting early on. An irritable baby, for instance, can make some parents, particularly those who aren’t getting the positive reinforcement they need, feel less inclined to become attached to and nurture their child. And an adult who is, say, tough (as critics claim Judge Sotomayor is) can elicit submissiveness from some, combativeness from others.

At work, recognizing the role of temperament can usefully depersonalize other people’s behavior. It’s easier to supervise someone who often seems unenthusiastic once you realize that he or she may simply have a cautious disposition. And you’ll be less afraid or angry once you realize that your gruff CEO snaps at everyone.

Taking stock of your own temperament is a key element of self-awareness. Once introverts understand how their withdrawn behavior may discourage interaction, they can push themselves to come out of their shells. (It can be done. In a survey by organizational expert Edward Brewer at Murray State University, CEOs scoring high on the introversion scale said they were able to “adapt their communication style.”) Extroverts can learn to sense when they’re coming on too strong, saving their enthusiasm for the right occasion so they don’t wear everybody out. In my experience, the best business leaders are endowed with a sturdy, even-keeled temperament, not overly outgoing or “interior.” They’re like the healthy babies who don’t cry for long and sleep through the night, a gift to parents early on and to companies later in life.