The Connection between Personality and Engagement in Change

For those seeking to explore how one’s personality connects with one’s engagement in change, research surrounding Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation (A-I) theory provides significant insight. The KAI (Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Inventory) is the corresponding measure to A-I theory, measuring one’s problem-solving style; an aspect of one’s personality. Because A-I theory is centred on connecting diversity of thought to problem solving, it uniquely offers prediction to team dynamics and engagement in change. To explain, let’s outline some precepts.

In the process of change, we are moving from a current status of affairs to a desired status of affairs. This movement involves the process of solving a problem, with the implemented solution leading to our desired status. So, change and problem-solving are fundamentally intertwined.

We are each a problem solver, bringing diversity of thought to the table in developing a solution. Our diversity of thought is based on many things, including but not limited to our skills learned, experiences, intelligence, familial background, culture, gender, age, motives, values, beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes. Some aspects of our personality are deeper seated than others, with the more stable personality characteristics being core to our personality. For example, one may be described as a friendlier individual, but this could change given one’s environment and with suspicious company. On the other hand, one may be more conscientious, which many psychologists have agreed to be a core of personality.

Personality, Behaviour, and KAI

Different inventories measure different things, and it is key to know what an inventory is measuring so it may be used correctly. For example, the terms ‘Behaviour’ and ‘Personality’ are often defined differently, and often with disagreement between theorists. With respect to KAI, personality is defined as the stable and predictable characteristics of both individual behaviour and the influences on behaviour. One’s problem-solving style, as measured by the KAI, is a dimension of personality.

This said, we each have the ability to operate more adaptively or more innovatively than our preferred problem-solving style. This is coping behaviour – a response to solve a problem differently than our preference. Coping behaviour is turned on with self-awareness of needing to solve a problem at a particular degree outside our preferred problem-solving style, and fuelled by motivation to exhibit coping behaviour for a specific duration of time.

An individual can modify their behaviour easily, if for a brief period. But altering one’s personality is almost impossible to do consciously – if personality changes, it is likely a result of a major life changing event over a period of time.

Because KAI is an aspect of one’s personality, we would expect it to correlate with other measures of personality, which it does. For example, studies have shown that the KAI correlates with the MBTI and the NEO Big 5.

Problem-solving style connected to Adaption-Innovation theory

Many personality-based theories and corresponding inventories are supported on the correct reasoning that if I can understand myself better, I can become a better person, a better leader, improve self-esteem and be happier in general. One may also recognize that others don’t have the same personality that I do, and I can learn to appreciate them more.

Kirton’s A-I theory is centred on problem-solving style, with over 45 years of published research indicating it is a deep-seated aspect of personality, with no relationship to intelligence, learned skills, motive, values, belief, culture, situation, experience, ethnicity, or age. Because we are often solving problems together, knowing one’s problem-solving style, and knowing fellow team members’ problem-solving styles, allows one to predict how individuals work together, and develop ideas, while completing the problem-solving process.

For example, a KAI practitioner knowing nothing else about a team of five other than their KAI scores (e.g. 73, 89, 95, 112, 127, on a scale ranging between 32 and 160) will have good insight with A-I theory to predict how the team works together and the type of problems and solutions each team member prefers to engage with in the process of change. On the other hand, if one has a team of five, and a practitioner knows nothing else of the team’s makeup other than their ratio of introversion and extroversion (e.g. three introverts and two extroverts), there may be some indication to how the team chooses to work together, but little insight to how each team member defines the problem, generates solutions, and evaluate for implementation.

Connecting one’s KAI score to engagement with change

In the process of engaging in change, it is important to recognize that we each have advantages and disadvantages with respect to the many aspects of diversity we each bring as a team member. The advantages of our diversity can give us unique perspectives of the problem to solve, of which others may not see. Our disadvantages of our diversity are associated with our blind spots, to which others have a vantage point of seeing what is true. We need each other in solving the complex problems of today and tomorrow, with the more adaptive and the more innovative maintaining healthy mutual respect and humility; mutual respect to recognize the disadvantages of fellow team members’ diversity, and humility in recognizing one’s own disadvantages as a problem solver. There is no problem-solving style better than the other, in general. But, given a particular problem, and a particular environment, one problem-solving style may have more desired advantages over another.

In describing the more adaptive and the more innovative individuals completing the problem-solving process, note that process is independent of problem-solving style. Meaning the process can be completed equally by a more adaptive individual and a more innovative individual. If problem-solving process is a map to solve a problem, intelligence is one’s aptitude for solving a complex problem, and problem-solving style is one’s preference for a particular approach.

For example, the more adaptive will prefer to identify a problem by first setting parameters and criteria, with attention to detail, to begin searching within. Meanwhile, the more innovative will prefer to identify the problem by challenging the structure and perhaps even the question being asked; thinking more broadly and searching for any information that may be relevant.

During solution generation, the more adaptive will develop original ideas from within the parameters, with focus on making improvements. The more adaptive individual’s ideas will often have a high degree of success. The more innovative will prefer to develop original ideas both from within and outside the system, and possibly across systems; with focus on challenging the current system. The more innovative individual will allow a higher failure rate in the ideas generated.

When the solution is evaluated and prepared for implementation, the more adaptive individual will prefer to check the generated solution to ensure it is within the parameters set and is acceptable to the team. If there is not a “fit” the more adaptive individual will continue to further develop the solution. The more innovative individual will evaluate the solution for fit, and if there is lack of fit, will prefer to amend the problem. While adjusting the problem for fit, the more innovative will likely bend or break rules associated with the shared understanding of the problem, and with less regard to what may be acceptable to fellow teammates.

Valuing our differences is the key to progress

By solving problems in teams, and engaging in the change process together, we can move from understanding our differences, to valuing our differences. Recognizing that our differences in being more adaptive or more innovative are not related to intelligence or learned skillset, but rather an aspect of personality is key to building empathy, which is foundational to trust. With high functioning teams being central to solving the complex problems of today, trust is essential for collaboration and team leadership.