I get a kick out of hearing people make declarations about themselves being Type A.
The most recent account coming from an NPR segment featuring a U.S. athlete competing in an Olympic fencing competition. He lost his qualifying match and afterward declared he was Type A so, of course, he was disappointed in his loss.
As if anyone who doesn’t identify as Type A wouldn’t be equally disappointed with failing to realize a dream after so much hard work.
We are a society that is absolutely enamored with high-achievers. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, in fact, you could easily argue the virtues of our collective valuing of achievement – the survival of the human race, innovation, living more healthy and productive lives – the list could go on and on.
The problem occurs in the means that are deployed to (forgive me) achieve achievement.
Somewhere along the way, it became en vogue to self-identify and declare your Type A-ness, especially in the corporate world. Suddenly, with a broad stroke, one was able to explain away their indiscretions, bad-behaviors and poor adjustment (to work, to leadership, to adulthood, to life…) by chalking it up to their ‘Type A personality’ . Declaration made, others would nod around the conference room table – secretly wondering to themselves what the hell that means and mentally preparing themselves for eventual abuse. As long as metrics are achieved, the nasty by-products of a Type A personality seem to be worth it in most workplaces.
During our short and fast journey from industrialization to modern day, we began to get confused.
We started confusing hard-work with over-work, over-work with good-work, talented with tireless, ambitious with willing to do anything, being driven with being a jerk, failure with disaster, listening with laziness and asking for help with being incapable.
For some, being Type A isn’t about dishing out abuse – it’s about abusing themselves. I know, I fell into this category. With no better means of managing my immature young professional self, I resorted to the WWTAD mantra – ‘What Would Type A Do?”.
My interpretation of Type A meant being an aggressive, eternally ambitious, impatient, perfectionist – easily frustrated, stressed, anxious and guilty for not doing more, constantly seeking approval business consultant.
Not necessarily the picture of a healthy, productive, well-balanced colleague. Where this came from, I can only speculate – but I suspect it had something to do with being first-born, some genetic pre-disposition, growing up playing sports and life observations that achieving success required equal parts of confidence, misery, bullishness and self-flagellation.
It’s amazing then, that so many of us wear the Type-A moniker as a badge of honor.
What’s to celebrate about being Type-A? Traditionally, the Type-A personality is associated with being ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. I like to call it ‘center of the universe’ syndrome. For many Type A’s, it’s all about themselves.
Type-B personalities are more relaxed, in touch with their feelings and concerned about others – I’m pretty sure I’d rather hang out with Mr. Type B any day.
Interestingly and not without its irony, this distinction between personality types was made by two cardiologists who noticed their patients, who all had heart conditions, had a tendency to be unable to sit still in their seats. They literally wore the seats down from fidgeting, sitting on the edge of their seat and leaping up frequently – the doctors labeled this behavior Type A personality. Not surprisingly, studies linked Type A personality with significant health risks (1).
We’re a results and achievement-oriented culture.
That, combined with time spent in traditional corporate structures (typically run by Type A personalities), it’s easy to see how we’ve become conditioned to embody the Type A personality. After all, Type A’s achieve more – don’t they? It could be argued, but as far as I know there aren’t any studies tracking relative ‘success’ of Type A vs. Type B personalities – or productivity for that matter.
What’s clear, though, is the Type A personality has become a sort of point of pride for many, loudly declared and brandished for all to see.
It’s like ‘A’ stands for Awesome and ‘B’ stands for Bullshit. Type A’s traits have become selling points on resumes and companies the world over seek out people who can out Type A the rest of the Type A’s. Type B? Well, ask any Type A and you’ll hear words like warm and fuzzy, soft, hippy-dippy, lazy, artsy.
It’s not difficult to see the negative implications of strong Type A personalities – both for the individual’s mental and physical state and in the health of relationships, teams and organizations the individual is a part of (and by the way, being Type B could actually be good for you).
Sure, there’s upside potential for all that freneticism – a fast-tracked career, wealth – status – power attainment, targets met, goals achieved, double-digit annualized growth, shareholder value.
But these things are in no way guaranteed and what cost are we willing to pay for them?
So, I’m left confused and concerned.
I’m confused because it’s not hard to see the risks that being Type A carries, and yet many of us seem to ignore them or consciously de-prioritize our own well-being for the well-being of our jobs, career, bank accounts and appearances – all in the name of achievement.
I’m concerned because we’re being scammed.
On one hand, we’re being told by advertisers, marketers and employers that it’s only through indefatigable ambition that we’ll ever live happy, fulfilling, meaningful lives or have respectable careers and on the other hand we have science telling us our indulgence of the ego – namely satisfying our needs for superiority and control – is toxic.
I admit that lumping people into two broad categories (and sometimes a third, Type C) is grossly oversimplified and the theory itself has some flaws. However, the fact remains that it’s a convenient and often used delineation.
Given our tendency to think in these simple terms and our knowledge of the risks of unchecked Type A-ness, especially in work settings, what can we do bring about a shift towards a more healthy and balanced mindset?
I think the answers vary depending on you’re the hat you’re wearing.
As leaders, I think we’d all do better to strive to strike a balance between our native Type A personality and the reciprocal Type B.
For many, we are leaders by virtue of our Type A personalities – which is part of the problem. We have to see beyond the patterns of behavior that got us to where we are, challenge our own ego and consider what is best for those we are leading, not just what’s best for ourselves or the Company (which also happens to be good for us).
We need to recognize the benefits of our less dominant Type B selves and work to draw out those qualities. We should encourage those we lead to seek balance as well – equally rewarding ambition and consistency / creativity. We must recognize that without striving for balance, we risk burning out – ourselves and our teams. Motivation to achieve is only one component of a highly engaged workforce – it’s our job to ensure the other levers are present and calibrated.
As managers, it’s easy to sit back and watch highly-motivated employees set and surpass ambitious goals, ask for increased accountability, receive promotions and pay-raises, but we have to be more involved.
We love it when those in our stead are independent, self-reliant, proactive go-getters – it makes our lives that much easier. What’s harder and something only a great manager will do, is to question where this need for achievement comes from and work with him or her to find balance, to seek a sustainable middle ground and cultivate those Type B traits that don’t come as naturally but are equally important for a sustainable career and a healthy relationship with work.
As employees, it’s important to recognize the natural tendencies of our employers, bosses and colleagues to exhibit Type A behaviors and to not get sucked in to oneupmanship or unhealthy competition to appease our own Type A needs.
We have to be careful to not confuse the Type A tendencies of others as threats to ourselves or our work and do what we can to not take things personally. Be prepared to articulate or demonstrate the value of a complementary Type B skill set – whether it’s calming the situation with a well constructed logical argument or a unique, creative solution.
Engaging in an open dialogue with your manager about style and personality traits can go a long way to creating a productive working relationship by opening lines of communication, setting expectations and creating a safe environment for providing feedback – both up and down. Some of these and other ideas are discussed here.
As people who are neighbors on this planet, we’d all do well to understand our natural tendencies – do we trend towards Type A or B?
If our goal is self-actualization, then we must consider why we are predominantly one or the other. By reflecting internally, we can begin to understand if our predispositions serve us or if we are serving them. Only then, can we become aware of our tendencies and better manage them – trending more towards a healthy middle which in turn will yield benefits at work, in relationships and for ourselves.
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Type A Personality. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/personality-a.html