The Birkman Method: Your Personality at Work

The key is really to help us all to become more emotionally intelligent by increasing our self-awareness of cultures, of values, but also of personality.

We were delighted when Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell asked us to be involved in their book The Birkman Method: Your Personality at Work.

It was a pleasure to share our experiences of using this sophisticated personality analysis tool and explain how we find it particularly useful when working across geographic and cultural boundaries.

Below is an excerpt from the book.

Find out more about how we can use the Birkman Method to help you and your business.

A Focus on Culture

Tasneem Virani, a consultant in London, likes to coach “people as people,” she says. She believes the variety of experiences and cultures that so many people are exposed to in today’s increasingly connected world makes it harder than ever before to label people. To understand how complex personality and culture can get, she uses the example of her own family: she is an ethnic Indian born in Kenya who studied in England, where her children were born. But the family then lived in the United States, where the children continue to reside. “I can’t say they are like me,” she says of her children, “because they have more the culture of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, so they are the third culture. If you look at all that, you just have to look at them as human beings.”

It gets just as complex in her work. About 75 percent of the coaching she does involves people who have settled in the United Kingdom after living elsewhere in the world—sometimes making more than one stop along the way. “Their values are different, but their personalities speak the same language,” she says.

That is, she can verify that few differences among cultures show up on the Birkman, with the exception of some similarities within nationalities in people’s Usual Behavior—their learned expressions of certain values and traditions. She finds, for example, that people of Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern backgrounds, among others, tend to have Advantage scores that are low Usual Behavior. They are relieved when their personal demands appear to be modest, Tasneem says. In the same vein, they can be self-conscious when they get a high Need for Advantage score and have to own up to wanting material rewards for their work. To break the news to them about their high score, Tasneem says, she explains to them: “You want to be acknowledged for your work and to know that there are other opportunities for growth.”

Tasneem found, however, that even strong cultural values can take a backseat in a workplace environment that is seen as falling short of expectations. She was hired in 2012 to help 4C Hotels Group, a family business based in London, through its corporate relaunch and planned expansion. The family is ethnic Indian; the founding partner was born in Tanzania, and his son was born in the United Kingdom.

Most of the staff of 150 UK employees were recent immigrants from around the European Union and Southeast Asia. Their entry-level jobs in the company, as in the industry as a whole, tended to be low paying, and the employees were getting frustrated over a lack of opportunity. “You could see the problem in recruitment and retention,” says Al-karim Nathoo, associate director at 4C Hotel. Turnover was high.

As might be expected, of the twenty who took the Birkman—most from India, Pakistan, and Romania—eighteen showed low Usual Behavior scores in their Advantage Component, which Tasneem says made it easy for them to work for the benefit of all rather than for themselves. But far from being apologetic about their high Needs scores, the employees embraced their wish for rewards for their work. And they let it be known in subsequent discussions that they needed a clearer path to job advancement. Tasneem also saw through the Birkman that many staffers ranked high on the Empathy Component in Need for emotion and expressiveness; in fact, they told her they felt they weren’t getting enough feedback from management about their work and didn’t have outlets to express their opinions.

While some of the employees wondered if their experience was because of their status as new arrivals in the country, the real issue turned out to be related to corporate culture and had nothing to do with nationality. “There was not a defined culture in the company,” says Alkarim. He didn’t want such issues to weigh on the future growth of the business. His family was hoping to expand their ten-year-old company into East Africa, he says, and to build new properties. His father, a founding partner in the company, already had expanded the business from a small bed-and-breakfast concern to one that owns ten budget and midmarket hotels—brands such as Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn —with shares in similar concerns. “But our processes are still toward mom-and-pop business, and we want to strengthen operations, and focus on human resources and leadership development,” says Al-karim.

Tasneem says Al-karim’s high Interests in Social Service told her he was sincere about wanting to help his employees and improve their career development, as well as to boost his customer-service performance. The other top managers’ Birkman profiles showing a desire to work for the good of the whole, she adds, meant they also could take the steps needed to change the core business culture. They acknowledged they had to address the company’s narrow bench at the upper ranks in terms of variety of work strengths. “We are very numbers oriented, but we don’t have a lot of strategic thinkers except for my father and me,” says Al-karim. “To grow, we need to bring in other types of people, especially in the sales and marketing side and the softer skills in communication and sales.”

To the director, it was clear what the next stage should be: development for those identified on the Birkman as needing training. With Tasneem’s help, they began to outline training goals aimed at improving leadership and management skills. “We defined the values and mission of the company, which includes them being more customer focused,” Tasneem says. “The key is really to help us all to become more emotionally intelligent by increasing our self-awareness of cultures, of values, but also of personality. Then you understand what I’m feeling and get to know me, my values, and my culture.”

The Birkman Method: Your Personality at Work by Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell can be purchased from Amazon USA and Amazon UK.