Tips for managing personalities in a design team

Tips for managing personalities in a design team


Sally Grisedale

Managing personalities in a design team becomes easier when you understand why team members behave in certain ways under stress. When you can support them in changing their emotional state, they are no longer hostage to feeling fear and their rational brain can begin working again. So what environmental factors stress out a design team most?

Design teams are the front line creators of scalable solutions for products and services that meet needs of the customers they advocate for. The more ambiguous a project, the shorter the deadline, the more stakeholders involved, the more the design process is ignored, the more stress it puts on the entire design team.

One designers response to stress

Presented with high stakes, high stress situations, associated with working in fast paced and rapid growth technology companies, it’s hard to think clearly when our mind shuts down. It does this to send blood to our legs, not our brains, so we can run away from predators faster. 

When I saw my boss walk across the bridge of 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, I wanted to run and hide in the restroom to throw up in the trash can. Why? Because I knew that if he was walking to my office, he had a project that was going to scare the crap out of me. 

“Sally, will you fly to Milan tomorrow and give a talk I was scheduled to present at the Italian Developer Conference?” or “I’ve decided to send you to India to work on a mobile data capture project in rural healthcare for a couple of years, OK?”

The evolution of our response to stress

Running away and hiding is a useful survival tool when you are running from a bear, but not useful when you need blood in your head, not your legs, to think straight. Unable to run away from bosses bearing scary projects, humans have developed new ways of covering up their fears. 

Author Dr. Valerie Young classifies five competency based personality types we’ve developed to cope with the stress of modern business life. Specifically for those times we feel we are in over our heads and don’t belong at work.  

  1. The Perfectionist – Sets unattainably high standards for themself
  2. The Superhero – Attempts to juggle everything and everyone
  3. The Natural Genius – Needs to get things right the first time
  4. The Soloist  – Would never ask for help or feedback
  5. The Expert – Sees any lack of knowledge as a failure

Tips for managing personalities in a design team based on their competency profile

This article describes the characteristics of each personality type, how damaging it can be, some tough love advice and 5 crucial tips for managing personalities in a design team. This will help you  to help your design team members, reframe negative thoughts with positive ones so their rational brain can return and enable them to feel safe and that their presence is welcome and contribution needed.

The perfectionist personality profile


Cartoon of a perfectionist

The perfectionist

Perfectionists set extremely high goals for themselves and will have an obsessive concern and aversion to failing to reach high performance standards. For example, achieving a score of 99 out of 100 would be deemed a failure and cause feelings of shame to a perfectionist personality type. A perfectionist will focus all their competency on “how” something is done. 

You’re being a perfectionist when you …

  • Feel your work must always be at 100%
  • Been accused of being a micromanager
  • It’s very difficult for you to delegate, and when you do, feel disappointed by the results
  • If you miss the mark on something, even by a tiny bit, you punish yourself or accuse yourself of not being cut out for the work

The pitfalls of having a perfectionist personality

Work stops being fulfilling. Workaholism leads to burnout. Anxiety leads to depression. Despite a positive outward appearance, inner self-confidence is very low.

A tough love message for perfectionist personalities

Perfectionists! It’s time you learned to take mistakes in your stride. Mistakes are a natural part of the process and everyone makes them. Remember this perfectionists “To err is human, to forgive divine” Alexander Pope. Poem. An Essay on Criticism

Perfectionist – Solutions for managing personalities in a design team 

For perfectionists, you can help them restore their self confidence by pushing them into action before they are fully prepared (there is no perfect time to start). So drop them in the deep end on a project right now!

Another way is to have them practice reframing negative thoughts into positive beliefs. For example “How can I ask for more headcount from the executive team, when I don’t feel worthy of taking up their time?” is negative. 

Have them rephrase it to be positive “Of course the leadership team wants to speak with me. I have a great team, my brand is A++, and the CEO understands that the design organization is a source of competitive advantage and a direct creator of incremental revenue to the business bottom line. 

Lastly, offer tools to help them become more self-accepting and kind to themself. Saying these affirmations out loud five times, will generate self acceptance that they are good enough just as they are. Each affirmation starts with “I” 

  • Am worthy of love
  • Live in balance with others

The Superhero Personality Profile


Cartoon of Superhero personality

The Superhero

Superheroes measure their competence by how many roles they can excel at, and juggle at the same time. If they fall short as a manager, a friend, a sibling, a parent, or any single role, they will feel tremendous shame. Superheroes believe they should be able to handle all of it and everyone perfectly. Not sure if this applies to you or someone in your design team? 

You’re being a superhero personality when you …

  • Find downtime boring
  • Let your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside to spend time on work
  • Routinely stay later than anyone else at work
  • Always say yes, even when the work doesn’t belong to you

The pitfalls of having a superhero personality

Feeling powerless. Being oversensitive to criticism. Mental health problems

A tough love message for superhero personalities

Your life is going to get worse if you continue juggling everything and everyone. Being a superhero is exhausting for you and your coworkers. Your career will stall if you don’t stop being reactive to everyone and everything that comes your way.

Superhero – Solutions for managing personalities in a design team 

For superheroes, help them learn to ease off the gas and reconsider how much work is truly reasonable. Let them discover where they can take the pressure off themself by removing meetings from their calendar. This empowers them to build self respect for their own time and talents and become more discerning about who receives their attention now they value their own time and influence.

Invite them to color code a week’s worth of meetings on their calendar to understand how they are spending their time. Use a time management framework like this one by Steven Covey.

  1. Urgent and important (RED) Crisis – Unless you are the boss, don’t spend all your time here.
  2. Not urgent but important (ORANGE) Planning – Spend most of your time here when you lead or work in a design team.
  3. Urgent and not important (GREEN) Interruptions – Delegate when possible or learn to say ‘no’ a lot, especially to the usual suspects (you know who they are!).
  4. Not urgent, not important (BLUE) Busy work – Eliminate. If you can’t completely get rid of these tasks, try and make it healthy or fun for yourself by turning it into a game.

Next, ask the Superhero about their plans for growth. What would help them to develop their sense of self-validation? Is there a training program, a wellness class or a coach that could help draw this inner confidence out of them?

Lastly, you could share these phrases with them. Said 5 times out-loud can have a profoundly calming effect on someone who is too busy to slow down and look within.

  • It is safe for me to be here
  • The earth supports me and meets my needs
  • I love my body and trust its wisdom

The Natural Genius Personality Profile

A Natural Genius cares about how easily and quickly their accomplishments happen. If they don’t complete their work efficiently they feel shame and alarm bells sound. They will judge themselves based on speed and getting things right on the first try. 

You’re being a Natural Genius when you …

  • Usually you excel at things without much effort
  • You avoid doing things that you’re not already good at
  • Handling things on your own is the best for you

The pitfalls of having a Natural Genius personality

Being highly self-critical. Exhibiting avoidance behavior and feeling guilty about situations and projects you ignore. You have difficulty forming lasting relationships. You feel alarmed you can’t keep up with the expectations for your job easily and quickly 

A tough love message for Natural Genius personalities

No one can be expected to have all the answers. Confident people find the best solutions knowing they alone will never have all the answers. This is particularly true in product development where the world is on a “seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control (Joseph Tainter),” 

Natural Genius – Solutions for managing personalities in a design team 

Don’t let them beat themselves up when they don’t reach their self imposed and unattainable standards for speed and efficiency. Show them the behaviors they need to change and help them find a mentor or coach, who will let them develop the skills they’ve avoided, because they decided they “weren’t good enough.” 

Lastly, you could share these phrases with them. Said 5 times out-loud the can have a profoundly calming effect on someone who is moving too fast to slow down and hear their inner leader calling to them. 

  • I am open to new ideas
  • Information I need comes to me
  • The world is my teacher

The Soloist Personality Profile

Cartoon of Soloist personality

The Soloist

For a soloist to feel competent in their achievements, it has to be them who completes the work. Soloists never ask for help – this would be a sign of failure.

You’re being a Soloist personality when you …

  • Say to yourself, “I don’t need anyone’s help” 
  • Never make a direct request, but prefer to frame your request in terms of project, user needs, technical or business requirements
  • Dismiss the idea of having a coach or mentor as a waste of money
  • Go to extremes to figure things out on your own for them to count as an achievement

The pitfalls of having a Soloist personality

Loneliness and isolation. Hard to connect with others. Inability to express your feelings

A tough love message for Soloist personalities

You are not a phony if you don’t have all the answers, you’re human. Would you think less of someone if they asked you for your advice? No! You’d be delighted to help them. 

Soloist – Solutions for managing personalities in a design team 

Check to see if they really are soloists rather than simply shy or uncertain in their communication and collaboration skills. If they are soloists, or lone rangers, then give them the freedom to roam outside the uniformity your team operates inside. Put a soloist in charge of something and adopt a hands off management approach, but do have a scheduled check in to ensure they fulfill their responsibilities. 

Lastly, you could share these phrases with them. Said 5 times out loud it can have a positive impact on a soloist’s outlook. Each affirmation starts with “I” 

  • Deserve pleasure in my life
  • Move easily and effortlessly

The Expert Personality Profile

Cartoon of expert personality

The Expert

Experts expect themselves to know everything and any lack of knowledge is deemed to be a failure. They feel that if people found out how little they really knew, they would be exposed as a fraud.  

You’re being an Expert personality when you …

  • Read a job description but won’t apply unless you meet every single requirement
  • Constantly seeking out new certifications
  • Need proof of your skills in order to feel competitive in the job market
  • Despite being established in your career, still feel like you don’t know enough

The pitfalls of having a Expert personality

Taken too far, continually seeking out more information can be a form of procrastination where you let the unimportant minutiae eat up your time instead of focusing on producing results.

A tough love message for Expert personalities

Don’t be a hoarder! Learn to share what you already know through teaching, coaching, or mentoring others. Sharing your knowledge with others is the best way to retain information and is directly correlated with mastery of skills.

Trust that you are enough, and you don’t need more training, certificates, or schooling. Begin practicing just-in-time learning by acquiring new skills when you need them, rather than hoarding knowledge.

Expert – Solutions for managing personalities in a design team 

Managing someone who knows a lot more about their work than you do can be a humbling experience. So don’t attempt to compete with them, rather get to know them as individuals and focus on cultivating a relationship with them. Help them see the context inside their contribution lives, and don’t try to compete with an expert on the details. 

Focus yourself on cultivating your own executive presence through a relaxed body stance, a calm voice, clear sentences that are to the point and building a robust network of allies across departments. Accept that you may no longer be the specialist, but the generalist who leads other specialists.

Lastly, you could share these phrases with them. Said 5 times out loud it can have a positive impact on an experts outlook. 

  • I express myself with clear intent
  • Creativity flows in and through me
  • My voice is necessary

Case Study: Padma the Superhero 

Padma is a product designer working in the Bay Area creating software for robots. She is a wife, mother, immigrant and superhero who measures her competency by how many roles she can excel at, and juggle at the same time. 

Compared to her husband who is a high flier in product management, Padma feels ashamed that she hasn’t attained management status by this time in her life. 

Padma reached out to me for leadership coaching when her efforts to get promoted had failed and she didn’t understand why. We worked together every other week for six months. Here’s what happened. 

“I wanted to move up the ladder and become a design manager. Sally helped me look at my strengths, how I responded to the people and the self criticism I put on myself. She let me discover I had labeled lots of things as negative in my head, and these sentiments needed reframing positively. 

Sally is a design expert and executive who has been there and done that and I trust her. She created a safe space for me where I could share my innermost thoughts without the fear of being judged. 

As a result of coaching with Sally, several magical changes happened. I was promoted to design manager. My communication improved and relationships at home and work got better. I become calmer and less stressed out.

Most importantly, by learning my unique strengths and how to use them more effectively allowed me to transform and accept who I have become today.”

Finding the solution you’ve been seeking 

If you’re a superhero like Padma and being called to step into the next level of leadership, but haven’t managed to make that happen on your own yet, I’m here to help you with my one on one coaching program for design leaders. 

Acquiring the skill to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones will transform your ability to activate your innate leadership skills and manifest what you truly want. With that clarity you will step into your higher purpose as the design leader companies will compete over to have lead their teams. Ready to get started? Book a complimentary coaching session with me today.

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Further Reading

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I write about the challenges you can’t safely discuss as creative leaders working in tech. The stories come directly from my experience leading teams at Apple, Meta, Yahoo!, and some start-ups and from the executive design leaders I coach today.

I have written about the stressful magpie boss, hateful cross-functional peers, creative burnout, the shame of job loss and survivor guilt, and the fear of becoming irrelevant in the marketplace.

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