Sense Your Humor

You were expecting something about a sense of humor here, I know. But humors (no relation to funniness) are one way of defining personality. In fact, it’s one of the oldest ways to describe personality. According to Wikipedia, From Hippocrates onward, the humoral theory was adopted by Greek, Roman and Islamic physicians, and became the most commonly held view of the human body among European physicians until the advent of modern medical research in the nineteenth century.

There are four humors found in humans, according to this ancient theory (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm.) When the humors were in balance, people are healthy; when humors are out of balance, the person gets sick. Around 400 BC, Hippocrates took this theory a step further and developed personality models based on the humors: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine and Phlegmatic. Although the medical humor theory is long out of the mainstream, you’ll recognize these personality descriptions; we still use them today. In fact, authors Florence Littauer and Rose Sweet have written a book about these personality types and providing insight on how to manage them. Personality Plus at Work uses the four humors and personalities to describe how people interact in the workplace.

For the record, here’s a brief description of the four personality types:

  • Sanguine: extraverted, fun, optimistic – but prone to flightiness and talking too much
  • Choleric: Goal-oriented, a born leader, confident – but may be bossy and insensitive
  • Melancholy: Deep, thoughtful, organized – but negative and often a “downer”
  • Phlegmatic: Pleasant, easygoing and flexible – but may be unmotivated and seem lazy

Personality Plus at Work gives helpful tips on how to manage or motivate the four types. The Sanguine personality, for example, need to have fun in the workplace and love to receive attention and approval. They’re the classic sales personalities – energetic and charming; they’ll be best in roles where they can meet and influence people. Just don’t ask them to research details or make critical deadlines.

The Choleric is a born leader; give them a goal and a deadline, and stand back. They get things done, and prefer action and activity. They’re not suited to empathetic listening, so don’t send them in to nurture needy patients or sit patiently in the back of the room to observe.

The Melancholic personality comes off as a negative nitpicker at times, but if you need the details to be absolutely correct, he’s your man. They’re deep thinkers and great at analysis; but you’ve got to give them time and space to get it right. They’ll always see the glass as half empty, and disdain sunnier personalities who obviously just don’t get it.

The Phlegmatic personality is the easiest to get along with. They’re usually pleasant and flexible, but it’s tough to get them to start projects; inertia is a big problem for them. It’s also hard for them to finish projects; they tend to procrastinate. But they’re excellent mediators and team workers.

By now, you have recognized your coworkers – and why you sometimes drive each other crazy. As with any personality system, the goal is to put people in the right place to exercise their natural instincts.

  • Put the Sanguine personality in charge of fun and business development.
  • Put the choleric in charge. Period. (She’ll be taking the lead anyway.)
  • Put the Melancholic in charge of money, policy and data.
  • Give the Phlegmatic some structure and manage goals and deadlines carefully. Send him in when the others are having trouble working together (or have declared war outright.)

A great working team has a balance of all four humors, with each personality in a role that plays to their strengths and manages their weaknesses. Which personality describes you? Has there been a time when your humor overcame your sense? Leave a comment and tell me the story.

1 thought on “Sense Your Humor

  1. Wyman Stewart


    In sticking to type: This looks like an article from the 1950s or early 1960s.

    😮 Thanks for the laugh, even if it goes against type. I can’t believe you typed the whole thing.


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