Getting along at work: A primer on personal intelligence

FORTUNE — Most of us would prefer to get through the workday without a scuffle. After all, very few of us are actively looking for a fight.

That said, getting along with our colleagues is no walk in the park, and this tension can influence our performance. Sometimes, an employee in our department is simply the wrong person for the job — their own grandiosity, critical nature, lack of interest, or incompetence leads to a toxic environment that drags everyone down.

Consider this example: At one company, several engineering teams were understaffed, owing to a yearlong hiring freeze. The engineers felt overworked, and the CEO was concerned about missing long-term deadlines. The company formed a cross-team committee to decide how to fairly allocate new hires to the teams. However, the head of the committee was an independent-thinking engineer who had a reputation for being argumentative and critical of others. The committee easily agreed on where the first new hires should be allocated, but there were issues after that. The lead engineer wanted to assign the next hire to a protégé of his who ran a less-important team; other members objected that would misalign the organization. Rather than backing down, the engineer went to several committee members individually and argued with them in a way that they perceived as hostile and controlling. The committee members spent time discussing his behavior, and a few of them lost sleep over the issue. The whole process was far more time-consuming and messy than it needed to be.

Or consider the research scientist in a pharmaceutical company who had hired a new chemist. She came with an amazing set of recommendations from her former colleagues, and indeed appeared remarkably talented. After a month or so, however, the new hire was performing at a barely adequate level. When the supervisor pointed out the discrepancy between his expectations and her performance, she explained she had fallen behind but would catch up. Unfortunately, the issue persisted. Finally, the supervisor called in a colleague from human resources to speak with her. Over a series of conversations with HR, she began to acknowledge that she no longer found her profession interesting and she needed a change. Six months after she was counseled out of the organization, she joined the marketing division of another firm, where she blossomed. This story had a happy ending, but the supervisor wished the chemist had understood and acknowledged her own desires sooner so she might have saved herself — and his workplace — some considerable disappointments.

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Employees like the supervising engineer and the newly minted marketing specialist face complex issues that involve understanding their own personalities and those of others. We draw on an ability to reason in this area I call “personal intelligence.” When our understanding in this area fails, we can make poor choices that compromise our working relationships and, perhaps, our reputations.

In 2008, I introduced the concept of “personal intelligence” in part to organize an emerging understanding I saw taking place within psychology of how people understand their own and others’ personalities. This understanding included new studies on self-knowledge, person-perception, how children seem to be able to “read the minds” of their friends, and how we use our knowledge of traits to anticipate the behavior of other people. Personal intelligence is the capacity to reason about this personality system.

Personality is in some ways like an orchestra. Just as an orchestra has its percussion section, strings, woodwinds, brasses, keyboards, and a conductor, personality has its motives and emotions, knowledge and intelligence, plans for action, and self-management. Personality performs the music of our lives.

I joined with David R. Caruso of Yale University and Abigail T. Panter of the University of North Carolina to see if people varied consistently in their ability to understand personality. We tested people’s problem-solving about personality in 12 areas (or more, depending upon the research phase). In each study, we found that people who were good at problem-solving in one area were good at problem-solving in most of the others. For example, a test taker who understood that talkativeness and high energy-level often go to together was also better at identifying problematic goals such as “always telling the truth” — which can lead to tactless or otherwise hurtful remarks, depending upon one’s personal truths. Those who reasoned poorly in a specific area tended to be less good in all the other areas. This suggested that people possess a broad intellectual capacity to understand personality — and that some people are better at it than others.

Now, consider that engineer who had trouble imagining his impact on other people and the chemist who had tired of bench science.

Those who knew the engineer understood that he was unaware of how dubious his choices seemed to others — he hadn’t intended to disturb others and simply didn’t appreciate the disruption in their lives he had caused over what might otherwise have been a readily solved personnel issue.

Those who knew the chemist were delighted she finally realized that being a bench scientist was not her calling, but wished for her sake she had realized it earlier in her career.

Once we recognize that people vary dramatically in their abilities to understand personality, we have a new explanation of why some of our colleagues do so well, whereas others make sub-optimal choices and behave in counterproductive ways. Just knowing that can help us deal with their shortcomings and understand the challenges they may face.

There are also ways for business leaders and HR educators to foster understanding in this area:

1. We can develop training programs that teach people about personality and how we perceive one another. These programs could include overviews of clues to personality, of personality traits and their implications, and of how people set reasonable vs. problematic personal goals. Research on school-based social and emotional learning programs — which often include information about personality — indicates that students who have the opportunity to learn these subjects go on to exhibit behavioral advantages relative to those who don’t. Programs aimed to teach personality for an adult audience may well have similar positive effects.

2. We could provide employees access to valid mental tests of personal intelligence like the Test of Personal Intelligence (TOPI) that I am developing with Caruso and Panter. These scales make tangible the kinds of reasoning that people use to understand personality and help to identify people who are strong performers in the area. Pending the availability of such scales, valid measures of emotional intelligence may serve as a stopgap. Today, psychologists who study psychological testing have found that testing alone confers benefits: People who take a good mental test and receive a thoughtful interpretation of their scores benefit on average in their sense of well-being.

3. We might reframe the relevant HR activities such as the expert who helped the chemist, as problem-solving about personality. Understanding the rules of personality is a skill set not everyone has — or needs to have — and it’s reasonable for people to seek help in this area when they need it.

4. We should acknowledge the importance of personality. Speaking to the value of competence at understanding personality — and recognizing that it can now be measured — is a start toward empowering employees who have those skills.

A variety of research indicates that acuity at understanding personalities is an important element within functional workplaces. The theory of personal intelligence explains how people define and apply traits to those around them, how they evaluate their coworkers’ plans, and their reputations. It helps explain why some people in our organization may not understand the effects of their behavior.

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In any organization — business, governmental, non-profit, or educational — managers establish a structure by delineating an organizational chart that explains the lines of responsibility among managerial and staff positions. But managers and employees also understand that the people who fill those boxes have skills and characteristics that go far beyond what those boxes suggest.

Personal intelligence theory tells us that some people are stuck at the box-level of an organizational chart while others can go beyond the boxes to read the people who occupy those positions. That said, it also predicts that no matter how good we are, any of us can make mistakes at times.

We’ll all have a greater appreciation of one another, and maybe even be better able to work together, if we recognize that many of our work challenges involve managing our own personalities and better understanding one another.

John D. Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives.

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