Reject the Cult of Personality to Change Your Team

Jim Morgan's picture

The cult of personality in the business world is a useless distraction that becomes an excuse for managers to blame employees’ bad behaviors—or their own—on factors supposedly beyond our control. Phrases like, “That’s just the way he is,” or, “I can’t help it,” rationalize away responsibility. This cult is built on a number of rampant myths about personality:

  • After adolescence, personality does not change (False).
  • Personality is the main driver of behavior (False).
  • We have no control over our personalities (False).
  • A ten-minute test can reveal useful information (Fraud).

If you won’t believe me or psychology researchers, how about economists? Mathilde Almlund, James Heckman, and Tim Kautz of the Univ. of Chicago, and Angela Lee Duckworth of the Univ. of Pennsylvania, wrote a textbook chapter titled, “Personality Psychology and Economics.” In correcting the view of many economists that personality has no role in economic outcomes, their review of the psychology literature also blows away those claims above.

Quoting another researcher, they define personality traits as “’the relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reflect the tendency to respond in certain ways under certain circumstances.’” The authors decide that personality is a “system of relationships” between various factors and resulting actions, factors including: genes, motives, values, abilities (verbal, spatial, etc.), stories we tell ourselves, scripts we tend to follow, self-identity, and culture. “Behavior depends on incentives created by situations,” they add.

Correlations between personality and behavior rarely surpass 0.3, though the economists mention the same is true for IQ and group psychology. One lab study found a higher correlation of 0.43 over 15 different tasks, but the point for me is that personality does not control behavior. Almlund’s team strikes a balance when it writes, “A rich body of correlational evidence… shows that for many outcomes, measured personality traits are predictive… and situations also matter.”

They explain, “Situations could include physical aspects of the environment in which the agent is located or the network (and other social situations) in which the agent is embodied. The situation can include social factors such as peer effects.” Peer pressure is a key element in my SuddenTeams Program. The economists provide fascinating evidence that work interventions can change personality. A project offering subsidies to welfare recipients to take jobs not only increased their incomes, it changed participants’ view of how much control they had over their lives—the personality trait called “locus of control.”

Far from being genetically set, traits and abilities can be impacted by self-identity, the chapter says. A mechanism called “epigenetics” appears to shape how genes are expressed, the most obvious example being the link between behaviors and diseases. Even if you have the “shy” gene, it is possible to change how shyly you behave. In turn this might cause the shy gene to stop pressing you so hard.

In fact, the chapter provides impressive evidence that personality can change throughout our life. Lifetime stability is 0.74, where 1.0 would mean zero personality change. IQ becomes relatively stable by age 8 on average, but personality does not reach that maximum stability until age 50 or more, as measured by tests retaken after seven years. I found it interesting that after big changes in early childhood, personality slowly hardens into our 30s, then changes more in our 40s. Mid-life crisis, anyone?

Having generated international debate by my comments on workplace personality tests, I’ll point out that the team provides a detailed description and critique of various tests, focused on the Five-Factor or “Big-5” Model which has won out over competitors in the scientific community. Most of the economists’ criticisms of the model are issues about the factors, not whether the model itself is the best. Even in the section on “Alternatives to the Big Five,” the popular Myers-Briggs and DiSC tests—both claiming only four factors—aren’t scientifically accurate enough to warrant a mention anywhere in the chapter.

The key question addressed by the economists is, do personality traits predict economic outcomes in life? The team says “yes,” with studies showing the Big-5 trait of “Conscientiousness” is the best predictor. The American Psychological Association defines this as: “The tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking.” The chapter says conscientiousness ratings predict college grades as well as the SAT does. Conscientious people do better in school, live longer, and tend to get higher job performance ratings and wages. However, as reported before in Teams Blog, it is possible to be too conscientious on the job, for example when trying to do everything perfectly means you don’t get all your work done. Mounting evidence suggests people with General Educational Development diplomas or GEDs, which prove equal knowledge to that of high school graduates, do not do as well as those graduates in life, probably because the skills required to persist through the challenges of high-school life are the same required for career success.

Personality leads to preferences, not behaviors. A team leader must reject the cult of personality and focus on how he or she communicates expectations, identifies and rewards positive behaviors, confronts negative behaviors, and leverages group psychology to the advantage of all. To change an employee’s behavior, provide a measurable goal, training, opportunities to use that training, ongoing reminders (coaching), and rewards for using the learned skills. The chapter says the mechanism for making that change is called “cognitive control” or “executive function,” both phrases used to refer to “the voluntary, effortful blocking of a habitual behavior in order to execute a less familiar behavior.” Use your executive function to change your own habits, and you will make your life as a manager easier regardless of your personality.

Action Item: Choose a behavior you want to change in one of your employees, and follow the prescription in the previous paragraph for one month. If you want extra motivation, let me know you are doing it, and I will touch base with you to see how it went.

Source: Almlund, M., A. Duckworth, J. Heckman, and T. Kautz (2011), “Personality Psychology and Economics,” in Hanushek, E., S. Machin, and L. Woessmann (eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Education, Vol. 4. Elsevier: Waltham, Mass.


Jim Morgan's picture

(Received via e-mail from Michael Cardus and posted on his behalf)

Again thank you. For taking an objective stance on this. It is interesting how the researchers did find changes in certain points in life 30', 40's then you mention Mid-Life Crisis.

Elliott Jaques (who coined the term Mid-Life Crisis) and his research shows that our complexity and current actual capacity increases and predictable points throughout life generally ~15 year increments.

This use of 'personality assessments' while are sold very well, are troublesome. Your recomendation of defining what behaviors are expected and to reinforce them is what works.

Managers are not psychologist and work is people behaving in certain ways. Explain what behaviors are needed and reinforce that.

Jim Morgan's picture

I love your point about managers not being psychologists, Mike. Much as like to think we can, we cannot know why someone does something. We can only know that they do something and the results of that action. As you say, and the economists clearly agreed, behaviors can be changed.