What makes anybody unique?

To help answer this question, let’s conduct a little test.

Think of someone you’ve known at work (or non-work) who stands out as exceptional from the rest. Got someone specific in mind? Now then, what was/is it about this person that truly made/makes them remarkable?

I can just about guarantee that the list of attributes that comes to your mind features more character traits (e.g., “helpful”, “caring”, “generous”, etc.) than specialized skills or work expertise.

I’ve asked this question to many people. Over 90% of the answers I get have to do with character. To back up these ‘answers’ with a bit more evidence, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing more than a few mid- to upper-level executives “walked out” of the building — It’s never been for lack of expertise.

Why does character matter so much?

The reason character, or personal characteristics, are claimed as “most important” when evaluating individuals is based on a number of factors:

1.  Character traits really are a big deal.

If someone has notably bad or good character – like, honesty, for example – it makes a big difference. Not much explanation needed here, I hope.

2.  People’s character traits are disproportionately notable and memorable.

This one can be a really good thing when recalling “stars” but can feel a bit unnerving when thinking about “stumps.” Here we are invoking a specific kind of bias called the fundamental attribution error. This is possibly the most familiar and predictable bias of all – hence the name. It’s based on the predictable error individuals make when attributing cause to a person’s attributes versus their situation, or environment.

Specifically, the fundamental attribution error predicts that you will give credit for success to an individual (person) rather than their context if you like them, but you will assign blame for failure to the environment. It works the other way if you don’t happen to like the individual. I.e., they’re at fault for bad results (not the environment) or they benefited from other factors (the environment) if positive results occurred.

If the “person” is you, the bias is similar to the situation of liking the person. “Success is due to me, blame is due to them (or that).”

How many people in car accidents (minor ones, I hope) actually admit fault? Far fewer than the number of accidents, I assure you. Forgetting the standard response you remember from lawyers, this example is virtually self-evident. Even if you know it was your fault, you’re likely to blame outside factors like “a slippery road”, “poor lighting”, “being distracted by someone or something else”, etc. “It’s not really my fault.”

In addition, we tend to note and remember personal events (i.e., those involving character) because they frequently include emotions. Emotions are processed much deeper in our brains than other events. You know the saying:

They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel. — Carl W. Buehner

More on this topic in a separate post.

3.  Character is the great differentiator.

This one is especially interesting and important.

It not only explains why we are much more likely to attribute success to character, it also explains why personality inventories can be so effective in improving hiring decisions.

When individuals are selected into an organization, they are likely to be much more equal in terms of knowledge and expertise than character. Everyone applying for a job as an accountant, for example, needs to have certain expertise-related qualifications. They’re all the same on these criteria.

Where people differ is a matter of character.

Therefore, character, rather than skill or expertise, becomes the great differentiator among potential candidates.

There are MANY other reasons why character matters. These are just a few that are top of mind for now.

Be nice to people. It really matters.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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