People with no personality are more common than you think

An empty suit

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

Personality disorders at work: When you see this person coming, run

Business man with hand extended to the viewer

Personality Disorders at Work

Nearly everyone I encounter when I have my I/O psychology hat on claims to know somebody at work with a personality disorder. “My boss is Narcissistic and OCD.” Or, “I can’t even ‘borrow’ her computer, she’s so Paranoid.” C’mon. Right? (there’s something about that word, “right” that’s beginning to bug me in today’s lingo) Can everyone possibly know someone – at work – that’s crazy?

They probably do. Really. (I bet that surprised you.)

But I don’t mean they’re right regarding the arm-chair clinical diagnosis they usually share with me in hope that I’ll “fix” the deranged individual. Most just happen to be right in a statistical sense that I’ll explain in a sec.

Time Out: I AM NOT A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST. I do not specifically diagnose or treat mental illness in my capacity as an I/O professional. Neither does any other I/O psychologist that doesn’t also have a PhD in clinical psychology. But I do deal with it – probably more effectively than the average person. “Psychological types” is really a misnomer because all expressions of psychology operate within a range, not at discrete points. And so do clinical disorders. Experts in psychology know how to work with a range of “types.”

Almost all of these amateur psychologists are wrong regarding their “remarkably precise” assessments. The person they work with that they think should be “taken away” probably does NOT have a clinical condition personality disorder. And if they do, the assessor frequently misdiagnoses the given disorder.

Breaking News: “Schizo” does not actually mean split personality and “Psychopath” is no longer used as a formal diagnosis for a personality disorder anymore. My advice, stay in your lane.

Where they’re right is in recognizing and calling out dysfunction at work, just not the specifically dysfunctional.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any clinically affected people at work.

There are.

It doesn’t mean that they (and you) needn’t fear the behavior of some nefarious colleague.

You should.

Prevalence of Personality Disorders at Work

over 4% of people have a personality disorder

Data: A Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is one whereby an individual’s behavior is disruptive to the point of interfering with a significant life activity. Based on findings from a 2016 national survey, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about 4.2% of US adults suffer from SMIs. Yes, over 4% of people have a personality disorder. (The estimate includes all forms of mental illness beyond personality disorders, but personality disorders are much more prevalent than the rest.) This is higher than the January 2019 unemployment figure of 3.9% (and that was up .2% versus the previous month).

Do the math.

Dangerous Types at Work

Most instances of mental illness at work are not the kind that others need to fear for their safety – especially the personality disorders at work. But this isn’t always the case in an environment where legitimate power by authority is the norm. Here the individual with an SMI can do harm to others – especially, but not exclusively, to direct reports.

There is one clinical personality type (I use, “type” but this type is exclusively a disorder) that should be feared, not for physical safety but for psychological safety. When you see this type of person at work, RUN. These are the folks that can hurt you. These are people of the dark triad type.

The Dark Triad

This “type” is actually a combination of several personality disorders, or traits (“traits” are the behavioral form of “type” and these become “disorders” when they become SMIs.) For this reason, it’s called, “The Dark Triad.” And it’s THE most dangerous of all personality disorders at work.

The three personality disorders that comprise the dark triad include Narcissism, Antisocial, and Borderline. (The original conceptualization of the dark triad specified “Machiavellianism.” Other than Antisocial, “Borderline” is the next closest – but not equivalent – type by conversion of Machiavellianism to the new terminology.)

Here I provide a brief summary of the corresponding behaviors typical of each of the three disorders:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Extraordinarily self-confident; grandiosity and entitlement; preoccupation with self; over-estimation of capabilities

Antisocial Personality Disorder – Enjoy taking risks and testing limits; manipulative; deceitful, cunning, and exploitative; disrespectful of people and normative values

Borderline Personality Disorder – Moody; intense but short-lived enthusiasm for people, projects, and things; instability in relationships; hard to please

Essentially, the dark triad individual is self-absorbed, malevolent, and callous. You don’t want to bunk with this person on your team building adventure.

The especially insidious thing about this disorder is attributable to two facets:

  1. Appeal. People with the “dark triad” traits are especially cunning, colorful, charismatic …. And deceitful. They are not only incredibly difficult to identify for their pathological behavior, they’re actually quite charming – on the surface. Even they have themselves convinced that they’re extraordinarily good people. Don’t buy it.
  2. Leadership Potential. Some elements of the dark triad are in fact predictive of leadership. (Guess which ones?) Narcissists tend to rise to high levels in the organization on their own coattails. The intensely enthusiastic traits of the Borderline personality, even if episodic, provide the reinforcing motivation of compliments and appreciation others are comfortable promoting.

And the dark triad is especially hard to assess. On personality tests, these types present themselves as being inclined toward leadership roles, outgoing, conscientious and likeable — all the characteristics that typically predict a high potential leader. I’ve written about how personality tests don’t tell the whole story. Well, the dark triad type comes from one of those books.

people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive

This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing if ever there was one. What makes these features so dangerous is that people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive (they get more dates) and ascendant (they get more promotions).

In terms of risk of impact – it’s high. If you work for someone like this you will be the primary target of attack. It’s important to watch yourself and them. They can do things that are highly disruptive while gliding along the lake like a swan, only you get kicked with their webbed feet (with talons).

Taken separately, each of the three components of the dark triad can deliver a real blow to the self and others’ psychological well-being. However, the antisocial component is undoubtedly the most dangerous of the three.

They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you.

People with antisocial personality disorder have a history of delinquency, whether they got caught or not. They push limits over the line not because it will offer them any actual advantage – they simply HAVE to feed an insatiable need to disrupt others. They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you. If this is the predominant trait you see in someone – duck and cover (not sustainable) or jump and run (also has its downsides, but generally better than hanging around).

Dealing with the Dark Triad

People with the dysfunctional types of the dark triad can’t be fixed. Even with intensive therapy the recidivism is very high where there is not a co-dependence (i.e., addiction) driving the condition. So, when you see these people coming, you need to take the wheel of your “magic bus” or, be thrown under it.

Here are some tips that may help you to deal better with a person with these co-morbid character traits:

  1. Know the enemy. Identify or validate your suspicious character carefully. There are some known flaws in their game. They tend to lie a lot — and well. Listen for evidence of contradiction or rewriting their past. One of their biggest lies is covering their tracks. They rarely keep a job for longer than 18 months but have excellent “reasons” for why they resigned – most having to do with the former employer’s unethical behavior.
  2. Be sure to include an assessment for the dark triad in your selection and recruitment systems. This assessment needs to be thorough. Simple testing or interviewing will reveal a star that knows how to interview and has plenty of impressive work experience because they’ve been fired so many times. An expert helps here. You do NOT want to hire or promote them. This is a clear case where character counts more than expertise.
  3. Avoid letting them get hyper-angry. Never fight back (especially if it’s your boss). Don’t talk when they’re ranting. Just let the bluster blow itself out. (They like hearing themselves anyway). You’ll have a better chance with them tomorrow – or even later that day. Their attitude can change with the weather.
  4. Feed their need for adoration. As cunning as they are, narcissists can’t resist the Siren’s songs of praise. This tactic can defuse an otherwise explosive situation and give you time to execute your exit strategy.
  5. Protect your actions and behaviors. These liars will stop at nothing to serve themselves and deny others. Keep a third person around to serve as a witness and confidant. Take notes of any/all interactions. Do nothing you wouldn’t do on trial.

If you know how they operate, you can best control, or at least influence, how they behave. But be warned, the Dark Triad is notoriously difficult to outsmart – especially with trickery. They know a thing or two about being manipulative and tend to think others act this way, too. They’re generally a bit on the paranoid side looking out for the types of things they would do to others. A defensive posture in attitude and behavior is the best default strategy.

Now that you’re adequately scared, I’ll remind you that all personality types, including personality disorders at work, exist in degree. I’ve painted an especially dark case to make my point. Most are not this extreme. A sophisticated and level-headed style of communication will help to keep things civil with less explosive outbursts, threats, lies, etc.

Remember, all humans are animals. Some are brutal sluggers. Don’t fight a slugger with your fists.

Psychology is clear: We’re not.

Beautiful, mysterious woman. What is she thinking? Who is she? Industrial Organizational Psychology knows.

Perspective.

In a word, that’s as close as it gets to a synonym for psychology – at least the type I practice. Many may debate, “It’s too narrow”, or, “It’s too broad.” But that’s their perspective. {Don’t you hate clever, contrived?}

Here’s mine.

Everything we “know” (i.e., that which we perceive via our senses or cognitive processes), is psychological. Some represent psychology with a lens metaphor.  I.e., “We perceive the world through the ‘lens of psychology.’” Not bad as metaphors go, but definitely not good.

In the movie, “A Beautiful Mind” (based on the book by Sylvia Nasar), Dr. Rosen, a psychiatrist, attempts to convince and calm a defiant and skeptical, John Nash, who Dr. Rosen believes to be psychotic.

Rosen: You can’t reason your way out of this!
Nash: Why not? Why can’t I?
Rosen: Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!

Psychology is not only the “lens” through which our viewpoint of the world passes, it’s all the “stuff” on either side of the lens as well. And that “stuff” is passing through as many other lenses as there are viewers. Your experience of the color red may be quite different from mine. Who knows? The “truth” doesn’t simply sit on one or the other side of the lens. What’s “right” is simply what’s generally accepted (i.e., conventional), not some absolute “truth.” Essentially, we choose to agree even though we don’t know if we’re agreeing on the same thing or not.

No, it isn’t 3am as I write. And I’m not cross-validating a Ken Kesey experiment. But I can see how I may have complicated things trying to “fix” a flawed metaphor. (I can hear a former colleague’s corrosive – whoa, I mean, "corrective," no, no, "constructive" -- feedback, “Don’t let great be the enemy of good.”)

Backing up.

We all make the error of John Nash. We all believe that we have some control over our mind, as surely as we do our behavior. Both beliefs are delusions. No matter how much you think you really do “know” or “control” your mind or behavior, it’s DEFINITELY less than you think.

Don’t believe me?

Try verbalizing how you tie your shoes. Can you do this in less time than it takes you to actually tie them? Didn’t think so. The reason is because you just don’t think about it when you're tying your shoes, even though you’ve done it thousands of times. (Actually, that’s precisely WHY you can’t explain it.)

Free throws are anything BUT free.

In psychology we have a very innovative term for behavior so routine it's as if it was automatic; like tying our shoes. The term is, “Automatic.” Automatic behavior falls into the category of “unconsciousness” but it's not the same. The difference between the two is that automatic thought (behavior) can be accessed (with effort), while unconscious thoughts or behaviors, can NOT. When we don’t notice anything about some behavior until it’s actively brought to our attention (e.g., a tangled knot, or a deliberate request – like my question), that’s automatic behavior. We CAN get to it. But when we do, we don't perform as well as when we let it lie. (Think "buzzer beaters" vs. "free throws." Free throws are anything BUT free. (Ask Shaq).

When asked, people underestimate the percentage of time they spend on “autopilot.” SIGNIFICANTLY. For example, while you’ve been reading this, how many times have you swallowed? You don’t know. But if I had told you beforehand that I would ask this now, you could answer.

At any given time, we’re aware of a mere speck in the spectrum of what’s sensible. And it goes beyond simple attention, but that’s another flavor of psychology.

Let's add just one more "flavor" to our model of perception: We tend to believe we know ourselves better than others do. Sometimes, yes. But mostly when it serves our need to be sensible or valued. When it comes to the "unvarnished truth?" ..., out goes self-accuracy.

The kicker is in a question made famous in my era by the rock band, “The Who.”

Who the f*ck are you?

Seriously, who are you? {sorry to paraphrase; I can't scream-sing}

A.  The you that you “know?”
B.  The you that they “know?”
C.  Both A and B.

If you answered, "C," you’re more likely to be right than not. “A” may be your identity, but “B” is your reputation. And "C" requires perspective. (If you’re wondering why I left out, “D. None of the above,” that’s a great question, better for a topic outside the realm of this article.)

A day in Chris’ life:

Subject: “They just don’t get it.”
Chris: “What do you mean?”
Subject: “I’ve explained X a hundred times and they still don’t do it right.”
Chris: “Are you sure it’s X they don’t understand?”
Subject: “You mean, maybe they don’t understand me?”
Chris: “Well, ... could be half of it.”
Subject: “What’s the other half?”
Chris:

Over 80% of my job is providing perspective; helping folks to see themselves from a “different pair of shoes” or in comparison to a larger group of folks similar to them (i.e., via norms).

And, “No,” I didn’t forget to add the last line for Chris. You already know the answer.

Like a lens to a lens, I don’t clear everything up. My aim is to provide better perspective, not perfect vision in a murky world of psychological errors, both known and unknown; accidental or deliberate.

From Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Louse,”

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

One doesn’t need to be, "some Pow'r", to do powerful things. My "giftie" is the perspective I provide from disciplined study and well-tried experience.

Which "who" matters most to you?

To close, I refer you back to "a day in Chris' life" and ask, "Which “who” matters most to you?"

{Hint: “Would you rather be right? Or influential?”}

“Opposites attract” or “Birds of a feather flock together”?

"Where is the love?"

Do “Opposites attract” or “Birds of a feather flock together”? This is a VERY popular question around the world with nearly as many “answers” as your “know it all” colleague. It’s a topic I’ve addressed before; the way things are going, I’ll address it again.

What’s up?

Sometimes a question is more revealing than its answer. This is one of those times.

So, rather than rushing to answer the question, I want to address it first. Specifically, I take up the question based solely on my experience in industrial/organizational psychology.

Two factors tell of its significance and a third factor implies its specific relevance to me:

It’s frequency. This may be the most frequent question I get in my work. It didn’t used to be, but lately it’s been coming up more and more, usually in group engagements.

The context. Factory floors, delivery trucks, board rooms, basically any place where people perform work is where my work is done. Do these seem like the kind of places folks would bring up a question about romantic relationships? Not to me; at least not initially.

The rise of personality. When I started in my profession, personality was just beginning to re-emerge as a credible concept after a 40 year moratorium. Today, personality is everywhere. And it’s a very large part of what I do every day. When I address a group on the topic of character assessment, I know I will get this question regarding personality’s influence in romantic relationships.

Still, I NEVER bring up the topic with my clients (who aren’t asking for romantic advice). Regardless of the connection to personality, the question seems out of place to my primary job – or at least it used to.

Why me?

Here’s why I suppose I get this question:

  1. Character (personality) counts at work.
  2. Character counts in romantic relationships.
  3. Matters that count (i.e., character) persist and influence behavior across contexts (e.g., work/non-work). Furthermore, character is my expertise. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that I become a human lightning rod for this question when talking “personality”.

Now to provide support for my logic.

Continue reading ““Opposites attract” or “Birds of a feather flock together”?”

The surprising characteristic of great leaders.

Do you want to be a leader? Try humility.

Humility.

That’s right. And this applies to both the attitude and the act. If you really want to lead others, embrace humility as a virtuous attitude. If you really want to lead your team to victory, be humble. Manage your ego, speak of your weaknesses and admit your mistakes. Follow others and point out where THEY excel (not you). And listen. Not to be polite, but to learn.

It’s profoundly simple:

If you really want to be a great leader, promote others.

Sound familiar? Just about every sustainable social, political or religious system is built on the premise of service - making others, or every-one better. Even better than you!

If you aren’t convinced by my as yet unsubstantiated statements of “belief,” the same can be observed in the more “hard” sciences of biology (e.g., symbiotic organisms, each depending on and strengthening the other), chemistry (e.g., catalysts, subtle agents activating massive reactions) and physics (e.g., levers that give small objects power over those much larger). These are a bit of a stretch on humility, but they do illustrate how simple or small agents can have a huge, even life saving effect on another. The point is, sometimes humble leaders make their teams significantly better just by being available and providing a little 'boost.'

In fact, we’re wired (genetically) to do this. And it’s a good thing. If we don’t take care of each other, we go away. “I win, you lose” systems ultimately yield one ... "winner"? We both need and lead each other. {There is no grammatical error in the preceding sentence.} We encourage our children for their effort. We help our friends in adversity. In healthy relationships, we praise our partner, not ourselves. And in faith, we honor a being greater than anything of which we can conceive. We do this for no obvious credit. We’re just built that way. (Mostly – keep reading)

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Why Personality Inventories Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Self Check - Personality Inventories

The vast majority of personality inventories rely on “self report” for their input. Quite simply, individuals assess themselves on what I’ll call the “first level.” Since I refer to a “first level,” there obviously must be at least one more level. There is, and it’s a level of assessment that individuals can NOT provide by themselves no matter how good the inventory nor how “truthfully” the individuals respond to it. Therefore, personality assessments don’t tell the whole story.

You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better?

This doesn’t mean personality assessments aren’t useful (or ‘valid’ in scientific terms), it simply means that there’s more to a person’s story than they can reveal via any series of questions in a personality inventory. This goes for ALL personality inventories, some, more than others, but none can overcome the limitations of self-assessment. In short, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better? This is where an expert in psychology comes in handy. To get the best understanding of an individual, an expert in psychology and psychological assessment can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we ALL leave in our own account of our personality.

Although many psychologists would agree and offer varying degrees of scientific proof, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality that serves my point. Freud’s theory is grounded in the way he described the structure of the human psyche. This structure includes three components; the Id, Ego and Superego. Without going into the details of each of these components, Freud also developed the concepts of Consciousness and Unconsciousness (although he wasn’t the first to describe them). Almost everyone has some familiarity with these terms – even if not exactly in the way that Freud defined them.

Consciousness has to do with one’s direct awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can fairly accurately describe things that we experience while we are in a conscious state. Unconsciousness is the other ‘side’ of ourselves; the side to which we do not have direct access and therefore do not readily understand nor recognize. As such, we are unable to describe things that exist in our unconscious mind – even though it is constantly at work.

I could stop here and have a pretty good case for why self-report assessments don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include our unconscious self and our unconscious self has a big impact on who we are.

But there’s more.

Freud also described how the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personality work together. I’m not going to go into great detail here except to say that the unconscious mind significantly influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. And it's far more influential than most think.

Here’s a simple example of how unconscious behavior reveals itself in our daily lives: Tying your shoes. This is an activity that we perform virtually every day – but odds are you can’t tell me how you do it. We’ve done it so much that it’s become “automatic.” Basically, we do it without thinking. There are many other examples. Sticking with the shoe example, behaviors that we do repetitively oftentimes become “automatic.” Automatic behaviors require very little (if any) thought, and true to unconscious behavior, we have a hard time recalling or describing them. (A nice benefit to automatic behavior is that it uses almost no mental resources. This means that we have plenty of resources to attend to other matters – aka, multi-tasking.)

Automatic behavior is just one way in which unconsciousness affects who we are. Unconsciousness also affects our thinking and feeling. In short, we are very significantly influenced by psychological processes that we aren’t even aware of. Others may note these influences (or outcomes in our behavior) but we don’t. Things we say may be very apparent to others, but pass completely unnoticed by ourselves. For example, some individuals have a habit of repeating various phrases (usually “filler” words) without any awareness. You may know someone who repeatedly says, “at the end of the day”, or “you know what I mean?”, “um”, “actually”, or any of a cast of phrases that are “thrown in” to the conversation but add no value. Even if they are partially aware that they say these things, they have no idea how frequently they do it – unless you record them and show it back to them. In addition, people are very poor judges of how much they talk (vs. listen). You can test this with a friend, but I must warn that you this is almost never appreciated. Test at your own risk.

These are some simple ways in which our unconscious mind affects our behavior without our awareness. But that’s not all. There are even more “active” ways that our unconscious mind affects us that can be very confusing, or even misleading to an accurate assessment of ourselves (as actors) AND others (as observers).

Freud also developed the concept of “defense mechanisms.” In short, these are ways of thinking and behaving that counteract a thought or memory that is bothering us at an unconscious level. One such example is called, “reaction formation.”

Reaction formation is the term Freud used to describe the unconscious -- and extreme -- change of thought and behavior resulting from one’s unconscious need to (over)compensate for previous behavior that the individual now considers offensive. By way of “reaction formation” the individual unconsciously undergoes a radical transformation wherein the behavior or attitude they once held, suddenly becomes hyper offensive and disgustingly deplorable -- in others! Smoking is often given as an example. Former smokers sometimes become the loudest and most assertive critics of those who smoke. Freud’s theorizing is that by engaging in overcompensating behavior, one is clearing up or avoiding the unconscious tension they experience by virtue of having been a former transgressor.

Other forms of defense mechanisms include denial (unwilling or unable to accept the truth because of the psychological harm it causes), projection (attributing one’s own intolerable thoughts or problems to another so as to ‘shift blame’), repression (a less extreme variant of denial that involves pushing one’s hurtful thoughts or feelings into the unconscious self so as not to deal with them directly). And there are others.

Scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal.

The point is, not only are we largely unaware of our most frequent behaviors (automatic behavior), but our psyche is constantly at work trying to protect ourselves from threatening thoughts, feelings or behaviors (defense mechanisms). As a result, scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal. And this isn’t because the respondent is lying, they really believe that they are accurately describing themselves. There are many other factors that distort our valid understanding of ourselves, these are just two of the most common.

An expert in psychology and psychological assessment can identify these, and other unconscious influences on behavior, and consequently, scores on a self-report personality inventory. Sometimes this can be done merely by noting unusual or telling patterns in the individual’s responses to a reputable personality assessment, but frequently it requires the collection of data beyond the single assessment. Psychological interviews are among the best ways to spot potentially misleading information as taken straight from the personality inventory. The content of these interviews can be designed specifically to test questions raised by the instrument.

It’s very important to stress that these types of advanced interpretation of any psychometric assessment are complex. They need to be left to experts who have a thorough understanding of psychology as well as tests and measures used as tools to predict behavior.

In sum: Solid psychological assessments offer great value over less scientifically constructed measures (e.g., typical unstructured interviews). But, as with any other tool, it’s important to know the true strengths and limits of what they offer in the complex task of psychological assessment. As anyone who’s made a regrettable hire can agree, what you see in the interview isn’t always what you get on the job.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.

Psychology button on computer where "Enter" key should be

Technology can fly planes, drive cars; heck, virtually perform remote surgery (pun, not intended). Some believe that literally all jobs will eventually be performed by technology. For them, if a “machine” isn’t already doing it, just wait. (Note: This is an extreme view).

Technology is changing the world faster than ever. If you agree with Moore’s law, it will only continue to increase its impact even faster over time.

Will technology take my job?

Probably so. But don’t quit yet! If you’ve been around a few years, like I have, it’s likely that technology has already “taken” all or much of the job you had 10 years ago. You’ve simply changed to stay in front of the technological evolution.

What does science say?

A recent study looked at the rise of technology in relation to the probability of it overtaking more than 700 jobs catalogued in O*Net, a public database of jobs and the various knowledge, skills and abilities required for their performance. The researchers (Frye and Osborne, 2013) reasoned that the probability of technology overtaking a given job is closely related to the time it will take for this to occur. As such, they created a list rank ordering the probability that these 700 jobs will be overtaken by technology in 20 years.

The study is now a few years old, but seems to have already made some accurate predictions. For example, you’ve probably received a “robocall”, a task once was performed by a person.

The crux of the study is in the researchers’ identification of three key job characteristics they refer to as “bottlenecks to computerization.” The degree to which a job encompasses one or more of these “bottlenecks” predicts the probability (and time) required for technology to be able to perform that job. These three bottlenecks include: 1) Fine Perception and Manipulation, 2) Creative Intelligence and 3) Social Intelligence.

The three bottlenecks were further broken down into seven more discreet tasks. Of these seven tasks, Social Intelligence encompasses a majority of four.

The practical implication is that if your job requires you to “read” people or influence them, particularly in emotional ways, you’re likely safe from seeing a robot at your desk one morning anytime soon.

Specifically, the study predicts that social workers, therapists and teachers should have relatively long careers as far as “automation threat” is concerned. Psychologist, is also in the top 20 of the 700 jobs ranked according to the difficulty of automation.

Although this research is new, the issue isn’t. Psychological assessment has long been a topic of technological debate: Can a personality assessment alone more accurately predict behavior than an expert in psychological assessment?

Continue reading “Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.”

What if Psychology is Real?

Psychways | What if psychology is real?

“What if psychology is real?” This may seem like a rhetorical question, but I note many instances where folks act as though it isn’t. For the most part, they don’t even know it – but oftentimes they do.

Rational vs. Emotional Decision Making

Studies show that emotions are much more influential to decision making than people estimate. As such, I see many situations where individuals expect another to respond in a completely objective, rational manner. Science, and even common sense, tells us this is not the case. Without belaboring the obvious, this is why the concept of Emotional Intelligence gains credibility.

In fact, people do NOT make rational decisions most of the time. A quick read through other posts on this blog will reveal that biases, emotions and other non-rational factors weigh very heavily on decision making and behavior. To point, this is why psychology exists independent from computer science and artificial intelligence.

Basic Assessment – a typical example

As individuals we have at least two factors that obfuscate the accuracy of a basic self or other examination: bias and motivation.

Bias is the unconscious distortion of reality due to systematic errors of judgment. We can’t help being biased – sometimes even if we know about the very risk. Nevertheless, most of us fail to adequately recognize bias as a real factor when assessing others or ourselves.

As for motivation, most of us will alter our behavior when we know we are being watched. I have another blog coming specifically dedicated to this and will update this piece once it is ‘blogged out’. Simply put, if we know the results of a personal assessment will lead to a decision of interest to us, we will modify our behavior to enhance the likelihood of getting the results we want.

This is one of the reasons we favor supervisor assessments over ‘self-assessments’ when determining terms of employment. Individuals are neither accurate, nor motivated to be so, when valuable stakes are on the line.

So What?

What’s the big deal – we’re all psychologists in some way anyway, right?

May be. But how good are we – really?

“Basic principles of psychology affect world change.”

Psychological factors influence voting behavior, aggressive behavior, attitudes as well as stereotypes and a host of other factors that influence global affairs. For the biggest issues psychologists are typically employed to insure key factors are considered for the benefit of assessment and decision making not to mention world peace.

Bringing it home

What if YOU aren’t the most accurate and objective assessor of others? What if THEY aren’t motivated to present the cold, hard facts about themselves?

This is the reality, yet many decisions are made without any consideration of factors such as these. And they matter – a lot.

How crucial is it to manage talent – or yourself — wisely? How critical is it to make the best hiring decision, or personal selection decision?

Now: How often do you seek the service of a professional in work psychology to aid decisions about talent?

Psychology: It really makes a difference.

My Favorite Attitude

Happy vs. sad face

Attitudes are simply personal orientations toward a particular person or thing. But some are bigger than others. One in particular has reigned as my favorite attitude much longer than most “favorites” (i.e., food, song, place, etc.).

Optimism.

Why Optimism?

For one, it’s a very strong predictor.

Optimism is a near pre-requisite for achievement. And the opposite is also true. To state it bluntly,

I’ve never met a pessimistic over achiever.

Continue reading “My Favorite Attitude”