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If you’ve been in the corporate world for any time at all, it’s likely that you’ll have been on a development programme or training course that included some kind of personality profile. 

We’re talking MBTI, DISC, Insights, FIRO and a whole host of tools that measure some aspect of personality, behavioural preference or, related concepts such as emotional intelligence.

There are many.

Maybe you’ve use them yourself as a coach, trainer or consultant?

 

Types of personality profile

 

There are a number of uses for personality profiles but they broadly fall into two, namely assessment and development.

In assessment, prediction is key. Are you measuring something that predicts what you need, and does it measure it accurately, with consistency? Most personality profiles measure types (e.g. MBTI, DISC, Insights) or traits (such as the ‘Big 5’ or OCEAN). Most of the debate centres around this distinction.

Types put you into a box, whereas traits are more relative and allow for a more nuanced assessment. Traits have a much more solid body of evidence to suggest their validity, as a recent article by researcher and evidence-based HR ‘champion’ Rob Briner suggests:

 

Personality means the characteristic ways in which people think, feel and behave. So here’s the killer question: is personality something that actually fits tidily into types or categories? Or is it something that has a number of relatively independent dimensions or traits along which people vary? In other words, what is the most accurate way of measuring people’s personality – types or traits?

 

This may seem like a picky point but it’s really not. If we incorrectly put anything into categories that don’t exist then what have we achieved? It may look neat. It may ‘make sense’. We may like it. But it’s wrong, misleading, practically unhelpful and even harmful.

 

So, if you want to use profiling in assessment, where predictability is the aim, I’d suggest using trait-based tools.

 

Both types and traits limit change

However, in a fast-changing world, where many of the roles and skills that we’re recruiting for today might not exist, how helpful is the notion of predictability?

In development, my view is that both types and traits are problematic, because they limit both our view of the person, and the opportunities for personal change.

Both, to some degree, present a view of the person that suggests that we are what we are, an we’re not going to change. Both are, in their theoretical underpinning, relatively static.

You can make an argument that types and traits don’t have to determine your behaviour. That is a rationalisation used to justify the use of types and traits in coaching and development. However, the underlying theory does not promote change. Theory, by the way, that often goes back to the first half of the 20th century, when life and work was rather simpler than it is now.

 

In development, nothing else matters but change

At the extreme, I’ve seen types in particular worn as a badge of honour, or to justify behaviour. I’ve seen ‘types’ being included on Linkedin profiles, email signatures, and in face-to-face introductions. That screams, “this is me and don’t expect me to be any different”. It doesn’t matter that more skilled coaches discourage this kind of behaviour, because the tests and their underlying assumptions encourage it. 

 

“In development situations, Kathryn Austin, chief HR and marketing officer at Pizza Hut, believes that type-based tests like Myers Briggs can lead to people ‘playing’ to the results and exaggerating a particular side of themselves. “

So, I have a particular issue with types. There’s nothing wrong with trait theory, per se. Traits exist. There is clearly an element of our personality that is relatively constant.

What both type- and trait-based theories and their respective profiles miss, however, is that on a moment-to-moment basis, we are dynamic beings.

 

Our emotions, thoughts, motivations and behaviour vary, often quite dramatically from moment to moment.

That’s not only a situational view of personality, however. As Michael Apter argues, in his book ZigZag, we are ZigZagnot only different in different situations, but we are often different in the same situation at different times.

 

Human behaviour is complex

We can’t understand the whole person, all of the time, but we can remove the blinkers of trait and type psychology and start developing people as they are. Dynamic, inconsistent, changeable and even paradoxical.

The starting point for that is to consider the influence of states on behaviour an performance. This is something that has driven sport psychology for decades. If you go into google scholar and type “personality traits sports performance” you’ll get 128,000 hits. If you type “mental states sports performance” you’ll get 1.3 million. Personality traits in sport psychology research more or less hit a dead end at the end of the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s . They had nothing particularly interesting to say about performance.

As a sport psychologist that has spent most of his life in the business world, I think that too much time has been spent labouring under the delusion that traits have relevance to performance. My view is that we’ve taken something that has utility in assessment (albeit to a questionable degree in today’s world) and applied them, without really questioning it, to development.

Here and now, states matter 

Yes, there is evidence supporting the predictability of traits, but that’s predicted, statistical performance not performance in the ‘here and now’. It tells us nothing about what happens in critical moments.

And critical moments are where performance and development lie, particularly when we move from task-based roles to roles where there is complexity and judgement is required, or where success is largely socially driven.  Does that sound familiar? That’s all the stuff that AI won’t replace..

 

A dynamic view of personality

Reversal Theory (Apter) provides a view of personality that is dynamic, focusing on motivational and emotional states, and relatively comprehensive. As a general theory, it does attempt to explain the ‘whole person’.  Whether it does that or not, it gives us a map that helps us deal with critical moments, inconsistency, paradoxical behaviour and, importantly, promotes a belief that we can indeed change.

Apter’s view of personality is that:

  1. The trait concept is inadequate, on its own, since we are all changing all of the time
  2. Underlying this changeability is a structure of motivational states that oppose one another 
  3. Using this structure, and the dynamics that go with it, allows us to provide new explanations and therefore new solutions, to previously hard to explain, challenging or paradoxical ‘people’ issues. 

This is the fundamental premise behind the Apter Toolkit, and for moving beyond traits. Sure, they have their place, perhaps more for predicting behaviour than changing it, but they’re only part of the picture. 

No theory is perfect. And no profile is either. That’s for sure. But some are better than others, and some are more useful than others. Make your choice.. ..with open eyes.

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