We Don’t Build Bridges from Instinct: An Interview with Dr. Robert Hogan

RT Budapest*This Q&A was originally published by HRPWR.com

Dr. Robert Hogan is an international authority in the fields of personality assessment, the assessment of management skills and organisational efficiency. He is the author of more than 300 articles, book chapters and books in total; the founder of Hogan Assessments and eponym of the Hogan test.  Dr. Hogan is a determining personality of 21st century applied business psychology, who is widely acclaimed internationally in scientific and business circles alike. We recently spoke with Dr. Hogan when he was in Budapest to speak at the Future of Coaching in Organisations conference.

May I start with a personal question? Have you always been interested in organisational psychology, or had you previously tried your hand at other fields of psychology?

I’m a retired naval officer. After leaving the navy, I worked with youthful offenders for one and a half years – my interest in psychology derives from these times. I was completely enchanted by the task of understanding how these young people had arrived at this point, many of whom were really smart and good at sports – how did they become youthful offenders? I wanted to find out what could be done to reverse the process which had led them to that point. After this, I decided to pursue a PhD in psychology, and I spent the first 11-13 years of my post-navy career studying crime.

How did you arrive at studying personality assessment, leadership and organisational development from there?

While I was studying the psychology of delinquency I realised that in truth I’m more interested in the normal personality – through criminals we can’t understand the normal personality, but through studying the normal personality we can understand what has happened to those who become criminals. This is how I got to the point of studying personality in itself, and how I got to the question, which is a very important question in life indeed: what shapes our career? How can we be successful in life? As this is something criminals can’t have: success in career. This was followed by the question of how to make a career within an organisation – since nobody makes a career in the desert alone… I started thinking about the topic of “people in the organisation”, then one thing came after another. I explored the literature of organisational theory, and I realised that this doesn’t exist: that nobody had ever talked about organisational theory before. Even though people create organisations, organisations develop cultures, and after this, the culture affects who can be inside and who remains outside… This is how someone becomes a criminal – they are the ones who remain outside – and this is how I started dealing with organisational psychology.

I have seen a video on the web page of Hogan Assessments, in which people are asked what they think the concept of personality covers. Now I would like to ask you: what is personality?

It’s about two things. One of them is what a person thinks about him or herself: this is his or her identity. The other is what others think about him: this is his reputation (in other words, his honour or credit). The first covers what a person thinks about who he or she thinks he/she is, the second is what others think about him or her. During the history of psychology, most psychologists have focused on identity, even though the most important part of our life is our reputation: since based on this we are hired, fired or promoted; people lend us money, vote for us and so on. So psychologists have missed this opportunity, because we focus exactly on this, on how we affect others. Our reputation is the key to everything. For instance politicians understand this very well – but psychologists don’t.

From where did you get the idea to measure reputation?

Freud phrased it something like this: “The ‘you’ that you know is hardly worth knowing” – as it’s something that you invented about yourself. The problem with all of this is self-deception: people lie to themselves most of the time. And one of their biggest lies towards themselves is in connection with who they are and what they do. What we can believe is what other people say about them. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Our reputation aggregates of all our past behaviors: this is our best data source for how we are going to behave in the future.

Can we always believe what other people say about someone?

We have to analyze all of the results. We can’t take the opinions of only one or two people. We have to ask at least ten or fifteen people, since anyone can be antagonistic towards someone – or is his or her good friend. That’s why we need a lot of data.

Does all the above mentioned mean that self-knowledge doesn’t play a part at all in a successful career – and it’s not important in the assessments?

Exactly! How do we know where self-knowledge comes from? We assume that it comes from introspection – namely, what we think about ourselves. But many, many successful people are incapable of introspection! They are just not capable: they become angry if you ask them to peer inward. Ronald Reagan was famous about not being able to do this; another example is Voltaire. So if very successful people are not capable, then introspection is not even important – is it?

I will have to think about that a bit…

All right! So the thing we have to speak about, is strategic self-knowledge. This means that we have to be aware of how others see us, and also of how we affect others.

If it’s true that a person’s reputation consists of all his/her past behavior, then how should we evaluate if someone’s personality has gone through a big change – how can we assess that? Can we assess it at all?

I don’t think that personality could ever change in a large measure. It’s very hard to change personality. What we can change is behavior: based on feedback, we can change something in our behavior. At the same time, personality has an important dimension, which we call coachability. This means that not everyone listens to feedback. Let’s just think about athletes: you get 9-10 athletes to every star athlete who are just as skilled, but they don’t become star athletes. Those who become star athletes listen to coaching. Without this, they can’t perform at their best: it won’t work if they don’t allow themselves to be coached.

So what you are saying is that coachability is something which can be measured, and if someone is coachable, there is a chance that his or her behavior will change later on?

Yes. And if someone reaches low scores in coachability, it means that he/she will never change. Because these people like themselves as they are – why should they change? (Or so they think.)

Hogan Assessments also deals with measuring leadership skills. What characterises a good leader?

That their subordinates like him/her and they trust him/her. And they believe him/her. I can also tell why they like a good leader. There are four reasons: first, they know that they can trust him or her, and that he or she won’t betray them. Second, they see that this person knows what he/she is talking about. She/he knows the field she/he is dealing with, and is really competent in it. The third is that she/he has good judgement: she/he makes very good decisions. Nelson – one of the best leaders I know – never made any bad decisions. And the fourth? These people have a vision which is attractive. If we would like to define the bad leader, just recall all the bad managers we have met so far: they lie, they don’t know what they are talking about, they make bad decisions, and they aim to realise bad values. What they are trying to achieve is not worth achieving. As a matter of fact, what I have just said is based on knowledge gained from millions of data points about what a good leader looks like. I’m not a philosopher, I approach the question from the viewpoint of an engineer. I really have to build on data. For building up a business or anything else, we need to support the process with data. We don’t build bridges from instinct either. (Laughs.)

Could you share your views about how digitalisation has changed, or how it is changing, personality assessment?

First, I have to lay down that I’m constantly thinking about this question: in fact, it’s been troubling me since 1965, so I’ve been worrying about it for a while. But I think that human nature has a biological core, which will never change. What we would like to measure does not change; the method of measurement can change at best. At the same time, I also think that the best way to collect data from a person is to ask him or her a series of sophisticated questions. I don’t know yet if there is any faster way of getting information about people. And the best way to get information about people is to ask other people about them. And how can we digitize this…? Digitalisation makes all this faster and more effective, we can ask more people within less time – but what we want to measure will always remain the same. Today we can collect the amount of data within 4-5 days which took me 2 years in the first occasion. And this is astounding!

As a conclusion, I would ask you a personal question again: what are you most proud of in your career?

There are four things of which I think I can be proud. I think I was the one who stood up and showed to the scientific world that personality is important, indeed: that it predicts workplace performance, moreover, in the case of all occupations. It predicts work performance more than anything else, including IQ. And personality doesn’t discriminate. Here there is no difference among the attainable scores between women and men, or between people coming from various places, and so on. Anyone completing the test can reach the same scores. In the second place, I also showed that leadership and leadership skills are important. So, first of all personality is important. Secondly, leadership ability is important, and thirdly, personality predicts leadership ability. And the fourth thing I’m proud of is that (through mapping the dark side of personality) we also pointed out the fact that 65-75% of present managers don’t perform well in their work. I think these are important contributions. And it can be said in every case that the scientific community has always had a different opinion. So when we pointed at these things, we met serious resistance from the scientific community. And I’m very proud that we did it!