Virtue or Vice? What Personality Tells Us About Patience



A bald black man with gray facial hair wears a light gray blazer with a navy blue collared shirt underneath. The city is an out-of-focus backdrop. The man furrows his brow as he checks his wristwatch, portraying patience or perhaps impatience.

“Why can’t we make more, and why can’t we make it sooner?” asked Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla of his manufacturing leader, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.1 The article goes on to describe and praise Bourla’s demanding leadership style, a decided departure from the popular press on more gentle approaches to leadership.2 Pfizer’s stellar performance in delivering the COVID-19 was driven, in part, by Mr. Bourla’s impatience. This raises a critical question: have we swung too far toward celebrating a kinder, gentler approach to leadership and lost sight of the balance required to produce results and engage employees’ hearts and minds?

For at least several centuries, patience has been considered a virtue. Articles and books about patience almost universally seem to assume that more is better. As children, we are taught to be patient (e.g., “Wait your turn,” and “Good things come to those who wait”). Even the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition rests on the assumption that more is better: “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed.”3

However, it also has been suggested that patience is a vice. For example, Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available. That is, being patient (and therefore slow) will result in wasted time; if one doesn’t exhibit impatience for getting things done, those tasks will take more time than necessary. Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law, on the other hand, states that work contracts to fit the time we give it, which also suggests that a bit of impatience leads to greater efficiency. More practically, consider whether patience is productive in the case of a manager who, unlike Mr. Bourla, patiently waits for work to be completed instead of setting aggressive deadlines. Would patience be productive or unproductive for an entrepreneur trying to be first to market with a new product? The current popularity of agility and digitalization certainly doesn’t seem to characterize patience as a virtue.

So how can we tell which it is — a virtue or a vice — in a given circumstance? Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the academic literature doesn’t provide an answer. To gain insight, we reviewed correlations between personality characteristics and observer descriptions of patience.

Certain personality characteristics seem most related to observer descriptions of patience or impatience. These Hogan Personality Inventory scales measure those characteristics:

  • Adjustment – measuring the degree to which one is seen as calm and even tempered or conversely moody and volatile
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity – measuring social skill, tact, and perceptiveness or conversely independence, frankness, and directness
  • Prudence – measuring self-control and conscientiousness versus impulsivity, flexibility, and resistance to rules and supervision

More patient people are described as being calmer, more polite and tactful, and more self-disciplined. Sounds good, right? So we might conclude that patience really is a virtue — except our research also shows that one can have too much of a good thing when it comes to these personality characteristics. For example, a person who scores extremely high on each of the three scales might be described a bit differently:

  • Adjustment – lacking a sense of urgency and being nonchalant about priority assignments
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity – avoiding confrontation, being overfocused on getting along, and hesitating to address poor performance
  • Prudence – controlling, having difficulty managing change, micromanaging, and seeming rigid and inflexible

Thus, extremely patient people might be inefficient, tentatively communicate expectations for results, and lack adaptability. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and patience can be a virtue or a vice.

Personality assessment or 360-degree feedback is critical for helping leaders understand if they are hitting the sweet spot in terms of patience — being even tempered and urgent, diplomatic and direct, and conscientious and adaptable. Demonstrating these characteristics in balance seems likely to earn one a reputation of having the virtue of being productively impatient.

Want to learn more about personality tests? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Personality Tests

References

1. Hopkins, JS. (2020, December 11). How Pfizer Delivered a Covid Vaccine in Record Time: Crazy Deadlines, a Pushy CEO. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-pfizer-delivered-a-covid-vaccine-in-record-time-crazy-deadlines-a-pushy-ceo-11607740483?mod=searchresults_pos16&page=1

2. Feintzeig, R. (2020, December 3). The Covid Pandemic Produces a Kinder, Gentler Performance Review. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-covid-pandemic-produces-a-kinder-gentler-performance-review-11607025600

3. Cambridge University Press. (n.d.). Patience. In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/patience