Personality Theory and Positive Psychology

(Note: This is an abstract of a chapter by Robert Hogan and Michael Benson in The Perils of Accentuating the Positive (Hogan Press), edited by Robert B. Kaiser)

George Gallup and Donald Clifton pioneered Positive Psychology under the banner of “science and the study of strengths”. Their survey research methodology is exemplary, and reveals important empirical links between employee attitudes and business results. I especially admire their focus on real business outcomes—e.g., profitability, productivity, turnover, and customer satisfaction. I also appreciate the humanism implied by their concern with employee well-being. In addition, Gallup researchers have firmly established that management practices are the key drivers of employee engagement, and employee engagement predicts a host of positive and negative business results.

Although I admire Positive Psychology’s focus on effectiveness and high level performance, it is important to note three things about this emphasis. First, it is not new. The Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at U.C. Berkeley was established in 1949, based on a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, explicitly to study the determinants of competence, effectiveness, and high level performance. Over the years, IPAR researchers assessed over 2,000 highly effective and creative professionals, and published many papers describing their findings. Perhaps the best known of these are papers on the nature of creativity (Barron, 1969; MacKinnon, 1962).

Second, high level effectiveness is not the same thing as “flourishing”, a key term for Positive Psychology. IPAR data, for example, clearly show that many if not most talented and accomplished people are driven by private demons. And finally, it is not at all clear what “flourishing” means. If it means being able to live with oneself, then it is clearly only one aspect of psychological health, and it is an aspect that is closely related to narcissism. As such, it is likely to increase the ability to live with oneself at the expense of the ability to live with others, which in turn, will decrease the probability of occupational success (Judge, LePine, & Rich, 2006). If flourishing means self-actualization in a Maslowian sense, then it is simply wrong-headed.

Leadership requires balancing a number of competing tensions—for example, focusing on short-term versus long-term results, or focusing on people versus task requirements (cf. Kaiser & Kaplan, this volume). This chapter concerns a different tension—that between living with oneself and living with others. Using personality psychology as a roadmap, we argue that leadership effectiveness depends more on being able to live with others than with being able to live with oneself. Moreover, being able to live with others depends on a capacity that we call strategic self-awareness—understanding one’s strengths, abilities, and limitations in relation to other people. Consider the following example.

Jean-Marie Messier was the CEO of the Paris-based Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE) from 1996 to 2001. Those who knew Messier described him as self-absorbed, utterly self-confident, and fond of the spotlight. His company, CGE, was a highly profitable, global leader in water, electrical, and waste utilities, and faced the prospects of steady long-term growth worldwide. Nothing about its environment, staff, or core competencies indicated any need for change. With no experience whatsoever in the world of media and entertainment, Messier transformed CGE to a movies and music enterprise that he named Vivendi, a transformation that turned into a total financial disaster.

Traditional personality psychology began with French and German psychiatry in the late 19th century; it extends through Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in the 1950s and 1960s, and is represented today by cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology (Seligman & Czikszentmihalyi, 2000). We call this tradition intrapsychic theory because it focuses on processes inside people; it emphasizes self-discovery and maintains that the big problem in life is learning to live with oneself. The underlying assumption of this tradition is that everyone has hidden secrets—these could be strengths or limitations; these secrets need to be revealed and explored so that people can “become whole”.

There is a second and much less influential tradition in personality psychology called interpersonal theory; it began in 1908 with the great Scottish psychiatrist William McDougall (whose thinking was not influenced by Freud) and extends through G.H. Mead in the 1930s and Irving Goffman and Theodore Sarbin in the 1960s; it is represented today by socioanalytic theory (cf. Hogan & Smither, 2001). This tradition focuses on social interaction and assumes that learning to live with others is more important than learning to live with oneself.

As noted earlier, the mainstream (and dominant) intrapsychic tradition of personality psychology defines self-knowledge in terms of becoming aware of thoughts and emotions (and strengths) that were formerly unconscious. This is sometimes popularly expressed as getting in touch with one’s emotions, strengths (or even one’s “inner child”). This definition of self-awareness is the cornerstone of traditional psychotherapy, and it would be difficult to overstate how influential it has been. In our view, it is also incorrect, and it takes the process of guided individual development in the wrong direction.

Socrates’ maxim was “know thyself”; he also famously maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. However, Socrates and the ancient Greeks meant something very specific by self-knowledge. They were a practical people and they defined self-knowledge in terms of understanding the limits of one’s performance capabilities—i.e., knowing one’s strengths and shortcomings vis-?-vis one’s competitors in various activities. This is a sensible way to think about self-awareness; we refer to it as strategic self-awareness because it is information that can be used to shape and direct one’s career. There are two components of strategic self awareness: (1) understanding one’s limitations and strengths; and (2) and understanding how they compare with those of others. The second part is what distinguishes self-awareness from strategic self-awareness. We would like to note three points about this model of self-awareness.

First, strategic self-awareness cannot be gained in vacuo or through introspection. Strategic self-awareness depends on performance-based feedback using a systematic and objective assessment process. If people want to improve their golf games, they will consult a golf pro who asks them to hit some balls, perhaps video-tape their performance, then offers feedback. If they want to improve their tennis game, they will do the same thing. But what should they do if they want to improve their life (or career) games? They will need feedback on their habitual ways of dealing with other people—i.e., the interpersonal moves they typically employ in their efforts to both get along and get ahead.