Personality psychology began with German and Swiss psychiatry; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung exerted an immense historical influence on all theorizing about human nature. In particular, they argued that everyone has problems and that their problems are caused by being out of touch with their emotions, by lacking appropriate self-knowledge. The solution to their problems is enhanced self-awareness, fostered and guided by feedback from a therapist. This line of thought encourages self-absorption, but more importantly, it ignores the impact of a person on other people; other people are not significant in these theories. Freud and Jung founded the intrapsychic tradition of personality psychology—they focused attention almost exclusively on the process of inner exploration.
There is an alternative view of personality that begins with William McDougall and extends through Timothy Leary, George Kelly, and Jerry Wiggins. These (Scottish/Irish/English) writers argued that peoples’ problems are caused by the way they perceive and treat other people. They started the interpersonal tradition of personality psychology—they focus almost exclusively on interpersonal relationships.
I identify with the interpersonal tradition for two reasons. First, Freud and Jung thought introspection was the key to psychological health, but introspective tendencies are uncorrelated with career success; many happy and successful people (Voltaire, U.S. Grant, Ronald Reagan) were incapable of introspection. Second, humans evolved as group living animals, and success in life entirely depends on social acceptance and approval—i.e., on building and maintaining effective relationships.
The study of relationships is an entire field of psychology; I can summarize the news from this field in terms of four broad points. First and most importantly, every relationship is an exchange process; successful relationships depend on both parties receiving some benefit. Thus, popular people are rewarding to deal with; unpopular people are punishing to deal with. There is only one way to be rewarding—by being consistent and accepting of others. There are many ways to be punishing—by being moody, hostile, inconsistent, untrustworthy, self-centered, or even weird. That which is exchanged during social interaction is respect and affection; after every interaction a person gains or loses a small bit of respect and affection depending on his/her performance. A person’s reputation is the summary of this accounting process, and smart people pay attention to it.
Second, relationships evolve in systematic ways over the human life cycle. The earliest kind of relationship is that between an infant and its caretakers; this process has been brilliantly analyzed by John Bowlby in his Attachment and Loss trilogy. Forming secure attachment bonds with caretakers is the source of self-esteem and the foundation of all subsequent psychological development; attachment is eroded by “separation”—physical or emotional. Bowlby compares separation to exposure to radiation; it is bad in any amount and it accumulates. The next kind of relationship concerns dealing with adult authority; to survive, children must learn to accept the rules of authority (for example, to learn language children must accept what they are told about names), and this is facilitated by secure attachment relations. Then, around age five, all children enter a peer group; they must then learn to negotiate relationships with peers—as opposed to demanding and accepting resources from adults. At some later point in adolescence the mating dance begins. This seems mostly to be hormone-driven chaos, but one firm generalization is that relationships founded on similar values tend to endure, and those based on dissimilar values do not. Finally, young people enter the world of work where they must negotiate a wide variety of relationships and this is a function of social skill.
Third, successful leadership involves managing three kinds of relationship problems. The first are relationships with subordinates; this is the primary focus of most discussions of leadership, and by far the easiest problem to deal with. The second are relationships with peers. Here the solution is to assure one’s peers that, if you become their boss, you will treat them fairly. The third problem is relations with superiors, and this one is crucial. The careers of Stanley O’Neal and John Thain, the recently failed CEOs of Merrill Lynch, are instructive because both men are similar in many ways. They are both talented and good with numbers and cost control; they are both arrogant, cold, and remote. But most importantly, both of them were superb at managing relations with their superiors (especially the board), while ignoring relations with subordinates. Such people, when they are talented, rise rapidly in organizations. They have great individual careers, but their damaged relationships with their subordinates inevitably undermine their leadership.
People are hard wired by evolution to seek social acceptance and status during social interaction. Life is about getting along and getting ahead, and both outcomes depend on relationships and on the social skill needed to maintain them. Social skill is like any other skill—it can be coached. But successful coaching depends on a good assessment of the person’s current level of performance. Personality assessment is the key to enhancing social skills and relationship management.