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Psychology At Work

Psychology at Work

If It Was Good for Aristotle, It Is Good Enough for Me

December 19, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

In my last two posts I have discussed my adventures in experimenting with personality tests. Consider me your “taster,” so to speak, before you employ any of these measurements where you work. First, I looked at Myers-Briggs, and objected to its  placing its subjects in a personality box built almost a century ago by psychiatrist Carl Jung. Next, it was on to the Gallup StrengthsFinder, and while I found it more suitable for the modern workplace, I objected to the same sort of typological assessment that characterizes the Myers-Briggs.

The final survey I will discuss before I give you, faithful reader, a merciful reprieve from this weekly recounting of my adventures in personality testing, is a survey of character strength based upon the pioneering work of Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman. Earlier this decade these prominent leaders in positive psychology led a team of researchers in something called the Values in Action project, which is the most comprehensive attempt to date to empirically explore character strengths through the lens of positive psychology. Going back to the great Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, as well as exemplars of other cultures and traditions, the researchers identified six core virtues of mankind which translate across time and culture, such as wisdom, courage and humanity. Within those six virtues they identified 24 underlying traits and created an online survey to measure them (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The survey based upon their work, commonly called the VIA, is available online on a couple of websites, and unlike the Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder, is free. To date more than 2 million people have taken the survey, including the entire U.S. Army, and its empirical base is being expanded daily.

There are several key distinctions between the VIA and the other surveys. First, and most importantly, is that the VIA avoids the typology I and many commentators find troubling. It is based upon traits that reveal character, not caricatures that supposedly represent people in organizational settings such as the Myers-Briggs (I am an ENTJ, just like Napoleon? Really.) It is sensitive to the variability of character; that a person isn’t a type but instead a complex stew of strengths. These strengths are a continuum, and reveal themselves differently and at different times based upon environmental stimuli, as legendary personality psychologist Gordon Allport taught a generation of researchers. It has resonance in far more settings and cultures than the other surveys, and being empirically validated in a number of studies it is more useful to those who seek evidence that something works before using it.

So, being an intrepid sort, I took it. The results of the VIA seemed to be a fairly accurate description of me, which isn’t surprising since it was based upon my own self-description (although  the reader may take issue that it identified my top strength as “humor.”) More interesting was my assignment of the VIA to a class of labor law students at Duke University. What I found was that despite the VIA’s careful avoidance of the methodological and typological issues presented by the other measures discussed,  in application it still presents ammunition for those who want to assign desirability to character traits in a particular setting.

The students took the VIA. Budding lawyers, many struggled with finishing the survey in a reasonable time as they deconstructed the language of the questionnaire (remember the infamous lawyer-in-chief, Bill Clinton, quibbling over the definition of “is”?). Others, painfully analytical, said they had to answer neutral on most questions because they mentally constructed multiple scenarios that might influence their response. One, a fellow from Princeton, said he had taken plenty of personality tests and knew how to “pass” them. OK, go Tigers. Ultimately, however, once the procedural hurdles were overcome, the students had fun and agreed that the results were a generally accurate characterization of their traits.

It was when I asked them to list their top and bottom 5 strengths on a blackboard that the real fun began. Quickly, the group came to conclusions as to which were appropriate strengths for lawyers and which were not. Not surprisingly, anything related to industry, honesty, diligence, prudence and self-discipline were to be desired.  More transcendent and humanistic strengths were scorned. One poor fellow - who had been a linebacker in service of the undergraduate football team - listed “appreciation of beauty,” “gratitude” and “capacity to love” as among his top 5 and was hooted at until he sat, chastened and scorned. Another bragged that his “bottom” strength was “forgiveness and mercy,” and sat down to high-fives. It was like a “Bizarro World,” opposite universe to the kinder, gentler world of HR in its informal ranking of the most “desirable” strengths. But rank them it did.

And that is the biggest problem with personality testing. Mind you, I strongly believe in their usefulness. Too often people and organizations move blithely through the motions of living with absolutely no attempt at self-reflection or introspection. In that regard, the Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder and VIA’s attempts to explore and reveal human strengths and apply them to real world settings are admirable.  However, we need to be careful, because they can play to our worst angels. Once we start deciding which strengths or types are the best ones, and which should be eliminated from our organizations, we start down a slippery slope that needs little elucidation. Strength and types are mental and emotional constructs, not physical attributes, so use them – as Aristotle would counsel – in moderation, and with a bit of healthy skepticism.

But if somebody can prove laziness is the greatest of all virtues I’m all in.

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