We're each wired differently that much is for sure. Scientific knowledge about the "nature" part of our personalities is continually improving, while psychological inquiries into the "nurture" side are ever deepening. Nobody has mapped the human soul, as has happened with the human genome, but it's not for lack of trying.
Given the outpouring of ink in recent years on the varieties of human intelligence (such as Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence and Howard Gardner's Intelligence Reframed), it's no surprise that business authors would seek to apply this evolving science to the workplace. This month, we look at four recently released books that delve into the connections between personality type and business performance.
The Character of Organizations: Using Personality Type in Organization Development (Davies-Black, $18.95, ISBN 0891061495), by William Bridges, is an updated edition of a title that gained critical acclaim upon its initial appearance a decade ago. Bridges looks at businesses as organisms, with their own personal histories and inherited characteristics. He argues convincingly that a company's character is much more than the sum of its employees' personalities, and he offers guidance in understanding how different types of organizations think, feel, perceive, and behave. Applied properly, his analysis may be able to steer a firm away from patterns of action that are self-defeating and toward actions that better suit its strengths.
As I read through Bridges's 16 types of organizational personalities (modeled on the individual personality types of the widely used Myers-Briggs personality assessments), a Rorschach effect sets in. I see one of my former employers in the profile of an ENFJ corporation (a type in which extroverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging behaviors predominate), and then I see it again in the quite different profile of an ISTJ company (introverted, sensing, thinking, and judging). I find another ex-employer in four different personality-type ink blots. Accurately defining one's true type is hard in Bridges' system (as it is in the Myers-Briggs system), but the very act of trying to figure out which profile fits best can improve self-knowledge.
Bridges includes in his book an "Organizational Character Index" that business teams can use to evaluate the character of their companies and, by implication, determine what kinds of people will fit best within a given corporate culture. The author is at pains to stress that his index should not be used as a screening tool by employers, stressing that there are no "good" or "bad" personality types just different types that are more well-suited, or less well-suited, to be part of a certain type of team. Just as a career counselor can help an individual focus on jobs he or she is good at, The Character of Organizations can help a company hone strategies that make the most of its strengths.
Conversely, another new book tries to help workers avoid being harmed by their own personality defects and, one must admit, we've each got a few of those. Maximum Success: Changing the 12 Behavior Patterns that Keep You from Getting Ahead (Doubleday, $24.95, ISBN 0385498497), by James Waldroop and Timothy Butler, is a thoughtful and useful compendium of things not to do and ways not to be, while you're on the job.
Maximum Success is the consummate self-help guide for talented people who keep running into the same problems over and over, in different jobs. There are employees who never feel quite good enough to deserve the jobs they have. There are workers for whom no job is ever good enough. There are those who try to do too much at once, those who avoid conflict at any cost, those who can't get along with the boss, and those who feel they have lost track of their career paths. The authors, who head up the Harvard Business School's MBA career development office, have seen it all.
The downside of perusing a book like this is that it often brings on moments of rueful recognition. Playing the "peacemaker" or the "bulldozer," exhibiting a "reactive stance toward authority" or "emotional tone-deafness" these are workplace behaviors that emerge out of a person's deepest psychological being. Confronting them means confronting a piece of yourself. Like Bridges, Waldroop and Butler go out of their way not to be judgmental about such habits. But, again like Bridges, they draw on a body of psychological literature stretching back to Karl Jung as they offer constructive suggestions for recognizing these tendencies and avoiding the career ruin they can cause.
The human resource manager's role as group psychologist is the subject of Making Change Happen One Person at a Time: Assessing Change Capacity Within Your Organization, by Charles H. Bishop, Jr. (AMACOM, $27.95, ISBN 0814405282). Bishop lays out the characteristics of four different personality types, classified by how they react to change. Making Change Happen is a precise, step-by-step guide to determining who within a company will be most likely to succeed during and after the implementation of a change initiative.
Here, too, part of the lesson is that there's not a one-size-fits-all personality template that produces ideal employees. A company with too many of Bishop's "A-players" or "active responders" the Alpha Males of the corporate world who embrace change, pinpoint opportunities and learn from mistakes will face leadership and succession problems because there's not room enough at the top for everyone. On the other hand, Bishop is tellingly sparse with suggested roles for "D-players" who resist change: From the HR man's perspective, the main point is to make sure these misfits don't get in the way. And now for something completely different but once again related to psychological typecasting. Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide, by Gretchen Craft Rubin (Pocket, $25.95, ISBN 0671041282), is an archly written guide to making a complete creep of oneself. Take Rubin's advice to heart, and you can become any organization's worst nightmare: a talented tyrant, a "user." Like the other featured authors, Rubin is scrupulously non-judgmental. And her work is not exactly satire. It's something that bites deeper an exposÅ½ of a certain type of person that lives among us.
Naturally, it begins with a personality assessment quiz. Presuming you are a "striver" and do crave power, the quiz is intended to determine whether you seek direct or indirect power. Power, Rubin notes trenchantly, will get you a lot further in life than merit. She then spells out how to use people to get power, money, fame, and sex, and then how to use power, money, fame, and sex to get more power, money, fame, and sex.
Advice like "Never let your effort show" and "Traffic only in the right products, places and pastimes" could have come straight out of J.P. Donleavy's sadly out-of-print gonzo manners manual, The Unexpurgated Code. A discussion of "useful defects and harmful virtues" turns everything your scoutmaster tried to teach you on its head. Here as elsewhere, Rubin raises questions that cut through the book's veil of irony for instance: "Did Richard Nixon become president despite his insecurity and mistrust, or at least partly because of those traits?"If it all sounds unsavory, and these postmodern perversions of the idea of manners strike you as something not quite cricket, then you can at least have the satisfaction of knowing how others are trying to manipulate you. Rubin is not an advocate for this sort of behavior, after all. She's just pointing out how it works. And I know a few people who would study a book like this carefully, doing their best to follow it to the letter.
Journalist and entrepreneur E. Thomas Wood is working with author John Egerton on a book about Nashville.