Personality Psychology: The Nature of Human Nature

What does evolutionary biology have to do with personality psychology or organizational behavior? Everything.

By Derek Lusk, Ph.D., Ryne Sherman, Ph.D., and Robert Hogan, Ph.D.

Our human ancestors repeatedly solved many problems related to their own survival (avoiding threats, finding food) and reproduction (finding a mate, caring for one’s kin). This is obvious, because if they hadn’t solved such problems, we wouldn’t be here to write this essay, and you wouldn’t be here to read it.

According to evolutionary biologists, there are largely two ways in which humans have gone about solving these problems. The mainstream view is represented by Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins argues that human behavior is inherently selfish, and even altruistic behavior has selfish consequences. Life is about maximizing individual payoffs at the expense of others, including family members (at times). This is the sense in which “greed is good.” Selfishness and free riding are seen as biological imperatives.

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The second perspective is group selection theory, first proposed by Charles Darwin, revived by E.O.Wilson in the late 1970s, and further revitalized by D.S. Wilson in the 2000s. Group (or multi-level as it is sometimes known) selection theory maintains that life is about competition, both within and between groups.

There is competition between individuals within groups for status and popularity. These are the contests that you read about on Twitter: who is getting married, who had the best New Year’s Eve party, who spotted Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at Versace’s fashion show, and who is losing status due to moral transgressions, like Kevin Spacey. This competition fascinates many people because it concerns individual life success, and people enjoy observing the vicissitudes of celebrity lives. It is the same as selfish gene theory.

In contrast, the competition between groups concerns survival of groups and their members. The history of the world is the history of warfare. In time, some people across the pond will inevitably come for your territory and resources. And when they come, they won’t come with lawyers or new product innovations, but rather, bad intentions. Thus, the real competition in life is not for celebrity status within one’s community; it’s for the continued survival of one’s community.

If the United States loses the competition with China, the Kardashians will face their worst nightmare: irrelevance. Group selection theory is regarded as controversial by the mainstream of evolutionary psychology, but it’s the view we wholeheartedly endorse.

What does evolutionary biology have to do with personality psychology or organizational behavior? The answer: everything.

On the one hand, ambition and social skill drives the status and popularity of individuals within groups, and that’s almost exclusively about personality. On the other hand, the success of groups depends on effective leadership, and effective leadership is a function of personality. The talent for leadership is normally distributed, and some people have more talent for it than others.  

The remainder of this article builds on the foregoing discussion and proceeds in three sections. The first section defines personality in more detail. The second defines leadership by distinguishing between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. And the third offers three practical recommendations for identifying effective leadership.

Defining Personality

Personality psychology concerns two big questions: 

  1. In what ways are people all alike?
  2. In what ways are people different?

The first question concerns universal behavioral tendencies. Dogs bark, scavenge, and mark territory; bats hang upside down and eat mosquitoes; and cats are independent, aloof, deadly predators. People also share universal behavioral tendencies.

First, we need harmonious relationships with others. Our ancient ancestors would not have survived long alone in the African savannah. Neither would you today. Thus, all people are motivated to be part of a group. We call this “wanting to get along.”

Second, reproductive success depends on attaining sufficient status, resources, and power in the group to support a family. We call this “wanting to get ahead.” Thus, at a basic biological level, all people are programmed to try to get along and to try to get ahead.    

People are psychologically different in two major ways:

  1. How they see themselves (their identities).
  2. How others see them (their reputations).

Peoples’ identities concern their inner truths, hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, and insecurities. Your identity is the you that you know. Over the past 100 years, personality psychology has focused on studying identity. For academic psychology, the concept of self-knowledge involves understanding the real inner you.

There are three important points to note about identity. First, people seem to find navel gazing as fascinating as watching the private lives of celebrities; generally speaking, they can’t get enough of it.

Second, 100 years of research on identity has gone nowhere; there’s no measurement base, taxonomy of identities, or generalizations to report.

Third, Freud would say, and we agree, that the you that you know (i.e., your identity) is hardly worth knowing—because it’s something you made up. It’s normal to create a personal psychological narrative; the problems occur when you begin to believe your narrative.

Identity concerns how we see ourselves; reputation concerns how others see us. Reputation is the you that we know, and five features of reputation should be noted.

First, reputation is easy to study by asking people to describe someone (like Donald Trump) using standardized checklists. When we do this, we always discover a remarkable consensus about the person being described: People agree about other people’s reputations. In contrast with identities, reputations are stable, reliable, and observable.

Second, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Reputations are a summary of past behavior; therefore, reputations are the best possible data source for predicting future behavior. This is the key to Facebook’s business model.

Third, we have a widely accepted taxonomy of reputation called the Five-Factor Model. Reputation can be coded in terms of five robust dimensions that apply cross culturally and around the world.

Fourth, defining personality in terms of reputation has produced a cornucopia of research generalizations. For example, personality is related to job success, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, substance abuse, driving safety, parenting practices, leadership effectiveness, and so on.

Finally, we learn about identity through introspection, whereas we learn about reputation by consulting others. Introspection and navel gazing are related processes, and it’s important to ask what can be gained from introspection.

Consider the following people: Voltaire, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Barack Obama. They’re all highly effective and successful individuals, and they’re all famously incapable of introspection.

Because so many highly successful people are incapable of introspection, this suggests there’s little useful information to be gained from introspection. The most useful feedback we can possibly have comes from other people, not from self-analysis. 

Leadership Emergence and Effectiveness

For years, the conventional wisdom of academic researchers was that leadership is a function of situations; situational leadership was the accepted view.

More recent data indicate that personality drives leadership. For example, the personality of CEOs accounts for more variance in financial performance than any factor other than the industry sector in which the company operates. In the early 2000s, we discovered that personality (defined in terms of the Five-Factor Model) is the best single known predictor of leadership performance; personality predicts leadership performance significantly better than IQ, for example.

Researchers define leadership performance in two ways: emergence and effectiveness. Emergence concerns being noticed and receiving rapid promotions and pay raises; effectiveness concerns running a high-performing business unit. In Real Managers, Fred Luthans and colleagues showed that emergence is associated with networking and effectiveness is associated with team building—two very different activities. 

In Good to Great, Jim Collins reports that high-performing CEOs are mild-mannered, humble, and sometimes hesitant to take the top spot. However, they operate with consistent, fierce resolve paired with sound economic decisions. They’re open to others’ ideas, transparent, and genuine, and they often lack charisma.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella notes in Hit Refresh, “Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission.”  

As Nadella notes, effective leadership is about minimizing within-group popularity contests and maximizing cooperation to win the between-group contests. Put differently, effective leadership is about persuading people to set aside their personal agendas in order to help the collective. Emergent leadership is about winning the within-group competition. Effective leadership is about winning the between-group competition. 

Research on leadership effectiveness tells us that effective leaders demonstrate integrity, good judgment, competence, and vision. Followers want to know their leaders will operate with honesty. This speaks to the importance of humility and dialing back narcissism, manipulation, showboating, and interpersonal dominance.

Followers also want their leaders to make good decisions and fix bad ones, by listening to their staff. In addition, followers expect leaders to know what they’re talking about and understand the general business they’re in. Finally, followers want their leaders to have a meaningful vision for the future with which they can identify. Leadership effectiveness is as simple as this.

Practical Recommendations

With regard to leadership selection, talent management concerns identifying people who can build high-performing teams and beat the competition. This capability has nothing to do with winning popularity contests within groups. So here, then, are three recommendations for cutting through the political noise associated with talent management.

1. Define leadership in terms of team performance. From our perspective, every consequential human achievement in history has been the result of coordinated group effort, not the behavior of superhero-resembling CEOs.

As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Although businesses operate in discrete environments and have different goals, they all compete with rivals for market share. Therefore, leadership should be defined as influencing people to work together to outcompete rivals.

2. Pay attention to followers and team performance. If we think about leadership in the context of competition between groups, it becomes obvious that organizations use flawed leader identification processes.

Organizations typically select leaders based on their visibility and political skill rather than their ability to build high-performing teams. (It should be noted that social skill and standing out often coincide with deeply maladaptive personality characteristics.)

Companies tend to use supervisor ratings of performance for promotion decisions, a method that inherently defines leadership in terms of the ability to manage up, and thereby fills talent pools with people in search of personal power. To combat this, we recommend collecting performance data from direct reports, peers, and supervisors, but emphasizing evaluations from direct reports and incorporating objective measures of team performance, such as product quality or voluntary turnover rate.

3. Use personality assessment to evaluate leadership potential. Identity is personality from the inside, and reputation is personality from the outside. We think of identity in terms of values. They’re what people care about and prioritize. For leaders, values determine the kinds of cultures they create. 

Some people emphasize winning, while others focus on customer service. Some create cultures of recognition, while others prefer to get work done and move on to the next thing. Thus, values allow us to understand where a person is coming from; values explain why people behave as they do.

For instance, taking charge of a team reflects ambition, but where does ambition come from? Do people self-nominate for leadership positions because they want personal power or because they want to save the world? Executive assessment should endeavor to ensure that a candidate’s motives, values, and preferences align with a company’s culture, and the opposite leads to turnover. 

In contrast with identity, when we measure reputation, we estimate the likelihood that people will describe an individual in a certain way. For example, how will the board of directors describe the CEO?

There are two aspects of reputation: the bright side and the dark side. The bright side reflects how people behave when they’re putting their best foot forward, like on a first date or during a job interview—any time they’re trying to manage the impression they’re creating. An assessment of the bright side will tell us about an executive’s leadership style when everything is going well.

The dark side, meanwhile, concerns how people behave when they stop managing the impression they’re trying to create—usually when they’re dealing with people with less power than they have. An assessment of the dark side will tell us about flawed interpersonal tendencies that allow people to stand out in the short term, but ruin the performance of teams in the long term.  

In summary, there are two kinds of competition in organizational life: The first concerns competition within groups for status, power, and leadership opportunities, while the second concerns competition between groups for territory, customers, revenue, and other resources. What’s good for individuals within groups may or may not be good for the group as a whole; what’s good for the group as a whole is almost always good for the individuals within the group.

The problem is that in modern society, our evolved brains are wired to favor dominant personality types, hence the large number of incompetent managers in modern business. These individuals always display significant social skills, but sometimes have deeply problematic dark sides.

The real challenge for organizations is the between-group competition, which is won by weeding out bad leaders and selecting high potentials that create a functional culture of humility, integrity, business acumen, good judgment, and a legitimate vision for the group.

And doing so requires an accurate definition of leadership, measuring follower perceptions and team performance, and using personality assessment to make objective talent decisions.

Derek Lusk, Ph.D., is a business psychologist and head of executive assessment at AIIR Consulting, where he specializes in succession planning, leadership transformation, and culture change. You can find him on LinkedIn or by email at [email protected]

Ryne Sherman, Ph.D., is the chief science officer of Hogan Assessments. Prior to joining Hogan, he was an associate professor in the department of psychology at Texas Tech University, where he researched the importance of individual differences, the psychological properties of situations, and developing tools for data analysis.

Robert Hogan, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Hogan Assessments. The first psychologist to determine the link between personality and organizational effectiveness, today he is the leading authority on personality assessment and leadership.