By Ryan W. Quinn
I have learned, over the years, that when people in organizations make attributions about problems in their organizations, it is easy to point to personality flaws—or shall I say, perceived personality flaws. This became apparent again as I was working with a boss and one of her direct reports, helping them uncover the reason for their difficult working relationship. My conversations happened with each of them individually—they were never in the same room when I talked to them. I have gotten to know these two people quite well, and I am convinced that both of them are wonderful, hard-working, committed, and ethical people. And, the two of them were having repeated and frustrating conflicts with each other. Each of them was convinced that the other one’s personality was the reason why they could not work together productively. Each of them claimed that there was some flaw in the other person’s character that prevented that. In each case, I did not see the flaw that the other person saw. In fact, I saw the opposite.
It’s always an interesting dialogue when I disagree that one of the biggest obstacles to productive and collaborative relationships among co-workers is personality conflict. Because so many of us have such a strong tendency to look for explanations of behavior in people’s personalities, we often blame or credit the wrong causes, obscure rather than address the underlying issues, abdicate responsibilities, and leave ourselves with no option except for avoiding or quitting. All of these outcomes lead to further erosion of the potential for collaboration and productivity.
If it is not personality…
I politely disagreed in this case as well when either the boss or co-worker would tell me that the other person’s character flaw was the reason for their inability to work together. I would say, “That’s not how I see that person.” I would acknowledge that behavior was bad or inappropriate if the behavior was bad or inappropriate. I would also admit that the other might lack some particular skills, if that seemed like a reasonable explanation. But I would not agree with any of the claims these two made about the other’s character flaws.
My refusal to accept my friends’ attributions about the other’s character flaws meant that we had to find some other explanation for why they seemed unable to resolve their issues. There were many possibilities. One possibility was that they had different perspectives on the situation. Another explanation was that one or both of them might lack specific social or technical skills. Another explanation might be that one or both of them might simply need to admit that they were wrong.
The interesting thing about these alternative explanations is that they open up possibilities for doing something to improve the situation. If the source of the problem is personality, then there is nothing you can do: personality traits are unlikely to change without dramatic life events or multi-year behavioral therapy. Skills, on the other hand, can be improved through feedback, practice, and training. Perspectives can be changed through listening to others with an open mind. Relationships can be mended by apologizing and showing forth a good faith effort to behave differently.
A warning sign
So while I have learned that people tend to attribute a problem—in organizations or in personal situations—to personality, I’ve also learned that there is benefit in being skeptical of these claims. There are, of course, exceptions to my skepticism, especially in the case of extreme personality problems like borderline personality disorder or other clinical personality issues. But, I have found it much more productive to treat personality-based explanations as warning signs of deeper, and sometimes more endemic issues in relationships, cultures, and systems. The good news, though, has been that there is a warning sign, which means that we can recognize it and do something about it.