In the quiet town of Crestwood, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, there lived a lady named Jemima. Jemima was well-known for her unwavering routine, punctuality, and desire for order. She was the kind of person who, you could set your watch by. But one day, something peculiar happened….
Jemima was a creature of habit. She left for work every morning at precisely 7.30am, returned home every evening at 6.00pm and she never missed her evening walk at 7.00pm sharp. But on this particular day, she left late for work, came home early and skipped her evening stroll. This continued for more than a fortnight.
Her neighbours were baffled by this and Jemima became the topic of conversation. “Maybe she’s not feeling well,” “Perhaps she’s having a midlife crisis!” or “Has she finally met a man?” The fact was, no one really knew why she had strayed from her routine, leaving everyone confused.
This scenario begs the question: how do we make sense of behaviour?
As humans, we seek patterns and consistency in our interactions. As a result, we all naturally operate from some sort of system for understanding people. We generalize, explain, and predict our own and others’ behaviour based on our perceptions, experiences, and beliefs. When things don’t fit with those systems or expected patterns, we become unsettled.
So, how does this work from a psychological viewpoint?
Psychology uses personality theory to help explain behaviour in a scientific way (i.e. with less bias than our personal systems). Personality theory is built on the foundation that each of us possess unique traits which influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and also allow us to broadly predict certain behaviours, in particular circumstances.
For example, it can help us understand why some people thrive in social settings, while others prefer solitude, why some are risk-takers, while others are cautious.
Don’t put me in a box
I have a particular dislike for being ‘type cast’ which is literally what a personality measure does. Similarly I’ve met people who feel that it’s wrong to sort people into different behaviour types suggesting it oversimplifies the complexity of human nature or pigeonholes people into rigid categories. Sadly, I have seen personality measures being misused for example:
- As a reason not hire someone (which btw goes against psychological ethics)
- To explain away unhelpful behaviour. For example, the colleague who announces: “I’m an extrovert sorry, I can’t help talking over people.” And then continues to do the same thing time and time again not allowing you to get a word in edge ways.
- To restrict someone’s potential – ‘You’re really never going to make it as a sales associate – I mean come on you’re an introvert’
But when used correctly personality measures can also be hugely helpful. Never losing sight of the fact that of course we are all unique, but also that certain aspects of our behaviour can be measured and can be predictive of how we will behaviour in different future scenarios (even for me). More of a compass guiding us through the intricacies of human behaviour than as a tool for labelling people.
The Everyday Implications
Leadership – I’ve used personality tools to help leaders discover their blind spots, play to their strengths, and boost self-awareness. To foster better teamwork, smoother communication, and a happier, more productive workplace.
Personal Growth – We all have quirks in our personalities that we might not love or find challenging. For instance, you might find yourself obsessing over details in one area of your life, or your friends might get miffed when you repeatedly bail on plans for alone time. Personality theory can help us create plans that play to our strengths and make smarter choices in our personal and professional growth lives.
Relationships – understanding personality can be a cornerstone of healthy interactions. By recognising the factors that influence our behaviour we can gain deeper insights into the dynamic between ourselves and others, fostering mutual understanding of differences and more meaningful connections.
Personality theory is used across many other areas of life too – e.g. to better navigate preferences when it comes to things like exercise, making it easier to stick to a healthy routine; for athletes helping them understand how to handle pressure or as a parent helping us to understand how to motivate and encourage our children.
Why Use A Psychologist-Built Tool?
While ‘proper’ personality theory is powerful, not all approaches are created equal. There are countless personality assessments that do little more than predict whether you prefer orange or green (some free, some that you pay for, and even one used by the CIA! – Listen to our my interview with a former covert agent for more on this).
However, the most reliable ones are developed by psychologists who specialize in this field, are grounded in rigorous research and undergo extensive testing to ensure their validity.
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The power in understanding personality is that it helps us navigate the complexities of human behaviour, fostering our own growth as well as empathy, tolerance and the opportunity to build more meaningful relationships. But you don’t have to have a measure or the guidance of psychologist to meaningfully connect. Real connection also comes down to keeping an open mind, being non-judgemental and making the effort to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Perhaps all Jemima’s neighbours needed to do was ask if she was OK. That would have ‘scratched their itch’ to know more and given Jemima the opportunity to tell them, in her own words what was going on (or ask them to mind their own business!).
Written by Fiona Murden
Image – Andrea-Piacquadio on Pexels.com