This blog is a critique on how trait theories including Five Factor Model (FFM) and the Hogan framework, are being used by modern firms as a predictor of human performance. The personality testing industry across the globe was stated to be worth USD 7.5 billion dollars by March 2020 before the Coronavirus impacted us.
FFM and Hogan’s personality profiling tests are overwhelmingly the favorites of HR leaders, coaches and recruiters, as both ecologies of personality-testing claim to have done extensive research on how traits impact human performance.
Interestingly, ‘Conscientiousness’ (FFM) and ‘Prudence’ (Hogan) are two traits (and these resonate with each other) that have been found as the strongest predictors of employee performance. Very often these trait scores are deployed to ‘label’ individual human beings, especially when recruiting or promoting the employee. I would like to claim that neither the FFM nor Hogan provide any real insights on how the trait has evolved within the individual. Coping mechanisms become the sum and substance of coaching conversations around these scores (a la behavior modification), and very often the individual has no opportunity to either understand the ‘why’ and or transform self.
The EUM framework has a similar descriptor known as URB (Universe of Roles and Boundaries), and as opposed to mere labeling or quantifying the extent of the trait, it allows for a deeper understanding of how a particular human being has evolved on his or her journey.
Unlike other psychological traits such as introversion or neuroticism, both conscientiousness and prudence are much to do with socialization as a process, and cannot be just viewed from the psychological lens alone.
In this blog, I go beyond the realms of psychology, and use ‘Symbolic Interaction’ – a social-psychological framework to explore how ‘conscientiousness/prudence/URB’ gets socialized within. The blog culminates with a claim that the EUM framework allows for a deeper understanding of this socialization process, without merely labeling a person’s trait scores, often generating cues and triggers for personal transformation.
Caveat: A long blog! An understanding of psychometrics is not necessary!
Psychology and / vs Sociology
Psychologists and Sociologists have never converged on the notion of ‘Personality’ or how it (Personality / Self) evolves and morphs as a process within. Let me begin by summarizing how psychologists look at personality.
The Psychologists’ Stance on Personality
Psychologists have always claimed ‘Personality’ to be a pattern(s) of behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and even motives, that are consistent over time and situation. Personality makes a person different or similar to others. Over the past few decades, many psychologists have claimed that personality can predict behaviors in systems, including work systems. This claim has been strengthened by the resurgence of the FFM (Five Factor Model) or the Big Five taxonomy, that has generated 5 dimensions, and where each dimension comprises of sub-traits.
The FFM or the Big Five has evolved over multiple decades, where five dimensions have emerged from lexicon hypotheses – essentially a belief that all aspects of human personality have been recorded in the language, and thus within language lies the numerous constructs of personality. Raymond Cattell began this nature of research in 1940s with 4504 words – he created the 16PF on 16 personality variables. Lexicon Hypotheses was sustained over the decades and the holy grail of Five Factor Model emerged through multiple statistical and factor analysis. (If you are curious about my critique of the FFM, please read my two blogs on personality testing)
The Sociologists’ Stance on Personality / Self
The Sociologists look at human behavior in the form of social relationships and social interactions within collectives such as societies and organizations. The individual is seen as a member of a social system, and is influenced by the collective processes including his or her behavior, values, ethics etc.
I would be referring to Symbolic Interaction (SI) in the latter sections of this blog, you as a reader would understand how the two schools of human behavior take counter-stances to the notion of the personality.
Simply put, and at the risk of over-simplification, Psychology investigates human behavior at an individual level using observation, measurement, and analysis where the focus is on cognitive and emotional means by which an individual relates to the other. Sociology explores social behaviors in collectives – such as groups, cultures, organizations. Psychology is seen as more reductionist than Sociology.
I think Conscientiousness / Prudence / URB can be viewed from both these lens.
Introducing the Three – Conscientiousness, Prudence and URB
Table 1 summarizes how the three ecologies of FFM, Hogan and EUM have defined the trait / universe of Conscientiousness, Prudence and URB. FFM and Hogan researchers have claimed that this trait has the highest impact on Job performance.
It is the Hogan and EUM schools of thought that have expanded on the theme of Conscientiousness, and that high scores do not necessarily imply high performance for there is a curvilinear relationship between the two.
I am sure you can see the convergence and the overlaps between the three, particularly between Prudence and URB. Both Hogan researchers and EUM researchers have eschewed Achievement Centric behaviors while defining Prudence and URB.
Symbolic Interaction and Socialization of Self
Symbolic Interaction (SI) is perhaps as old as the notion of socialization itself.
SI is fundamentally a theory of human nature – a view that developed among Scottish moral philosophers (including David Hume and Adam Smith) in the 1750s while responding to the prevailing view of human beings as overly individualistic, nasty, brutish, and solitary. Integrating readings across the globe, including native American societies, the Scottish moralists were sensitive to how poverty, prosperity, and class can make one individual seem so different from the other. In their crusade to look at a fundamental theory of human nature, they evolved the following axioms of Symbolic Interaction (as summarized in Table 2) of which the postulate C.4 is most important.
The Looking Glass Self & Socialization
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of symbolic interaction is the link that connects the individual human being with society at large and builds a moral and ethical compass within.
Adam Smith postulated the notion of the divided self – where the first part of self is the Actor / the Agent who behaves and the second part becomes the Spectator / Witness who looks at the Actor’s conduct through the eyes of an internalized Other, and then subsequently judges the Agent. In this process, the individual learns to self-regulate one’s impulses. However, this process of ‘judging’ including the propriety or merit of actions depends on one’s sympathy and empathy with the Other or one’s identification with the Other.
The looking-glass self gets strengthened when greater empathy within allows the Spectator / Witness to put self in the shoes of the Other in a heightened awareness or social intelligence. This necessitates the exploration of who the Other is, and in more tribal societies, the Other is more monolithic, over-crystallized and accessible.
If the empathy / sympathy intensity is lower, the looking-glass and consequent socialization gets influenced by other feelings including fear of exile, fear of rejection, and terror of consequences. This would render the nature of socialization and role-taking processes more fragile and bounded – the moral being gets burdened by fears of exclusion and expulsion.
C H Cooley in 1902, reinforced the Scottish moral philosophers with his famous lines:
“Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the Other that doth pass”
Cooley explained the Looking-Glass Self as three key steps:
- We imagine how Others see us (degree of empathy / sympathy with the Other)
- We imagine how Others are judging us (nature of introjected Judge)
- We react accordingly
Whether it is Adam Smith’s lens or Cooley’s modeling of human behavior, you would agree that the notion of Other(s) is critical to socialization.
Psychologists unlike sociologists get a bit more reductionist and explore processes of self-regulation and self-control, as opposed to looking at the phenomena of socialization, and how the individual makes sense through the looking-glass self. In a recent paper, there were researchers who claimed that self-control is very much a muscle without exploring the context and the nature of specialization.
Thus Conscientiousness (FFM) and Prudence (Hogan) are at best measurement labels without really opening an enquiry into how and why the individual has created rules, role-taking patterns, morality, ethics and values within.
This takes me to the last section of this blog, where I argue that the EUM lens of URB and its relatedness to two key universes offer a lot more than mere judgments or evaluation of the person who takes the test.
Looking at the Self through The EUMian Lens
In the EUM framework, the notion of ‘Other’ and the process of Othering is influenced by two other universes within and their scores:
- Universe of Belonging and Protection (or the identification with the Clan / Tribe)
- Universe of Intimacy and Meaningfulness (or the Identification with the Universal Other)
The UBP scores reveal how the individual has evolved his or her role-taking by the extent of identification with the primal family or the tribe that he or she belongs to. Thus, the Other in the tribe, becomes far easier to cathect and to internalize for the Witness / Judge to deem what is the right behavior. Secondly like all clans or tribes, the identification with the Other is not as much a process of empathy but of fear of exile and the trauma of isolation.
Hence if both UBP and URB scores are high – the nature of role-taking, self-regulation, and sense of moral conduct and boundaries are impacted by a lesser degree of sympathy / empathy for the Other almost becomes a stark black and white reality. The non-Other may trigger stress, anxiety, fear, and thus the lens of looking at self become extremely harsh and non-compassionate.
However, if the UMI (Meaningfulness and Intimacy) scores are as high as the UBP scores, the Other is a lot more complex entity than a homogenous tribal entity. High UMI necessitates a greater degree of empathy (sympathy becomes subsumed), and very often the complexity of the Other diminishes the punitive Judge within.
Rather the Universal Other evokes a more romantic sensing of the world, and thus the nature of dialogue between the Witness / Judge and the Actor may often be imbued with wonder, awe, pity, compassion, and even ‘love’.
Since in EUM profiles, one never looks at a particular universe score in isolation, the framework and the reports create many a trigger to explore how the individual has a sense of conscientiousness or prudence, by inviting the individual to reflect on his or her socialization and identification processes.
Thus, it becomes imperative to look at high or low URB scores and their relationship with UBP and UMI scores. In my experience, the High UMI – High URB profile of an individual is very different from the High UBP – High URB profile. This nature of complexity is missing in both FFM and Hogan analyses of the individual.
I don’t think that primary socialization is all about identification with the Clan, and would challenge that primary socialization is all about UBP first, when it comes to defining a sense of right or wrong.
There are many of us in India, where the primary socialization emphasizes on understanding the Universal Other or UMI. In our culture in India, the Other is often held as the Universal Other. We tell ourselves that this is God in the form of an honored guest. Thus, the different Other is not ostracized but often identified with. By terming the Other as God’s form, the stress in Indian culture is on identifying with the other.
The looking-glass Self and Symbolic Interaction become complex and intriguing in India – the judge / witness demonstrates greater tolerance, compassion, and acceptance to the Other, and thus the process of socialization gets imbued with romanticism and idealism.
Tagore comes to my mind, as the heralder and narrator of this romantic idealism / Humanism and I quote an English translation of a part of his song – Bharat Tirtha (The Indian Pilgrimage)
Awaken, my heart, gently upon this blessed pilgrimage
By the shore of the sea of Bharata’s Great Humanity!
Standing here, stretching my arms, I salute the Divine in Man
In a rhythm all-embracing, with joy unbounded I sing His Glory.
Mountains mute in meditation deep, vales strewn with woods and streams,
Timeless, behold here spread, the hallowed earth
By the shore of the sea of Bharata’s Great Humanity!
None can tell, at whose beckoning, vast waves of humanity
In currents unstoppable, from the unknown here arrived,
To merge into the Great Sea!
Here Aryans, non-Aryans, Dravidians, Chinese
Sakas, Hunas, Pathans, Moguls in one body, lo, were united.
The doors today have opened in the West, bearing gifts, behold, they arrive-
All shall give and take, mingle and be mingled in, none shall depart dejected
From the shore of the sea of Bharata’s Great Humanity!
Come, O Aryans, come, non-Aryans, Hindus and Mussulmans-
Come today, O Englishmen, come, oh come, Christians!
Come, O Brahmin, cleansing your mind
Join hands with all-
Come, O Downtrodden, let the burden
Of every insult be forever dispelled.
Make haste and come to Mother’s coronation, the vessel auspicious
Is yet to be filled
With the sacred water sanctified by the touch of all
By the shore of the sea of Bharata’s Great Humanity!
Exploring URB scores, and how these are influenced by two other universes, through the EUM lens offers many an insight as opposed to engaging with reductionist labels of conscientiousness and prudence.
I would be keen to hear your views and perspectives, especially if you have been working with and deploying any or more of these frameworks in your coaching conversations or even in counseling.