Personality and behaviour: a matter of Hobson’s choice?

Personality and behaviour: a matter of Hobson’s choice?

This is a question, which keeps cropping up in most of my discussions with clients, friends in the HR profession, and many line managers who are curious to understand the lingo, which their colleagues from the HR department speak. In most cases, I find that both the words – personality and behaviour – are used interchangeably and synonymously. I have also come across heads of HR functions of many organisations who proudly proclaim that they use personality inventories in their selection process. 

However, when I probe them on why they do so, what is the outcome they seek, and what they do with the rich personality data that they get when putting prospective candidates through a personality test; in many occasions, they struggle for an answer, at times they beat around the bush and only a few of them admit that they match the personality profile with the job specification and then take a call whether to select or reject an applicant. For instance, as one HR manager said,“You know, we look for ambition as a personality trait at senior levels. If a person is ambitious, we are sure that he/she will have the inner drive to achieve results, irrespective of organisational or environmental challenges he/she might face.”

At this point, the need arises to understand the fundamental difference between personality and behaviour.While personality is an inherent tendency to behave in a predictable manner, this tendency may or may not always translate into automatic behaviour.The reason is simple – behaviour is not only influenced by personality, but also several other factors including context, culture, up-bringing, intelligence, etc.Therefore, if one is very high on the personality trait of ambition, but has been born and brought up in an environment where it was consistently fed into him/her that ambition is all about being greedy and contentment is what one should seek in life, then this person may behave in a predictable manner in which ambitious persons behave.The opposite can also be true when a person is faced with a survival challenge.Take the case of someone who is low on ambition. However, he is working in an environment where his/her colleagues are very competitive and the only way to survive in such an environment is to overcome challenges, take decisions and achieve results. Since this person is low on ambition, he/she would struggle to exhibit these behaviours, yet would exercise the choice of behaving in such ways that corroborates with predictable behaviours that inherently ambitious people exhibit. 

Dr. Devashis Rath is senior consultant at DDI India

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