Opinion: Hammering out a ‘free trait’ agreement

When noted former Harvard University lecturer and psychology expert Brian Little gave the keynote at a big human resources event last week, he likely couldn’t help but feel somewhat nervous.

Of course, it’s not like the distinguished research professor at Carleton University isn’t used to giving lectures. After an educational career spanning decades, he is.

But the Manotick resident says he doesn’t get onstage too often anymore. He instead prefers to focus on research pertaining to human personality and how that applies to the workplace.

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“I’m extremely introverted, physiologically,” admits Mr. Little, who got his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. “But I’ve gotten all kinds of teaching awards, and my students tell me I’m very extroverted.

“Maybe that’s because I’m highly agreeable and highly conscientious.”

But Mr. Little, who presented his ideas in a keynote speech at the 2009 Eastern Ontario HR Conference and Trade Show at the Hampton Inn last week, says he isn’t alone in having conflicted feelings about his career.

His research actually shows that many people lock themselves into jobs that don’t necessarily suit their natural personalities – personalities that revolve around traits such as openness to experience, conscientousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – even though they may excel at the work. People like himself, for instance.

“I find that as an introvert, I become a pseudo-extrovert when I give my lectures,” he explains with a chuckle. Similarly, a non-agreeable person may excel at marketing if he or she has the right amount of openness to new experiences.

“And a great deal of our business lives (forces people) to act agreeable, extroverted and non-neurotic. And my whole research thrust is about why do we act out of character, how long can we do this for, and can we do this endlessly?”

It’s a question that’s of extreme interest to HR professionals looking to get the most from their staff, no doubt. And unfortunately for them, the answer to that last bit is a flat no, Mr. Little says. People pay the price for constantly acting out of character, be it in our health or general well-being.

His solution for HR professionals? Get to know your staff and what he calls their “core projects,” which essentially are those things we’re drawn to in our free time, either from want or necessity. “If you find out someone’s core project is about finding out what’s wrong with his daughter and that he’s been to CHEO six times in two years, you’ll figure out much of why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

That’s an extreme example, but the point is well taken. And for organizations to have meaningful engagement with employees, Mr. Little takes things a step further. “We need a ‘free trait agreement’,” he says. “And that is that I will act out of character to advance our shared project, if you’ll grant me a restorative niche where I can regain my real character.”

That sounds like a fine proposition. And who knows, perhaps this approach could put a dent in the stats that say workplace mental illness has hit an all-time high. After all, everyone’s different. So why do we manage everyone the same?

Now I just have to find a way to convince my boss I’m more suited to working on a ski hill, and life will be sweet.

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