Organisational ‘personality’

Organisational Culture – Part 4

The personality metaphor

‘Organisational personhood’ refers to the legal concept that an incorporated entity, like a non-profit or for-purpose organisation, as distinct from its associated people (i.e. directors, managers, or employees), has some of the legal rights and responsibilities enjoyed by ‘natural persons’. (A ‘natural person’ in this sense is a human being considered as a subject of rights and obligations).

‘Personality’ has several meanings, but the one most commonly used, and which is relevant to the metaphor discussed here, is the sum total of an individual’s characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in relating to others and their environment.

‘Organisational personality’ on the other hand is a metaphor sometimes used to recognise that the cultural tone of an organisation is continuously shaped by the collective beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of its people. The definition, therefore, substitutes ‘organisation’ for ‘individual’ i.e. the sum total of an organisation’s characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in relating to others and their environment.

Personality Models

Several authors have used this ‘personality’ metaphor to highlight the parallels between the drivers of individual behaviour and the values, beliefs, and assumptions which underpin organisational (collective) behaviour.

The HEXACO Personality Inventory is an instrument that measures 6 major dimensions of personality. Each of these dimensions has four traits which may be assessed on a Low-High continuum. See chart below.

Numerous traits in this model (e.g. fairness, creativity, and diligence), could just as readily be applied to an organisation as they can to an individual person. Reflecting as to where on the sliding scales we would place our non-profit organisation is one way we can evaluate our current culture, and identify areas in which we may need to adjust our approach or invoke new measures.

While the HEXACO model identifies 6 factors, there are of course other models which use 5-, 6-, and 7-factors or traits to analyse personality. Some examples are provided in the header chart above, including:

  • The OCEAN or Big 5 factor model of personality developed by Lewis Goldberg (1993)
  • Gerard Saucier’s Big 6 model – which uses somewhat different descriptions of the Big 5, and adds an ethical dimension with its H-Factor – honesty/propriety, and
  • Robert Cloninger’s 7-Factor Model (also discussed further below).

Organisations behaving badly

When an individual behaves badly, we may analyse their values, belief, assumptions, and motivations to assess whether they experienced a momentary lapse, have a psychological problem, or suffer a more serious pathological condition. A similar analysis could be considered when reflecting on organisations behaving badly.

Cultural (organisational personality) issues have dominated many of the recent integrity crises that have been featured in public reporting and commentary. While a number of these have arisen in the political sphere and the public sector, there have been quite a few in the not-for-profit and service sectors as well.

Here are just a few examples out of the many which have resulted in negative media coverage:

  • Associations implicated in branch stacking within political parties
  • Sexual abuse by aid charity ‘volunteers’
  • Charity directors having conflicts of interest, both through self-dealing and through related party transactions
  • Associations ‘hijacked’ by leaders whose profile exceeds that of their organisation
  • Cultural bodies in which an artist-led culture conflicts with the management culture

Part 6 in this series on organisational culture will explore a range of cultural problems, and some key governance and management measures required to prevent them from occurring or to ‘treat’ them when they arise.

Anthropomorphising the organisation

The ‘personality’ metaphor is only one of a number of culture models developed to help directors and managers to improve the effectiveness, tone, or reputation of their organisation. A survey of selected culture models appeared in Part 1 of this series on organisational culture.

In Part 2 of this series, Multi-focal views of organisational culture, the importance of drawing on the fields of psychology and social psychology (amongst others) were highlighted. Consequently, thinking about the adaptation of a psychological model to help us understand and reflect on organisational culture, is not too big a stretch.

Just as an individual’s personality is a complex product of their values, beliefs, assumptions, and experience, so too is an organisation’s ‘personality’. Just as a person’s behaviours are an expression of temperament and character, so too is an organisation’s ‘behaviour’, or activity profile.

By anthropomorphising the organisation, we are treating it as open to being viewed through the lenses of psychology, social psychology, and sociology – which define the main approaches used in organisational behaviour theory. See Part 2 of this series.

Tests of Character

When faced with a test of character or moral choice, the people working in our organisations are also facing a ‘culture test’. Integrity stress tests happen from time to time, and we all face them. Will our team member’s corporate conscience inform their choice of response, and if so, what measures did we put in place to help them make ‘the right choice’?

An organisational personality model

There are many personality models that could be used to think of the organisation as a ‘person’, but I found Prof. Robert Cloninger’s biopsychosocial model of temperament and character particularly interesting.

His association of procedural learning with temperament, and propositional learning with character, struck me as a useful way of thinking about how directors and managers might embed the promotion of their desired culture into organisational development programs. These links also remind us of the triple loop learning supported by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (systems thinking and the learning organisation).

When considering the dispositions of individual directors and managers during making decision-making or problem solving, their temperament and character traits are certainly valid. In fact, we already consider the collective impact of the individual temperaments and character traits of our leaders when we make observations about cognitive biases, groupthink, and relationship dynamics.

Cloninger’s 7-factor model proposes four temperament and three character dimensions, summarised as follows:

Temperament dimensions

  • Harm avoidance – sensitivity to, and avoidance of, punishing stimuli
  • Novelty seeking – a tendency toward exhilaration or excitement in response to cues of potential reward or relief of punishment
  • Reward dependence – a tendency to respond to positive signals such as social approval and to maintain rewarded behaviour, and
  • Persistence – a tendency to continue a task or activity regardless of frustration, dissatisfaction, or fatigue

Character dimensions

  • Self-directedness – the extent to which individuals are goal-oriented and resourceful
  • Cooperativeness – the extent to which individuals relate to others, and
  • Self-transcendence – the extent to which individuals are transpersonal, spiritual, and idealistic

According to Cloninger, individual differences in character are a result of biases in conscious information processing related to the conceptual memory system. Adapted for our use in reflecting on organisational culture (personality), we might propose that:

differences in culture are a result of biases in information processing related to the organisation’s knowledge management system

The chart below includes some modifications to Cloninger’s personality model. Apart from substituting the organisation for the person, these are confined to the three cognitive sets associated with propositional learning which relate to character dimensions. I replaced the ‘Individual, Society and Universe cognitive sets in Cloninger’s original model with ‘Organisational, Community of Interest, and Sum of all Knowledge’ for the organisation’s cognitive sets.

Other ways of knowing

Beyond propositional and procedural knowledge there are other ways of knowing which non-profit organisations will want to address in their professional and organisational development activities. Part 5 in this series on organisational culture will consider some of these.

See also:

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