Personality vs. Character

Photo: ICMA Photos

I once conducted a job interview with someone I found to be passionate, energetic, intelligent, engaging, and prepared.  As I asked her questions designed to produce an accurate picture of her potential future performance, I remained acutely attuned to my emotional reactions to her demeanor, trying to listen to what my inner voice was telling me about her.  At the end of the interview I found myself excited about the prospect of hiring her.  I had to remind myself to remain cautious, however, as I reflected on just how easy it is to confuse personality with character and how critical it is to separate them.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Personality is easy to read, and we’re all experts at it.  We judge people funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident—as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, and shy—if not upon first meeting them, then shortly thereafter.  And though we may need more than one interaction to confirm the presence of these sorts of traits, by the time we decide they are, in fact, present we’ve usually amassed enough data to justify our conclusions.

Character, on the other hand, takes far longer to puzzle out.  It includes traits that reveal themselves only in specific—and often uncommon—circumstances, traits like honesty, virtue, and kindliness.  Ironically, research has shown that personality traits are determined largely by heredity and are mostly immutable.  The arguably more important traits of character, on the other hand, are more malleable—though, we should note, alterable not without great effort.  Character traits, as opposed to personality traits, are based on beliefs (e.g., that honesty and treating others well is important—or not), and though beliefs can be changed, it’s far harder than most realize.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The problem in forming judgments about a person’s suitability for important roles in our lives (employee, friend, lover, spouse) is that we all have an uncanny predilection for observing attractive personality traits and manufacturing out of them the presence of positive character traits (that is, if someone is outgoing, confident, and fun we’re more likely to think they’re honest, moral, and kind).  But it’s far from clear that the one kind tracks with the other.  In fact, as I recounted in Listening To Your Inner Voice, that assumption often gets us into trouble.

We unconsciously tend to connect personality to character for two main reasons:  we want to like people we already like, and the most reliable way to assess a person’s character is laborious and time consuming.  (We actually need to observe people in character-challenging situations in order to make reliable deductions about their character.  For example, if we observe someone lie easily, we can be reasonably certain from even just one instance that they’ve done so in the past and will do so again in the future, as the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.)

This is because the beliefs that drive us to do things like lie easily, or tell the truth, are present in us at all times.  They may remain “dormant” until circumstances stir them up in such a way that they motivate observable action, but they’re rarely hidden away deliberately.  Which begs the question:  might there be a way to glimpse such beliefs without waiting for circumstances to put them on full display?

In a word—yes.  Not so much by speaking directly with people whose character you’re trying to uncover, but by speaking with people who know the people whose character you’re trying to uncover.  This is why, for example, wise prospective employers always call references.  The challenge once we do is that prospective employees provide references they expect will speak well of them.  The trick, then, is to ask questions of a person’s references designed to get them to reveal their most accurate judgments honestly.

Questions like “Have you ever known X to lie?” aren’t useful because the answer you get will depend on the character of the person you’re asking.  You won’t know if a reference is comfortable lying themselves, so the veracity of any answer you get will remain questionable at best.  For this reason, it’s better to ask questions that push people to apply their own judgment.  These kind of questions are more likely (though certainly not in all circumstances) to return honest answers.  Therefore, instead ask things like, “What in your judgment is X’s greatest weakness?”  The implication here is that everyone has weaknesses, so it’s unreasonable to expect the answer to be “none.”  It’s harder to make up a weakness on the spot than to tell the truth about a weakness that a reference actually perceives, so you’re more likely to get an honest assessment. Your reference may try to play down the weakness they reveal, but you can read between the lines.

The drawback to this technique is that it relies on the judgment of individuals, which we know is biased and often flawed.  This drawback can be overcome, however, by asking the same questions of many people who know the person in whose character you’re interested.  As I wrote in a previous post, The Wisdom Of Crowds, if multiple people independently return similar answers, the likelihood that their collective judgment will be accurate is high.

Though it may seem Machiavellian, you can apply this process to friends and potential mates as well.  The average length of time, for instance, people date before deciding to marry is approximately three years in the United Kingdom (a figure, I should note, that varies widely by culture). The challenge with deciding to marry someone after knowing them only three years, for example, is that some important character traits, good and bad, may not have revealed themselves by then.  Of course, it’s socially awkward bordering on inappropriate to interrogate a potential mate’s friends and family about them directly.  And though I’m not suggesting anyone do this, I am suggesting we can and should pay attention to data as it’s presented to us by others as they may be in possession of better data than we are.  People generally have a hard time hiding their true feelings about others over time, so if you hear common themes from people close to the person in whose character you’re interested, pay attention.  You’re almost certainly hearing the truth.

I don’t mean by any of the above to imply that personality isn’t important.  But when we’re making decisions about who to let into our lives in critical roles, character must be considered equally important, if not more so, but is often readily overlooked.  Luckily for me, the references of the person I interviewed all that time ago not only provided strong endorsements but endorsements whose content was consistent.  I hired her and over time I found her to be as outstanding as her references predicted she would be.

Next WeekThe Anatomy Of A Doctor Visit

13 comments to Personality vs. Character

  • Tina

    I was always nervous at job interviews. I always got hired, because I typed so fast and accurately, but I’m affected by too many pesky diseases to be that fast any more. I’ve lost a part of my personality.

    I’m still here, though, and I’m slower, but I’m still transcribing. If it takes me eight hours of transcribing to do what I could’ve done in two or three hours ten years ago, I just keep on going. I don’t have the speed going for me any more, but I have the accuracy, years of experience, and dependability. I miss being fast, though.

    I don’t know what prior employers would say about me, but I was never the last one in and the first one out. If something needed doing after five, I did it. I’ve had the luxury of working at home for the past fourteen years, but you have to get it done. It’s fortunate, too, because I don’t think I’m even fast enough to be hired out there in the world any more. And, thinking that, I’d fail an interview for sure, wouldn’t I?

    Tina: Someone who keeps going despite new limitations, remaining committed to getting the job done, even if it means staying late? I’d hire you in a second.

    Alex

  • kimsia

    Character cannot be overrated precisely because it is more difficult to suss out than personality.

  • Chris

    Do you believe, Alex, that the question often asked at an interview, about how you would deal or how you have dealt with a difficult person yields info about character?

    I wonder if a question related to the current cultural pattern of lack of civility in discourse (in the political arena) would yield useful information about character, such as “How do you react to the smear ads just prior to the elections this coming week?”

    Tina, above, wrote about her own work ethic. And you gave the example of honesty/lying. What other character traits are you or other interviewers looking to uncover in an interview, that you would think are “basic” and necessary? More examples?

    Chris: I think asking the question about how an interviewee would deal with a difficult person may yield accurate information about their character depending upon how insightful the interviewee is (which, at the point of initially meeting them, you as the interviewer don’t know). If they understand how they should deal with difficult people, they can easily fabricate stories about how they have that aren’t true. If they aren’t that insightful and think they know how they should but really don’t, you’ll likely learn an accurate truth about them. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but even if we don’t mean to deceive others in representing ourselves, we often deceive ourselves in representing ourselves.

    Other questions I’m interested in answering include: how hard-working are you? How likely are you to do the right thing—to fight to do the right thing—when pressure (even from me, your boss) is pushing you not to? How much do you genuinely care about the people you work with? How committed are you to excellence?

    Alex

  • Don

    In your grouping of positive and negative personality traits, extroverted is shown as a positive and shy as a negative. Introverted and shy, of course, are not synonymous but my reaction to the list was that you think extroverted is a positive trait and introverted is a negative trait. Of course, I only noticed because I self-identify as an introvert, but it did feel a bit hurtful and maybe not completely fair.

    Don: I stand rightly criticized. I was thinking of those traits as negative and positive in the context of the position for which I was hiring and let the implication stand that I think they’re negative and positive in general, which I don’t. My apologies.

    Alex

  • Tom

    When it comes to references, asking someone to speak negatively about another, for job purposes or otherwise, smacks of gossip. And it really points toward the interviewer more than the subject. Calling this tactic Machiavellian is like polishing a turd. It is this kind of template that has created the Stepford clones in the corporate world.

    It is small wonder that the Corporate environment has started to look like a Stepford colony.

    Tom: I can’t agree. My point wasn’t to argue that we should try to get references to speak negatively about job candidates—just accurately. Sometimes even what a reference thinks is a negative quality—e.g., tendency to come to decisions too quickly—could be an asset in, say, a job that requires quick reaction times. But when references are deliberately hiding a judgment they think will reflect negatively on a candidate because they like the candidate whom they’re recommending, that serves neither their potential employer nor the candidate. Sometimes a candidate might be perfectly fine for one job but not at all well suited to another.

    Alex

  • Chris

    In a fit of negativity, I must say that I mistrust the interviewing process entirely—from both the interviewer and interviewee side. In its place, I would like to see the candidate(s) invited to a mini-job-shadow experience, accompanied by the interviewer. As the candidate(s) walk through the job tasks and the job site, they can ask questions, answer questions (“Have you ever done this before?” Etc.) and just interact with the people and environment. Both interviewer and interviewee can get a better picture, I think, of it being a good match. And maybe it will be easier to be honest when actually confronted with the job duties and site.

    And maybe this is more non-threatening to the applicant. Some people are nervous in an interview (shy? introverted?) and don’t present themselves well . . .

    Chris: Very true, the interviewing process is far from perfect. I guess that was partly my point, that we need to recognize just what it can and can’t tell us…

    Alex

  • Tom

    Alex, there is a rather glaring assumption here that the Interviewer (Observer) is without Kleshas (Veils of ignorance). Until that filter is pure, any question, projection, or thought coming from the interviewer is colored through those veils. I understand the human aspect of this process but the fact remains that if Betty, the HR rep, has a gambling problem, she will not tend to consider anyone who might expose her tendencies. While this might be an absurd example, there is no shortage of more subtle examples in the mind. Separating personality from character for the purposes of hiring might be effective but I would offer that the questions themselves are already colored by impure perceptions. To be truthful, one must come completely out of hiding. Most people can’t handle this kind of fear. I guess I see your point that as a skillful means, it might serve an employer to veil the truth, but as a tactic in life, it is only a prevarication from oneself and others.

    Thanks,
    Tom

  • A lot of employers hire based on likeability despite the fact that a pleasing personality in no way indicates that someone will do their job well. Employers SHOULD care about character, but in my experience they don’t really mind if Sally runs her mouth all day and accomplishes little, so long as she’s bubbly and outgoing. You can cheat, steal and lie so long as your co-workers love your personality.

    It’s like a friend once told me, “I’m a fantastic interview; as an employee??? Not so great. You’re an awesome employee, you just don’t like talking about yourself.”

    Introverted people are at a disadvantage, so I share a little bit in Don’s defensiveness. I feel like I always have to prove myself because I’m quiet, and because I think before I speak instead of rambling off an instantaneous answer. Others win automatic approval even if they’re less qualified. Such is life.

  • France

    Not only is character different from personality, unfortunately it is also the supporting cast in a North American world that stars personality! I believe we have increased our dependence over the decades on a cult of personality that our culture encourages…and judges. An individual with a “quiet” personality is often judged more critically than one with a brash one—with little or no regard to their character.

    Add our addiction to judging people by their looks and connecting that to their character and we are left with lots of form and very little content—hence the need for blogs such as these!

  • SVR

    Can’t agree more with downfromtheledge. Exactly what I feel. Being introverted is a hurdle, being it in interviewing or in an actual work environment.

  • Rose

    Personality and character are two sides of the same coin basically. I agree with the above comment fully. It is really a challenge for introverts to express themselves in interviews or when it comes to make friends they don’t come out as well as extroverts. Introverts generally have less friends and fewer contacts which makes life a bit of a challenge for them both in personal and in professional life.

    Extrovert or an Introvert?

    Are you the social kind or are you someone who prefers to keep to yourself?

    http://www.3smartcubes.com/pages/tests/extrovert/extrovert_instructions.asp

  • Rose

    In continuation with my above comment here’s a personality test I can’t resist to share with you and your readers!

    How Good Are Your People Skills? This test finds out how well you interact with others.

    http://www.3smartcubes.com/pages/tests/peopleskills/peopleskills_instructions.asp

  • vusa

    Alex, very true. Which reminds me a saying: “Show me your friend and I will tell you who you are.” Not necessarily by asking the friend but by collaterally collecting information about the friend and their relationship with the person of interest.

    Another truth is that you may think you know a person well just because you’ve known them for many years, a single opportunity/situation in which that person shows their true character may prove how wrong you were. Steve Jobs’ being fired by the person he himself hired is 1 example (without me knowing all the details of it).

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