Mr Personality: an exploration of profiling

Friday, August 21, 2015 - 18:16

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Johnson

So you’re a manager in the public sector?  You’ve been to lots of courses and completed lots of personality profiles.  You know your MBTI code – isn’t it great being an ENTJ!  You’ve done your DiSC profile and no longer need to apologise for being a fast paced, achievement focused D!

Oh dear.  What’s all this about? Are personality profiles really helpful?

Personality profiles help us gain accurate self-awareness, which is a cornerstones of effectiveness, not only in management and leadership, but in life and work in general. Profiles help because gaining accurate and deep self-awareness is more difficult to master than we think.  No matter how well we know ourselves, there’s always something new to be discovered if you turn well developed analytical abilities inwards.

Self-awareness is the platform for self-management.  How do you manage yourself if you don’t know yourself?  In the modern, complex and sophisticated world, the old adage, ‘take me or leave me’ doesn’t quite cut it. However, despite the need for greater self-awareness, some people embrace these profiles with great enthusiasm while others view them with scepticism.

In recent years the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) has become a particularly popular self-awareness profile.  The HBDI profile was developed by Ned Herrmann while he was head of management education at GE Electric in New York, in the 1980s and from an organisational psychological perspective, it’s a helpful tool for improving self-awareness and an understanding of others.

The study of psychology consists primarily of the study of personality, behaviour and thinking styles.  Leaders in this field, such as psychologist Robert Sternberg, consider thinking styles to be the interface between personality and intelligence.  The way we think is the way we, as individuals, use our intellectual abilities.

Sternberg made parallels between the way we organise society and the way we organise ourselves.   He said that just as we govern society, we must govern ourselves. So thinking styles are akin to mental self-government and the categories he chose reflect this.

Sternberg identified 3 functions that people tend to choose:

  1. The executive function – these people like rules, structures, policies and procedures. 
  2. The legislative function - these people like to create new ways of operating.
  3. The judicial function – these people enjoy critiquing things, evaluating rules and procedures and checking the detail for accuracy.

It gets more complex.  Sternberg identified 4 forms of thinking.

  1. Monarchic - people who are determined, competitive, single minded and achievement focused. 
  2. Hierarchic - people who chase several ordered, prioritised goals at once, they are systematic and organised and make lots of lists. 
  3. Oligarchic - people who jump from one goal to another randomly, avoiding structure and doing several things at once. 
  4. Anarchic – people who reject rules and systems and operate in a random, non-sequential manner, known for tangents and intuitive connections.

Sternberg also identified levels of thinking, scope of thinking and the way we like to learn.

He identified global versus local thinking, which is ‘big picture’ abstract and intuitive thinking versus detailed, pragmatic thinking. 

He identified internal versus external thinking reflecting introverted and inwards focused thinking or extraverted and outwards focused thinking. 

And finally, he identified liberal versus conservative thinking, reflecting people who are easily bored and enjoy creativity and ambiguity and conservative people preferring structure and predictability.

Are you exhausted yet?  There’s a lot to it. Let’s go back to the beginning.  If you’re a manager or leader in the workplace, you know all too well that self-awareness and self-management matter.  But are you prepared to dive deep into Sternberg’s work and explore your thinking functions, forms, levels, scope and learning preferences?  Probably not.

Ned Herrmann made it easy for us.  Although his depiction of thinking styles is less complex than Sternberg’s, his contribution to management education and the development of a sophisticated and emotionally intelligent workplace is equally commendable.  His thinking profile, the HBDI, is easy to grasp and powerful as a vehicle for understanding that each of us thinks differently but aligned to common tendencies. 

Herrmann helps us understand and accept that there are no superior forms of thinking.  Whether you’re strongly rational and analytical, structured and conservative, emotional and interpersonal or creative and intuitive, we are all of equal value.

Our thinking styles reflect the interface between personality and intelligence.  Our personality influences the way we use our cognitive abilities and these can be categorised to make them more easily understood and embraced.

So, the next time you’re on a professional development program and a personality profile is included, embrace it.  Despite some common assumptions, they’re not greatly influenced by mood or hunger or the time of day.  They’re effective tools for self-awareness and self-management and for understanding and embracing diversity.

And although we’ve done well to accept diversity in ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, we’re still quite a way from accepting diversity in personality, behaviour and thinking styles.  Accepting individual difference has to start somewhere and where better to begin than with those who manage and lead improvements in our society, our public sector professionals.


Zhang, L., (2001) Thinking Styles and Personality Revisited. Personality and Individual Differences 31, 883-894.