Workplaces are made up of individuals, and personality can be the glue that holds them together or the chisel that tears them apart. Understanding personality has proved to be a difficult and challenging task for psychologists, and no single theory is able to provide all the answers. There are, however, four broad categories of personality theory that provide most of our understanding on how personality works.


There are four major theoretical approaches to the study of personality. Psychologists call them the psychoanalytic, trait, humanistic and social cognition approaches.

What Is Personality?

While we talk about personality all the time ("she has such a friendly personality"), putting a definition into words is actually quite challenging. Psychologists have been trying for years to come up with a single scientific definition. So far, they have been unsuccessful.

Broadly, we can understand personality as the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make each person unique. Simply, it's all the characteristics that make you who you are – your character, temperament and nature.

Some people believe that personality is biological or genetic in nature and thus remains constant throughout life. Others believe in a dynamic system where personality changes due to external factors like our life experiences, environment and culture. This debate is known as "nature versus nurture." Whatever you believe, the fact that there are so many theories about personality shows that capturing the unique essence of a person is not the simplest thing in the world.

What Are Four Personality Perspectives?

  • Psychoanalytic, also called psychodynamic
  • Trait
  • Humanistic
  • Social cognition :

Psychoanalytic Views on Personality

Sigmund Freud believed that personality is made up of three components. The id is our impulse energy. It is responsible for all our needs (nourishment, appreciation) and urges (sexual instinct, hate, love and envy). According to Freud, the id seeks immediate satisfaction of our needs without referring to logic or morals. It is demanding, impulsive, blind, irrational, antisocial, selfish and lust oriented – our most primal instinct.

The superego, or conscience, represents morality as well as the norms of society. It contains all the ideals for which an individual strives and makes us feel guilty if we fall short of these standards. The superego essentially is our standard of perfection – the person we want to be. While the id strives for pleasure and the superego for perfection, the ego acts to moderate the two. It works on the reality principle, mediating the competing demands of the id and the superego and choosing the most realistic solution for the long term.

Suppose, for instance, that you had a desire to splurge your paycheck on drinks and partying. That's your id talking. The superego would be yelling that your idea is foolish and immoral, and you're a bad person for even thinking it. The ego will balance your desire for instant gratification and your desire for responsibility by figuring out a sensible, rainy-day savings plan with enough left over for some fun on the weekend.

Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Mind

Freud also emphasized the importance of early childhood experiences on the development of personality. He believed that analyzing the harms of the past could unlock a person's development in the future. The harms, Freud believed, were mostly caused by parents during the person's childhood.

Freud's views do not meet with absolute approval, and many critics have questioned the scientific foundation of his work. However, it remains a foundation of modern psychoanalysis, where people regress or go deeper into their unconscious personality to resolve the conflicts they're facing.

Trait Theory of Personality

  • Openness, or how open-minded you are and how much you like to try new things.
  • Conscientiousness, or how reliable, organized and diligent you are.
  • Extraversion (this is spelled with an "a" in personality psychology), or whether you draw energy from interaction with others. People who score  low on extraversion (introverts) gain energy from inside themselves. Extraverts gain energy from people. They tend to be assertive and have the gift of the gab.
  • Agreeableness, or how friendly, tolerant and compassionate you are.
  • Neuroticism, which refers to emotional instability and the level of negative emotions a person has. People with high levels of neuroticism tend to be moody and tense.

Humanistic Views on Personality

The key agent of the humanist movement is Abraham Maslow. Maslow believed that personality was not a matter of nature or nurture but of personal choice. Specifically, he suggested that people possess free will and are motivated to pursue the things that will help them reach their full potential as human beings.

Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs which typically is displayed as a pyramid. The bottom tier of the pyramid is made up of the most basic needs: food, water, sleep and shelter. These needs are so important that people act to meet them before doing anything else. Once those needs are met, people can move through the other levels of the pyramid, meeting the needs of safety, belonging and self-esteem until they reach the final level: self-actualization. Self-actualization is the process of developing and growing in order to reach your true potential. This, said Maslow, is a key motivator of human behavior.

The humanistic perspective emphasized the importance of using free will to become the best human a person can possibly be. It is different from the other theories in believing that people are fundamentally good. People are always looking for new ways to improve, learn and grow, say the humanists, and it's these choices that determine our personality and behavior.

Social Cognition Theory

The social cognition theory views personality through the lens of our social interactions, so instead of developing in a black box, our personality traits interact with our environment to influence behavior. This gives a much clearer view of the effect that other people have on our personalities.

The pioneer of the social cognition theory is a scientist named Albert Bandura. He argued that when people see someone gaining benefit from a certain behavior, they copy that behavior in order to earn a similar reward. His famous experiment saw a child being rewarded with a doll for punching a doll. When other children were shown the video, they acted in a similarly aggressive way to earn a reward. Thus, personality traits (in this case aggression) may be learned.

Social Theory and Reciprocal Determinism

The social cognition theory has a lot of traction in public health circles where it's used to explain how past experiences can create and reinforce behavior in the present. For example, a child who is brought up in an abusive home may model bullying and aggressive behaviors himself. This child might also have an expectation of further abuse because that is all he has known. Bandura called this the principle of reciprocal determinism – the idea that traits, environment and behavior all interact and influence each other.

If there's a problem with the social cognition theory, it's the assumption that changing the environment will necessarily lead to changes in the person. Research tells us that this is not always true. Factors such as biology and hormones may also influence personality and behavior. By ignoring these factors, the social cognition approach falls short.

What's the Relevance?

You may have interviewed someone and thought, "His personality is perfect for this job" or "I'm just not sure she will gel with the team." Personality makes us who we are, and so, by extension, it makes us who we are at work. This means that you can use the various personality theories to gain a richer understanding of your employees and what it is that makes them tick.

The following are a handful of situations in which you might find it helpful to understand someone's personality.

Know What Motivates an Individual

Personality tests can give clues about the things that people love to do that will motivate them to perform to their maximum ability. Some workers are motivated by rank, power and leadership, for example, whereas others are motivated to do their best for the team. As you figure out how to motivate your staff, look at their personality factors to see what impresses or demoralizes them.

Understand How Someone Will Fulfill a Role

What is this person's communication style? How will she lead others? How does she resolve conflict? By understanding someone's personality, you can make the right hires for the right positions to ensure maximum productivity and quality of service delivery.

Know How to Organize Your Teams

We all know that some people hit it off, while others lock horns like rutting deer. Personality can help unlock the mystery of why some people get along while others argue and clash. Are you experiencing too much conflict in the office? Is your team great at coming up with ideas but awful at implementing them? Personality assessment can help ensure that you have the right mix of people on your teams.

Create a Healthier Working Environment

There's evidence to suggest that staff who continuously work outside their personality comfort zones experience burnout and stress. For instance, someone with a high degree of agreeableness who does everything he can to avoid conflict will become extremely anxious if you give him the task of disciplining and firing staff. Personality can start an important conversation about how to create a healthier workplace.

Reduce Staff Turnover

Employees tend to be happier and more motivated when they are built for the job they're in and have the potential to be successful. A happy staff makes for greater productivity and less turnover.

Influence Consumer Behavior

The most basic premise of personality is that it causes behaviors to happen because we react to situations based on our personality. This has huge repercussions in consumer buying behavior, and marketers frequently try to appeal to consumers in terms of their personality characteristics.

Knowing how your people are likely to react in different situations will allow you to use their strengths, minimize their weaknesses and put them in positions where they are primed to succeed.