Entrepreneurial Ego

Assigning jobs by personality type -- risk taker, rigid, or conservative -- may be a popular management practice, but it's also a good way to sell people short

While hustling to catch the US Airways LaGuardia-to-Logan shuttle the other day, I passed by a Fidelity Investments ad for about the 1,800th time. On this particular afternoon, however, the ad caught my attention. Who could have predicted that the onetime übermanager of the Magellan Fund, Peter Lynch, would ever don a fly fisherman's outfit and kibitz with Don Rickles in a national advertising campaign? Which led me to question why anyone thinks that it's possible to predict anything about anybody's career path.

But company managers try to make such predictions all the time. And most business-school texts about career tracking give you reams of data about how to discern which "personality type" is best suited to "fit" one or another workplace track, as though career determinants could be located along strands of DNA. Such all-or-nothing views about personal characteristics are costly prejudices, and they include the notion that someone who launches an entrepreneurial venture is a born risk taker compared with a peer who opts to pursue a managerial ("risk-averse") career. Such views limit your thinking about human capital. They influence whom you hire and whom you don't hire in ways that can be detrimental to your company. They can impose restrictions on your own sense of what you can do. Most important, they rest on a mistaken assumption about the permanence of personality traits.

If you've ever seen a person who was traumatized, say, by a firing, or a CEO suddenly freed from a repressive adherence to "duty" by an initial public offering that made him or her a millionaire, you know how impermanent personality traits can be. Yet there is a general understanding that a person's orientation toward risk, change, security, stability, or what have you involves fixed attributes. Because trait theories of personality have wielded such a strong influence over how people think about behavioral styles, not much attention has been paid to how situational factors influence behavior.

My advice is to start viewing every psychological description you use in hiring decisions -- such as conservative or rigid or flexible -- as a racial epithet. Like despicable words that generate racial prejudice, such tags are limiting and often demeaning. Accepting that there is such a thing as personality flux and that events and situations can determine a person's style will, at first, be burdensome. To begin with, keeping an open mind about people requires more thought than pigeonholing them does. Moreover, avoiding typecasting will force you to scrutinize people you care for and possibly to confront the need to terminate some once-flexible people who have become calcified over time. But your new way of thinking will also give you a chance to be more creative as you stop struggling to pinpoint people's personalities with time-consuming (and costly) "predictive" tests that just cannot tell you who will adapt and who won't.

Here's another reason for questioning the permanent division of the world into the risk takers and the risk averse. There will come a time if you're successful -- or, sadly, if you're a failure -- at realizing your current business plan when you'll wonder, "Do I have it in me to fight the fight all over again?" You might question if you're really an entrepreneur at heart. In those moments of self-doubt, I want you to look at Peter Lynch peddling his old company in ads that pair him up with Don Rickles and say to yourself, "If he can change direction midstream, anybody can."

Dr. Steven Berglas is a clinical psychologist and management consultant on the faculty of both UCLA's Anderson School of Management and Harvard Medical School.