Honesty is a Double Edged Sword
2 July 2018 at 7:15 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch considers a Faustian choice and whether our personality is who we are.
“Dear Adam, I am pretty confident in my abilities at work. But I recently moved to a new team and my new boss has given me feedback that I come off as intimidating to others. I asked for specifics, but he was unable to give me an example. I think it could be because I’m very direct. I’m not sure how to handle the situation. I don’t want to change my personality, but I love my new role.” – Anon
That’s a tough one. Being direct has a lot of merits to it, and it’s clear that it is consistent with your values and a valued part of how you see yourself. On the other hand, it sounds like it is also getting in the way of you getting what you want. It’s Faustian choice – betray yourself or abandon your goals, either way you lose.
Or maybe not.
The way out comes in understanding this idea of “personality”, particularly the idea that our personality is who we are. If it is, then there really is no way out of this one except find a role that allows you to be you and gives you the same level of satisfaction. But if it isn’t who we are, then you get a little bit of wriggle room that might allow you to not only get what you want, but to grow into a more effective and even more satisfied version of yourself.
Let’s start this exploration with some basic concepts. In psychology theory, our personality is really nothing more than a collection of our habitual behaviours. In the real world, it often gets confused with our identity, or self-concept. There’s a good reason for this. New research that allows us to map the activity of the brain has given support to the very old idea that there are two forms of identity.
One is the “felt sense of self” which emerges from the right hemisphere of our brain and appears to be the seat of our values, desires and aspirations. The second is the “known self” which emerges in the left hemisphere of the brain and appears to be constructed of what we observe about ourselves over time. It is this known self which most closely adheres to our “personality”, but this can be a very limiting identity, because many of our behaviours and beliefs are learned, sort of like a software program.
The other important thing about this known self, which Freud called the Ego, is that it’s job is to survive by making us adapt to our environment. It doesn’t much care if we are happy or fulfilled, only that we are safe and successful. Finally, this part of our brain is quite linear, meaning that its job is to plan, problem solve and learn from the past to predict the future. We used to think that the goal of psychology was to make people “well adjusted”, but it turns out that a lot of well-adjusted and highly functional people were really unhappy.
Stay with me, finished soon.
Our felt sense of self is more like firmware, it’s hardwired and not all that changeable. It represents the genetically determined talents, abilities and values that really form the core of who we are. Those stalwart readers who still adhere to a pure social constructionist view of human behaviour are probably having kittens right about now (ones with no intrinsic personality). However, the research is very clear that the biggest contributor to human behaviour is still genetic heritability – we are born with a “self”, and our environment either encourages or inhibits it’s expression.
Freud called this part of us the Id, and rather brilliantly identified that it functions according to the “pleasure principle” – meaning that it wants to feel good. A client of mine called this the “thrive” brain that drives us towards happiness, even if it means taking a risk with our safety or abandoning success and wealth. Given that I’m writing this for Pro Bono News, most readers will probably relate to this need for a “meaningful” life.
So, theory finished. What does it all mean?
Well, if our personality isn’t really who we are, then we have the option of changing our behaviours without having to betray our values after all. Being direct usually reflects placing a high value on honesty, which serves a deeper value of fairness and responsibility. That’s the upside. The downside of honesty is that if it isn’t tempered with empathy it can lead us to act in ways that are rather unfair and irresponsible. Honesty is a sword, and swords are usually most effective when they are sheathed, because once they are drawn someone is going to get hurt.
Honesty is also usually highly valued by people who are very competent, efficient and high performing, which is a very left brained way of being. This can lead to a little bit of narcissism. I don’t mean pathological personality disorder type narcissism, but a degree of intolerance for those who cannot or do not want to perform at the same level as them, and even a subtle contempt for those who are more right-brain relationally oriented than left-brain achievement oriented.
Left brain dominant individuals often miss the subtle emotional and social cues that would enable them to be more effective leaders. They are so focused on performance and can be so convinced of the rightness of their orientation, that they fail to recognise the value and validity of those who are different. This can lead to rigidity, controlling behaviours, careless communication and an unintended but very real failure to respect the boundaries and emotional needs of others.
Being left brain dominant has some real strengths, but interpersonal relating isn’t one of them.
So, my invitation to you is to decide whether this mostly “learned” way of being is really who you are, or if you might be willing to relax this self-concept a bit and leave some room for growing new skills around communication, leadership and relationships. Who knows, you may even discover a deeper sense of meaning and connection that allows you to stop and smell the roses on occasion, without feeling that you are failing to live up to those unrelenting performance standards. A touch of “being” can make the “doing” even sweeter.
Now, I must admit, I’ve been a little cheeky here. I’ve taken one Faustian choice and turned it into another one, because I’ve suggested that not learning these skills represents a failure to perform, which is an intolerable outcome for a leftie (brain, not politics). I’ve pushed you into a little bit of a corner, but I’m hoping this will give you a new perspective that allows you to arrive at the conclusion that you can still be you, and rise to the challenge of high performance leadership, by softening down to the challenge of better relationship skills.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also hear more from Adam in our upcoming webinar: Vicarious Trauma – Creating Resilient Responders and Change Makers at 2pm on 12 July. This 60-minute session, will outline the latest understandings of trauma, vicarious trauma and resilience with a view to understanding how you can protect yourself and your workforce from it. Find out more here.
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.