Why culture and personality are just stories that we make up

Personality profiling and corporate culture share one common trait: they are described and not fixed. Could our addiction to telling stories about ourselves be holding us back?

I facilitated a three-day leadership team retreat recently. Before the face-to-face workshop, I interviewed each of the nine team members by Skype (they were based in various parts of Europe, I live in Colorado). The intention behind the interviews was to introduce myself to those members who did not already know me, to establish a first degree of trust between us and to hear what their priorities and ambitions were for the retreat.

As I flew out to meet them in Prague, reading through my notes, I realized that eight of the nine team members had told me what their MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) profile was, even though I hadn’t asked any of them for that information.

This is not unusual, of course. Particularly in business, we’ve come to normalise the use of personality profiles, giving them a significance and credence that apparently allows us to know and respond appropriately to each other.

These team members, like many others who talk in this way, shared their MBTI letters with me with great reverence. Sometimes, it felt to me, they did so by way of warning, a predictor of their behaviour in the forthcoming retreat. Sometimes it felt like an excuse or an apology.

What seemed to be common amongst them was that they each knew these profiles to be true and accurate, unyielding and inevitable. Again, this is not uncommon. Many of us talk about our personality as if it is something we are born with, like a third arm. And it’s cunning when we do that since a ‘personality’ is invisible.

None of them, for example, said ‘David, I have a giant nose, please don’t stare at it when you meet me.’ But their personality traits, whatever they told me they were, they were proud of those.

Personality as a story

I suggest that a personality is nothing more than a story. We make it up when we choose to believe it – particularly when someone ‘proves’ it with a profiling tool. And we make it up again (reinforcing it) every time we pass it on to others. Like all stories, it is told with a (sometimes unconscious) desire to have a particular impact on the hearer. And, like all stories, the telling of the story makes the storyteller feel better.

‘Find someone who will steam these labels off your body’ – Steve Chandler, professional coach

I choose not to believe my clients’ stories when those stories are holding them back from who they could become. I stopped working with a coaching client recently when it became clear he couldn’t get to the changes he claimed he wanted to make ‘because I’m an introvert.’ His label was more precious to him than his future.

Culture as a story

The organisational equivalent of ‘my personality’ is ‘our corporate culture.’

We accept now that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, yet too often we talk about ‘the culture’ as if it is ‘out there,’ difficult to shift and capable of shaping our behaviours. Yet I have never banged my shin on a culture. I’ve never tripped over one in the corridor. I’ve only ever heard it described.

Our culture is a story we agree to tell, and therefore it can be reshaped in our language – if we choose to. If one of your associates explained a poor decision by saying ‘the culture made me do it,’ I think you’d push back on that statement.

In the early days of my business career, I made a good living with a ‘culture assessment tool,’ until I realised I was only reinforcing the clients’ collective story about who they thought they were and what they could become. Too often they were limiting themselves.

In my experience, passion and responsibility will always overwhelm culture and personality. ‘What do we want to create together?’ is still the most powerful question you can ask any group of people. All of that is open to invention – and re-invention.

Don’t tell each other ‘who you are’ – as individuals or collectively. Talk more about who you intend being tomorrow, and the difference you want to make in the world.

That’s the start of a new and more compelling story.

David Firth is a consultant, author, change management expert, conference speaker and executive coach in progressive organisational development
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