The Importance of Understanding Personalities and Attitudes

July 22, 2009

I believe people are an open book.  If you watch what they do and listen to what they say over time, I think they give us a pretty good picture of their personality and attitudes.  I know that is a sweeping generality, but I think it holds true in most people.  And it’s also the best we can do as leaders since we can’t always administer tests to our employees and certainly not to our peers, leaders, suppliers and customers to determine these things.

The key is do you know how to read or are you illiterate?

If you don’t know the difference between personality and attitude when you see and hear it, then these powerful concepts are useless to you.  And it matters that you know, because how you work with knowledge about personality is entirely different than how you work with knowledge about attitudes.

Personalities are relatively stable.  That’s important because it means that at work, you are not going to change the personality of the people you come in contact with.  We are who we are.

I think the value of knowing how to “read” personality is primarily to help leaders understand their own basic personality dimensions, and then to learn to emphasize the positive and mitigate the negative aspects of their own style. It also helps you understand others to know something about their personality – knowledge that you can use to guide YOUR behavior.  And your own behavior is the thing you have the most control over at work.

Attitudes, on the other hand, are subject to change. We want to change attitudes because of the belief that attitudes influence behavior.  But you can’t just talk about “bad” and “good” attitudes.  That’s meaningless and usually represents no more than a “blame game”.

The key to leveraging attitudes is to “read” a specific attitude, for example, satisfaction or commitment.  If you can identify the specific attitude working in your constituent, then you can take specific action to change that attitude with the hope of getting a specific behavior as a result.

If I listen to my employee and I hear what I think is low job satisfaction that clues me into the actions I can take if I want to improve satisfaction.  If I made the mistake of thinking I was hearing something about my employee’s personality, I would take an entirely different and probably less effective set of actions.

In a future post, I’ll tell you the number one personality trait I listen and look for when I meet new folks.

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Comments (13)

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  1. Gwyn Teatro says:

    Your post certainly started me thinking. The distinctions you make between personality and attitude are so important and yet, if we do not spend enough time in observation and listening, it’s probably not difficult to get them confused.
    Knowing what you can influence about others and what you have no hope of changing is a vital message that many of us do not get.

    Thank you for a great post!

  2. Very nice distinction between personality and attitude Bret. Very useful.

  3. Gwyn: I appreciate your thoughts. People are fascinating, and work is such a huge part of our lives we all benefit from increasing our awareness of this stuff.

    Mary Jo: Thanks once again for visiting and sharing your thoughts, which I really value.


  4. Wally Bock says:

    From my what-am-I-gonna-tell-the-supervisors view, this is an excellent post. You point out that personality is pretty much fixed after a person enters adulthood. That implies that the general approach to life isn’t going to change. You can’t polish sneakers. You don’t play basketball in dress shoes.

    And you distinguish between personality and attitude. Either in my Working Supervisor’s Support Kit or in training, I work to have supervisors not even use the word. My suggestion is that when they catch themselves thinking, “John has a bad attitude,” they should analyze what John does or says that gets them thinking that the attitude is bad. Then work on the behavior.

  5. Wally: Your advice to supervisors about attitudes is EXACTLY what I would do. “You got a bad attitude” almost always means “I don’t like you”. You are so correct – work on the behavior. Great thought, I appreciate you taking the time to share them.

  6. jack parler says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Jack. Would love to hear your thougts on my posts anytime you are comfortable sharing. Bret

  7. Jerilyn says:

    As a student in organizational behavior, your informative article really helped define the difference between attitude and personality, better than the textbook! Thank you!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jerilyn. Glad it was helpful. Bret

  8. Vijay says:

    Dear Bret

    Though we commonly understand that there is not much difference between attitude and personality. Since we often listen to people say, ” attitude reflects the person’s personality, I am not sure if the change in attitude can bring about a change in a person’s personality, I need your comment please.

    with regards


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    No, personality is fixed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret