Thursday, January 14, 2021

Divine personality types in the workplace

I was sorting out my home office over the Christmas and New Year break and was distracted by one of the books I acquired while doing my MSc in Business Psychology. It’s a book called Inside Organizations by Charles Handy, a companion book to a TV series from 1991.

The book offers 21 ideas for managers, and is a mix of organisational psychology ideas. Quite a bit has changed in terms of working environments in the past 30 years, but a lot of the book is about working with people, and people haven’t changed that much. 

One chapter is entitled ‘Find your God’ and Charles borrows from the ancient Greek pantheon to illustrate four different workplace personality characteristics. I’m a bit sceptical of profiling tools like this as I feel there are way more than four blends of personality traits which create different people. But it’s an amusing diversion and I was intrigued by the religious angle.

Charles starts off by commenting on the diversity of religious expression in the classical world and outlines his thoughts that like-minded people were attracted to the veneration of the same gods so met people similar to themselves in the temple they chose to attend. I’m not a hundred per cent convinced that there was that amount of free choice in religious observance in the classical world, but broadly speaking he has a point. 

Furthermore, he theorises that certain personality types were attracted to certain deities based on the personality type of the worshipper. In some ways we see this play out in organised monotheistic religions as well. Different groups emphasise different teachings and different aspects of God’s personality within world religions, which is why we get schisms and sectarian disputes, even wars. And different groups attract different types of people – authoritarians are drawn to authoritarian structures, for example.

The four gods Charles identifies as work personality types are:
Zeus – the leader with “personality” who wields power and expects people to follow orders and deliver results
Apollo – the god of logic who wants everyone to follow the carefully delineated rules 
Athena – the goddess of warriors and adventurers, with an emphasis on team-working and a fascination with innovation
Dionysus – the god of excess, although Charles describes him as the “god of the free spirit”

There are probably aspects of all four gods that appeal to everyone. Zeus-type personalities place great store on selecting the right people to build a team of skilful experts who they can rely on. I have always informally done that, and have built up a network of people I know will help if I need it. The routine, security and predictability of Apollo-type personalities can also be comforting at times. Uncertainty isn’t conducive to long-term happiness or productivity. That’s one lesson we all learned from 2020! I also value being part of a high-functioning team sharing delivery of objectives, like the Athena-people. When I look back at the times when I have felt the most satisfied in work it is usually linked to being part of a smooth-running high-performing team. 

But the one god whose characteristics most resonated with me was Dionysus. Charles is very careful not to describe Dionysian rites which focused on drinking lots of wine, probably because that doesn’t sound like very professional behaviour. Instead he describes Dionysus-people as the ‘free spirits’, who tolerate working in organizations as long as the organization doesn’t get in their way. 

He sums this up, saying “they see the organization as serving them rather than the other way round”, which is something I have often thought with regards to bureaucracy. To borrow from Christianity for a moment, is the Sabbath made for man, or man made for the Sabbath? In other words, do the processes exist to help people do their jobs, or do people end up having to complete endless forms in order to feed the bureaucracy? 

A slightly more positive way of framing that is people choose to work in organizations so that they can do the job they love to do. Charles specifically uses doctors as an example of free spirits who tolerate the organization’s existence, because it’s hard to practice medicine outside a healthcare organization. (It’s not impossible, the extreme Dionysus-people doctors are probably working in a remote field clinic for an NGO somewhere.)

As someone who finds satisfaction in planning and delivering communications, the way Charles describes the Dionysus-people feels very natural. He identifies some key aspects of their approach to work that I recognised in myself.

“To a Dionysian, the quality of the work is paramount... They are craftsmen obsessed with their craft, uninterested in power or position as long as they have enough to guarantee them their freedom to work as they wish.” 

I really concur with the obsession bit. When I was tidying up the office I found a folder of samples of promotional material that I had kept for inspiration. I also found a ring-binder full of good copywriting techniques and tips that I had gathered from a number of different places. I did that on my own initiative because I wanted to improve as a writer.

I’m not sure about being uninterested in power or position, but if that means not being impressed by other people’s job titles, then, yes, I have a history of saying frank things to people much higher up the organizational structure than me. However, I definitely value autonomy in my work and in the past have struggled with very directive management. 

Charles goes on to say that Dionysus-people are team players “when they have to be” although they “prefer to be left alone to get on with work in their own way.” They are “loners” and as people they “seek respect, influence and freedom.” There’s an interesting distinction there between ‘influence’ and ‘power’, which reflects changes in terminology since the book was written. I think now ‘influence’ would be seen as ‘soft power’, with potentially more to be gained by influencing people who hold powerful positions than holding those positions oneself. 

I also wouldn’t describe myself as a loner, but I am an introvert and I do like time by myself. 

Charles concludes that organizations find Dionysus-people “uncomfortable” and that they don’t respond to the usual people-management tools like promotions or reprimands. He says, “They seem to have a loyalty to their craft or profession which overrides their commitment to the organization.” This makes me think of doctors who act as whistle-blowers to expose deficient care, or military personnel who leak documents to reveal cover-ups and war crimes. 

Organizations have changed massively in 30 years. When Charles wrote that book, email was not present in many organizations and the interconnected nature of modern-day working would have been regarded as futuristic fiction. But as I said, people are still people, and personality types still impact heavily on the way individuals work in organizations. If the gods of ancient Greece are archetypes, which is certainly a valid way of interpreting those religious expression, then those archetypes probably still apply. 

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