Friday, January 22, 2010

Personality Ethic vs Character Ethic

Prior to writing The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the author Stephen Covey reviewed much of the "success literature" (i.e. self help books) written in the the United States since 1776. He found that after World War I the focus of these writings generally changed in what they taught to be the foundation for achieving success.

In the most recent 50 years success, we have been taught, is primarily a function of what he calls "Personality Ethics". Some quotes:

Success became more a more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the process of human interaction.

This Personality Ethic took two paths: one was human and public relations techniques, and the other was positive mental attitude (PMA) ... expressed in inspiring and sometimes valid maxims such as "Your attitude determines your altitude,"

Other parts of the personality approach were clearly manipulative, even deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of others to get out of them what they wanted, or to use the "power look," or to intimidate their way through life.
This differs from what the first 150 years of literature focused on which is something he refers to as "Character Ethic."
things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.
Covey admits that while parts of Personality Ethic are important and in many circumstances critical--things like communication and presentations skills--these skills are at best secondary. To truly sustain long tern success one must focus first and foremost on Character Ethic. It is primary.

A great example he gives is with respect to trust. Everyone can agree that trust is a critical element for success in business, family, and friendships. While Personality Ethic suggests communication techniques / tricks to gain trust, Character Ethic says to just be trustworthy.
If I try to use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I want, to work better, to be more motivated, to like me and each other--while my character is fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity and insincerity--then, in the long run, I cannot be successful. My duplicity will breed distrust, and everything I do--even using so-called good human relations techniques--will be perceived as manipulative.
and conversely
There are people we trust absolutely because we know their character. Whether they're eloquent or not, whether they have the human relations techniques or not, we trust them, and we work successfully with them.
This resonates with me because at heart I'm in idealist and always like to think that "the good guy" always wins in the end. It is nice therefore to read something that makes sense and reinforces that belief. It also helps because I think I lack some of those Personality Ethic skills!

Funny, as I read about the approaches two specific people stick out in my mind. One who excels in Personality Ethic and one who excels in Character Ethic. How about you?

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