When the word “character” is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind? In our media-saturated world, it’s likely that famous Hollywood celebrities or protagonists in the latest New York Times bestsellers are our first thought.

But a glance back in history tells us that personal character, and in particular character virtues were well known and highly sought-after attributes. Webster’s Dictionary defines character in part as, “moral excellence and firmness”.

Is such an old-fashioned word and ideal still important today? Absolutely. Let’s look more closely at what exactly character is, how it differs from personality, and why strength of character matters so much in effective leaders.

What is character?

It’s important to recognize that there are many misconceptions about character. Here are a few of the most common.

Misconceptions about character:

  • Character is one-dimensional
  • Dichotomous, not continuous, is a good way to define character
  • Character strengths do not cross cultures
  • Focusing on character is unimportant in today’s societies
  • Character strengths are set and can’t be changed

These are all myths. In fact:

Character is multidimensional—Defined by most theories as a multidimensional construct that includes many parts, such as strengths or virtues, many frameworks include overlapping character strengths (e.g., VIA, Tilt, and even some leadership-specific character frameworks).

 

Most of these structures share similar philosophies and elements, creativity, courage, and humanity, for instance. Often using one character strength positively affects another. For example, openness allows for flexibility and adjusting to changing circumstances, and diligence balances things out.

 

Character is continuous, not dichotomous—Unlike the sun (it’s either shining brightly or hidden by clouds), character qualities aren’t either present or absent. Instead, individuals exhibit different degrees of character in different situations. Also, people exhibit different amounts of character strengths.

 

Character strengths are cross-cultural—Character strengths shouldn’t be based on one set of cultural norms. They are cross-cultural as this study proves.

 

Focusing on character in today’s societies is key—People who use character strengths to see benefits both at work and in their personal lives are ahead of those who don’t. This practice inspires people to better themselves in most circumstances.

 

Character can be developed—Thankfully, character isn’t an either “have it or don’t” situation. Character can be developed and strengthened with conscious effort throughout an individual’s life.

 

All these elements are included in a comprehensive definition of character, making it a universally valued concept.

 

Character vs. Personality

What is character? What is personality? Aren’t the two the same thing? Though similar concepts character and personality differ from one and another. Let’s look at some of the ways they are the same and ways in which they differ.

Similarities:

  • Both are psychological mechanisms that influence how people interact with their environments.
  • The influence of each is responsible for how individuals process information and their tendencies to make certain decisions.
  • Character and personality often influence the types of actions people partake in.

Differences:

  • While character strengths are changeable, many personality strengths aren’t.
  • Character is distinct from personality as noted in research by The Leadership Quarterly.
  • Character traits, because they are based on core beliefs, are often not as easy to see as personality traits.
  • Frequently, character traits emerge in times of uncommon circumstances. This makes them harder to recognize at times.

What are character strengths?

Is it possible to have “too much of a good thing,” when it comes to character strengths? Strangely, the answer is yes. Take, for instance, integrity. Is it possible for someone to have too much integrity? The idea at first glance seems ridiculous. Chances are though, you’ve met someone who sticks so rigidly to their beliefs that they become overly strict, judgmental, and dogmatic.

Although these behaviors are clearly negative, they’re also consistent with the definition of integrity. What is more desirable is the philosophy described by Aristotle as, “the golden mean”, a character strength set in the ideal state between deficiency and excess. For example, bravery is the “middle zone” between being timid and being reckless. 

Specific behaviors are determined by situations. Determining whether the character strength is balanced, overused, or underused is key. Let’s say you stick to your plan no matter what. That makes sense if you’re an expert who has reviewed potential options and found what you think is best. But it could be a poor decision if you’re not an expert or if you ignore information that proves you wrong. 

Good character isn’t something individuals will have all the time and in every context. It requires being both situationally aware, determining what action reflects a balanced strength, and developing the ability to use that strength appropriately. Interested in learning more? Here is a good example of a detailed character strengths list

Measuring character

Like anything else in life, balancing character strengths is key. Understanding our tendency to overuse or underuse certain strengths is important as it makes us more effective. Assessments are a tool that help individuals reflect on and build this much-needed self-awareness. 

Personality assessments for the workplace help us determine which character strengths we possess, and which need bolstering. It’s important to note though that not all personality assessments are created equal. Self-report assessments, for instance, ask respondents to determine which statements best describe their behaviors. These types of assessments have several potential problems though. Firstly, they rely on the individual knowing the most accurate answer. Secondly, they tend to be easy to manipulate to make yourself look better. 

Some of these issues can be resolved by using a more innovative type of self-report data. For example, forced-choice assessments require respondents to choose which of a set of equally desirable options is most like them. This method can keep respondents from indicating that they are good at everything.

An alternative to self-reporting assessments is to ask other individuals in the workplace their observations of an individual. Using multi-rater assessments can be advantageous because it shows people if they have overly positive or negative perceptions of themselves. 

In our research, we’ve found that some leaders tend to have a different perception of themselves than others who experience their behaviors. Across twelve-character strengths, leaders reported one of two patterns of balance across the strengths, both of which were very close to ideally balanced. 

Observers, however, saw many more departures from the character strengths leaders saw in themselves. Some viewed them as better than the person’s own view, and some as less than. There is a benefit to adding observations from others to a traditional self-report to understand how you are actually being experienced by others, then adjusting your identity. 

“Why should character matter to me?”

You likely care about having positive outcomes in your life. Character strengths are associated with physical well-being, psychological wellbeing, achievement, and positive work outcomes. 

In a relatively new line of research, several studies have established the important relationship between character strengths and health. Character is also important in your work life. Using character strengths at work is related to job satisfaction and work productivity, lower stress and higher creativity, and higher job performance

Similarly, there’s a strong and established relationship between using character strengths and higher happiness and subjective wellbeing. People who can use character strengths effectively tend to report higher well-being and life satisfaction. If you are concerned that happiness is beyond your reach, don’t worry. Only about 10 percent of happiness is determined by circumstances, but 40 percent is determined by what we do and how we think. This 40 percent involves using character strengths, so developing and utilizing these strengths is a significant part of what can make us happy.

Why does character matter for leaders?

Leaders have a massive impact on those around them and their organization, so it’s especially important to understand what makes them effective. Character plays a key role in successful leadership, according to leadership researchers. It’s one of three pillars of practice necessary for success, along with commitment and competency. Picture these three attributes like a three-legged stool. Remove one of the legs and the stool won’t stay upright for long. The same is true here: if any of these three is missing, the leader and likely the organization will fail. 

When leaders, especially at the top of organizations, demonstrate balanced character and virtue, it can extend throughout the organization and its culture. In fact, organizations headed by leaders with good character have a five times greater return on assets and increased work engagement than those led by self-focused leaders. Similarly, organizations that value and encourage character and virtue tend to enjoy higher innovation, work quality, profit margins, and customer retention. 

Wrapping it up: character essentials

Character strengths are what lead people to strive to make a positive contribution to society. This is also key for individual and organizational success. Character is made up of many complementary strengths that can be developed throughout your life. Character strengths are varied, and individuals can learn to apply them to a variety of situations. 

Taking time to build character is nearly guaranteed to result in improvements in your health, work performance, and happiness. 

Get started

Interested in learning more about your natural character strengths? Take the True Tilt Personality Profile assessment now. It’s a great day to improve your effectiveness as a leader and become a more confident and happier version of yourself. 

 

 

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