My Divinity teacher (yes, they did used to exist) was renowned for picking out individual pupils and saying in a loud stern voice ‘Boy! If you act like an odious buffoon you will become an odious buffoon!’ He was clearly a psychologist in the behaviourist tradition. But this raises the interesting question of how much we are what we do. The other side of the coin is represented by the bird in the cage. We would completely misunderstand what it was by observing its current behaviour – it can only express its full potential when freed from its cage. This is a good metaphor for coaching.

In a previous blog I focused on the personality side of the phrase coaches help change behaviour, NOT personality. In this blog I want to focus on the other side of the coin – the role of behaviour for understanding people. Let me begin using an analogy with this tug of war:



The left-hand side (A) represents a person’s inner being – their identity, which includes their personality. The right-hand side (C) represents the context in which the person finds themselves – perhaps a funeral, a wedding, a work challenge etc. Few would argue that people can adapt what they do depending on context. If the red ribbon in the middle (B) represents behaviour, then sometimes this will move to the right since contextual pressures will dominate. Sometimes the person’s inner being wins out and the behaviour moves to the left being more influenced by the person’s style/preferences/personality rather than the context. Focusing on the red ribbon means that we will have an uncertain mix of contextual demands and personal preferences.

Unfortunately, traditional personality questionnaires do not address this issue. They usually ask people what they do or how they feel or what they think ‘typically’. As such they are looking for some kind of average and are context blind! The strong behaviourist tradition in psychology (and psychometrics) emphasises that personality has no meaning unless it translates into behaviour. But I suggest that behaviour can be an unreliable measure of the inner person – and the very concept of personality requires something that is consistent inside the person. This then influences what a person does in different contexts, but it does not determine it. If a questionnaire asks people what they do typically, contextual factors and roles can distort what is meant to reveal personality.

Many personality questionnaires derive their justification via statistics. But statistics are just a tool and are no substitute for a clear rationale. Statistics shine a light on how things are working but it is the rationale that is the route to understanding. Main-stream personality questionnaires (often favoured by academic psychology) make a great play of their statistical under-pinning, but the result is a very eclectic range of questions covering people’s attitudes, beliefs, motivations, behaviours, roles and preferences. This makes for a diffuse concept of personality – the statistical tail is wagging the psychological dog.

A great step forward would be to acknowledge the very real difference between Being and Doing. Doing recognises how people play many roles which can be very influenced by context. But personality is more about Being – a sense of identity; who I really am. It can explain the frustration that people have when answering questions. How often do people think genuinely that ‘it depends’? Is it not time to acknowledge that yes, it really does depend – on context! We need to acknowledge people’s potential to adapt to their context and we could argue that part of our job as coaches is to facilitate the development of people’s adaptability and flexibility. These ideas have been built into the Type Mapping system which clearly separates Being from Doing and you can explore further with this video:

An overview of Type Mapping – Part 1 addressing the Personality versus Roles dilemma

Yet another element of identity which can help people to change is taking a deeper dive into people’s fundamentals – their VALUES. These can be explored further with this video:

Explore your Values using the Values-based Indicator of Motivation (VbIM) a guide for Practitioners

Roy Childs, Managing Director of Team Focus, is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and, like many other senior staff members, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist.  His background in psychometrics includes having worked with some of the best-known authors of personality questionnaires including Ray Cattell (16PF) and Will Schutz (FIRO). With Team Focus he has developed a new range of instruments designed to bring psychometrics into the 21st century. 

Roy runs the widest range of BPS recognised qualifying courses in the UK and his publications include “the Psychometric Minefield”; “Emotional Intelligence and Leadership”; “The Big Five – Bring a little colour into your lives”; “Coaching with FIRO Element B” published in the book “Psychometrics in Coaching”, ‘Action Learning Supervision’ published in the book “Coaching Supervision” and ‘The Relational lens’ published by Cambridge University Press.

Read more blogs from Roy Childs: How to challenge what I believe about myself