The Ears of the Wolf

Many years ago, when I was working in an HR function, two consultants were hired to help with executive selection processes. Their sophisticated temperament testing instrument was used in combination with other standard tools, such as interviews, resumes, work samples, references, and so on. The consultants’ information seemed to be particularly compelling and they soon had a foothold in the organization as assessment gurus.

Their special magic was in identifying the temperaments that fit different jobs. Good engineers had a temperament that fed on projects, for example. Those with an artistic temperament, discovered by the test, would best fit more creative, if “sole performer” (non-management) roles. Soon, the consultants were not just using their model with selection procedures at the top end of the organization; they were also testing various employees, giving one version of their results to the person tested, and another to that individual’s boss. Ostensibly, this second report showed the boss how best to support the employee’s growth, but it turned out to have a more subtle and devastating impact, as well — it implicitly set limits on what that person would be “suited” to do.

Some of those bosses, top managers in the organization, liked, and then used the psychological model underlying the temperament test to evaluate almost everything going on within their reach, with prospective labels and profiles pinned to almost everyone around them.

wolfwarning

Soon, what had started as a well-intended effort to help evaluate candidates for a few key leadership roles — and then expanded as an opportunity to help people with their career development — suddenly became an insider’s game of who had “the right stuff” for a particular job.

And this, in turn, became especially problematic when the consultants began to share their view that there was one profile more than others that often led people to rise to positions of organizational leadership. They said you could see it visually displayed as part of the person’s test results. That person’s temperament graph would show two peaks, and since these represented qualities of 1) cleverness combined with 2) aggression, the consultants had named this profile, “the ears of the wolf.” While this profile did not necessarily mean that a person would be a good leader and, if uncontrolled, could certainly be a dangerous personality type, in the slippery slope world of organizational sociology, some heard these characteristics as a success formula. Soon, a few employees who matched the profile in a more controlled way were regarded as being on the fast-track to higher level positions while others who did not possess this profile were not.

All this was difficult to confront because the consultants were “experts,” of course, (they were the only ones who could accurately interpret the test results) and also because the social effects of the test were happening in the background, among the society of insiders who had themselves taken the test and participated in the consultants’ training program. The tricky part, especially for those who desired upward mobility, was that taking the test and getting into the expensive training quickly became a sign of organizational elitism. Refuse to participate? Ah, you must be afraid of the test or are not that interested in moving up! Participate? Of course! But at the risk of being stigmatized.

Fortunately, at some point the head of the organization began to notice the negative effects, and the test and the consultants were soon abandoned.

I am not at all against temperament assessment. Such models and tools can play an enormously valuable role in self-knowledge. But they can inadvertently become weapons based on categories and erroneous judgments, weapons that have become the more or less unconscious tools of groupthink. I’m sure you can see that the definition of what makes a good manager or leader based on the ears of the wolf was plainly nonsense. The full definition of the test’s category for cleverness included such things as money-interest, capacity for deception, focus on a loyal “family,” and, in the extreme, sociopathy. The definition for aggression included a certain level of paranoia, a focus on control and retaliation for anything that might undermine the person’s view of themselves and their power. In other words, the ears of the wolf represented a sort of godfather figure, dangerous when uncontrolled but including qualifiers for leadership when found in a “controlled,” more ethical form. Ridiculous ( and demeaning to what wolves are actually like) yet a number of those in my workplace back then bought into this distorted version of the model as a template for success, mostly, I believe, as a matter of attraction to a kind of secret formula. The only “wolf” in this situation was that formula and stereotypes it represented.

In a smaller, but no less dangerous way, I notice a great deal of discussion these days on the web and elsewhere about extroversion and introversion, Carl Jung’s famous distinction between those (extroverts) who source more of their energy in external interaction with the world and those (introverts) whose energetic foundation is more fundamentally within. There is a suggestion that extroverts naturally make better leaders, and that if you want to lead and are an introvert you must do special things. There are also articles especially written on how to manage introverts, too, as if such people are more difficult to manage, “less normal” or “less effective” in the workplace. All this reminds me of an “ears of the wolf” kind of problem.

My sense is that no matter what the model for temperament, however we personally come out will always feel like “the right way to be.” After doing leadership consulting for over twenty years and having worked with all sorts of thorny HR issues for ten years before that, I’m not convinced that such a simple distinction is even close to the whole story. I’ve known horrendously bad leaders who were perfect extroverts, and exceptional ones that that were introverted; some, very much so. I’ll take an introverted person who has a passion for leading and self mastery any day of the week over an extrovert that rolls over everyone around them and who doesn’t have a clue about personal impact.

When groups or organizations or whole societies discredit this or that way of being, we begin to create a world of conformist views, insider/outsider dynamics, and barriers to contribution. It’s like saying, well, you know, men (or some other category) are like this and therefore they are naturally better suited for such and such a job. Sexism, racism, and any other form of discrimination follow this familiar pattern of reducing some human beings within a category while privileging others who are in another.

The point is that oversimplification and superiority by virtue of temperament are the real dangers. Sure, people with introversion as part of their character may need to make adjustments in order to be optimally effective as leaders and to reduce their stress. But the same is also true of people with extroversion as part of their character — and equally so.

There’s an old joke that there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

I’m one of the latter.

LittleHouse

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