Once relegated to the philosophy domain, character has recently become a common topic in psychology, business, and world events. However, the way character is typically discussed reflects more of a “know it when I see it” approach than a shared understanding of its implications. Here's the deal: This post will clarify what exactly character is and why it should matter to you.
What is character?
Character has been defined in a multitude of ways, but many definitions have overlapping elements.
- Character is multidimensional. Most theories of character define it as a multidimensional construct that includes many parts, such as strengths or virtues. Many frameworks describe different sets of character strengths (e.g., VIA, Tilt, and even some leadership specific character frameworks). These frameworks all have a similar basis in philosophy and share many elements (e.g., creativity, courage, humanity, etc.). In many cases, the frameworks specify that strengths are complementary in that using one strength enhances another. For example, openness allows for flexibility and adjusting to changing circumstances, but diligence balances it so that there are not so many changes that nothing is ever completed.
- Character is continuous, not dichotomous. Character is not something that is either present or absent. People can exhibit differing degrees of character in different situations. People can also have differing amounts of each character strength. For example, someone could demonstrate creativity but act less than courageous.
- Character strengths are almost universally accepted as positive. Character strengths should not be based on one set of cultural norms. They should be accepted as strengths across cultures and time. For example, in developing their character strengths, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman reviewed historically significant philosophical traditions to determine whether the strengths they had identified were specific to Western cultures or generalizable.
- Using character strengths leads to personal and societal betterment. People who use character strengths see benefits both at work and in their personal lives. Further, using character strengths does not detract from others’ lives but can inspire them to better themselves.
- “Every situation that we encounter in our personal or professional lives offers opportunities to exercise, apply, and develop character.” Unlike some individual characteristics, character can be developed with conscious effort throughout a person’s life.
A comprehensive definition of character should include all of these elements. Thus, character is a multidimensional set of malleable psychological processes that are almost universally valued and contribute to personal and societal betterment.
Character vs. Personality
Character and personality are similar concepts. They are both psychological mechanisms that influence how people interact with their environment. A psychological process or mechanism is how people process information input, tendencies for making specific types of decisions, and tendencies for particular types of actions or outputs. For example, someone who is high on extraversion may notice more opportunities to interact with people (inputs), be more inclined to suggest activities that involve many people (decisions), and be more likely to react to people in a friendly way that encourages a prolonged interaction (output). Using a broad definition of personality as psychological processes that influence interactions with the environment, character strengths are a part of personality that includes the traits seen as universally positive. However, the more typical connotation regarding personality is a set of traits that define a person and do not change. Character strengths are clearly distinct from these static conceptualizations of personality because character strengths are changeable by definition.
What is good character?
Some recent trends have moved away from historical and psychological conceptualizations of character strengths by encouraging people to focus only on using their strengths more. However, even with character strengths, it is possible to have “too much of a good thing.” You might wonder how someone could have too much of a character strength like integrity. But you may also be able to think of someone who so rigidly sticks to their beliefs that they become strict, judgmental, and dogmatic. However, those clearly negative behaviors are consistent with the definition of integrity. In philosophy, Aristotle described this effect using the golden mean, which defined a character strength as the ideal state between the vices of deficiency and excess. For example, bravery is the “mean” between being timid and being reckless.
The situation determines whether a specific behavior represents a balanced, overused, or underused character strength. Sticking to your plan when you genuinely believe you are correct can be a wise course of action when you are an expert who has reviewed potential options and found what you think is best. However, it could be a poor decision if you are not an expert or ignore new information that proves you wrong. Therefore, showing “good” character is not something that someone can do all of the time or in every context. Good character requires both being situationally aware enough to determine which action reflects a balanced strength and developing the ability to use that strength appropriately.
To balance character strengths appropriately for each situation, we need to understand our tendencies to overuse or underuse certain strengths and how effectively we are able to use the appropriate amount of a character strength. Assessments can help people reflect and build this needed self-awareness. Because character strengths are a part of personality, assessing character uses the same methods as personality assessment. The most common are self-report assessments asking respondents to determine which statements best describe their behaviors. Typical self-report measures have several potential problems. They rely on the individual knowing the most accurate answer, and they also 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-report assessments is to ask other people to offer their observations about an individual. Using multi-rater assessments can be advantageous because it can show people if they have overly positive or negative perceptions of themselves. In our research, we’ve found that leaders tend to have a different perception of themselves than others who know them. Across twelve character strengths, leaders reported one of two patterns of balance across the strengths, both of which were very close to ideally balanced. However, observers saw many more departures from the ideal use of several character strengths than leaders saw in themselves. Thus, there may be some benefit to adding observations from others to a traditional self-report to understand your character strengths better.
Why should character matter to me?
If you care about having positive outcomes in your life, then character should matter to you. Character strengths are related to physical well-being, psychological well-being, achievement, and work outcomes. Although the line of research is relatively new, several studies have established relationships between character strengths and health. Character also matters in your work life. Using character strengths at work is related to job satisfaction, work productivity, lower stress, higher creativity, and higher job performance.
There is a strong, established relationship between using character strengths and higher happiness and subjective well-being. 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% of happiness is determined by circumstances, but 40% is determined by what they do and how they think. This 40% encompasses the intentional actions of 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?
Researchers have paid particular attention to the role of character strengths for leaders. Leaders have a massive impact on those around them and their organization as a whole, so it is especially important to understand what makes them effective. Some leadership researchers assert that character is one of the three pillars of leadership that, along with commitment and competency, are necessary for success. If any of the three pillars are missing, the leader, and likely the organization, will fail. This assertion has been substantiated. Organizations headed by leaders with good character had a five times greater return on assets and substantially higher work engagement than self-focused leaders. When leaders, especially at the top of organizations, demonstrate balanced character and virtue, it can extend throughout the organization and its culture. Organizations that emphasize and encourage character and virtue tend to have higher innovation, work quality, profit margins, and customer retention.
That's not all...
Character is essential for individual and organizational success. It is also what leads people to strive to make a positive contribution to society. Character is made up of many complementary strengths that can be developed throughout your life. People need to learn to use every character strength to apply them to a variety of situations. If you take the time to build your character strengths, you could see improvements in your health, work performance, and happiness.
How can you actually use this?
If you are interested in learning more about your natural character strengths, take the True Tilt Personality Profile assessment.