‘Being aware of people’s derailers can be enlightening’

21 December 2020

Gillian Hyde is Chief Psychologist with psychological consultancy Psychological Consultancy Ltd (PCL). She spoke to Ella Rhodes about her work with leaders on personality derailers.

Could you give me a little background about your work with personality derailers?

My experience of working with derailers began when I started working with Bob and Joyce Hogan, and we at PCL started publishing UK editions of the Hogan personality instruments, of which there are three. One of them focuses specifically on derailers. These are extremes of behaviour that can become counterproductive at times of stress or pressure, or even when we're indulging ourselves – when we're not managing our impression as well as usual.  

This comes out of Bob Hogan's thinking about leadership and what's important for leadership. His distillation of previous research in that area showed a great deal of convergence around what can go wrong in leadership, but a lot of murky water about what can go right – it's very difficult to define a good leader. It turns out there are some common themes around what goes wrong for leaders, what causes them to derail or fail or for their careers to plateau. From that the taxonomy is developed and there are 11 different styles of derailing behaviour. 

We’ve been working with that instrument since 1996 both from the perspective of psychometrics, really understanding what it measures and what it doesn't measure and how it relates to other aspects of personality, but also we've applied the instrument a lot in our work. We do a lot of work around leadership development and feedback and coaching. And whilst we also deploy other measures of personality the derailers piece adds this wonderful additional layer of complexity, and opens up the door to very, very fruitful discussions that you can have with an individual about aspects of their personality. 

These aspects could well have been the reasons for their success so far, because they're extremes, they're things that differentiate them, they're aspects of their personality that will make them stand out from other people. And to some extent they may well have been able to capitalise on those extremes of behaviour and leverage them for their own and their organisation's advantage. But as they move up the career ladder, or if they're in a position where people aren't really monitoring that behaviour, then the potential for the more extreme style of that behaviour is unleashed and the extreme behaviour can tip over into becoming counterproductive. It's about taking your eye off the ball, almost saying to yourself “Oh I can get away with it”. It's about not really paying attention to how you come across because it costs us an effort. In daily life at work, we put on a mask, we put on a layer, we put on a veneer, we put on our best selves, to present ourselves to the world – and that takes its toll. There are times when we're just not able to keep up that level of effort.

But there are also times when we decide we don't want to, we feel invulnerable, we feel we don't need to put on that extra layer. And that's when we’ve risen to the top of the tree or we have a position of power status, where we feel we don't need to bother anymore. The problem with that is the more we do that, and the more that we engage in the counterproductive side, we chip away at our credibility, we erode the trust and commitment of those who work with us and for us, and people will no longer feel so committed or motivated to work as part of our team, or to do things for us. It’s a cumulative effect: when you meet somebody for the first time you see the bright, shiny side, and when you've known them for a bit, either in a personal relationship or in a working relationship, the dark side will start to emerge. 

Are these derailers unusual?

No, nearly all of us have at least one or two derailers… these are completely normal aspects for most people in the working population. Most of us will have some of these areas that we really need to pay some attention to. So from the psychologist's point of view the discussions you can have around derailers really gives you far more to work with. It's a very engaging, constructive discussion you can have with an individual, whether it's developmental feedback, leadership, development, coaching. Even sometimes we use it at that high-stakes selection point where somebody might actually be the final choice, and it's about being armed with that information, both for the individual going into a new role – what do they need to watch out for? And for the employer – what do they need to watch out for to manage and support this individual in terms of making that transition more successful? 

Are people's derailers quite stable over time, or something that can shift and change given different circumstances?

There are 11 different scales on this instrument so there are lots of very different ways of displaying derailer behaviour. Some of them are more rooted in normal personality and others are not, they're quite a complex mix. It does definitely add an extra layer on top of normal personality. There are some in there that are very much related to emotional adjustment and emotional stability. And we know from the five factor model of personality that some of those aspects of personality do tend to be pretty stable and it would be the same with the derailers. 

But one thing I would say about them, though, is that if people have had feedback on their derailer profile – we tend to only ever focus on the really high scores on a derailer profile and that tends to lodge in the mind more. As a result some of them will be more or less motivated to try to do something about that, start to pay attention to their behaviour, try to rein in some of those characteristics a bit more. There is basically an anxiety or an insecurity that underpins your particular characteristic style of derailing, I don't think you'll eradicate that. But with feedback on it, you will increase self-awareness. And people may start to manage that behaviour, find strategies for dealing with it, trying to do it a bit less or finding more productive ways of channelling those particular energies. So in terms of outward display behaviour, it may well change once they've have feedback on it. 

Having said that, test retest figures for the instrument are very respectable.

Which derailers do you think will be exacerbated in the current situation? 

They all will, obviously, to some extent. The 11 scales factor analyse into three main clusters, the first cluster is all about moving away. So that's about managing your anxieties and insecurities by withdrawing from others, whether that's physically or mentally. It can be shutting down communication, as well as actually physically removing yourself to a room and shutting the door. And one of the scales in here that I think will really struggle with remote working is ‘sceptical’, so people who are high on this, on the positive end, can seem very astute and shrewd, difficult to fool. But the problem is they're always alert for signs of people doing bad things, they talk about always feeling mistrustful and suspicious, looking for the ways that things can go wrong. That's bad enough in a normal situation but with remote working, you're missing lots of social cues in terms of how you're relating to other people. So anything that a sceptical person would normally find to be more reassuring, that might come from a non-verbal style of behaviour or something like that, or just things that you pick up by the coffee machine, or informal styles of conversation that might reassure the mistrustful person, then it's going to be very difficult for them to get that working from home. Their suspicions may become even more exaggerated. It's like paranoia in isolation festers because they've got no social cues and it's harder to read people. They've even got a tendency to read people the wrong way in the first place. Now they are lacking even more information in order to have a more charitable view of individuals. 

There's another cluster, which is much more about seduction and persuasion, called ‘moving against’ – this is people who crave attention, they do things that make themselves known, they are persuasive and influential, and bring people around to their way of thinking. One of the scales is ‘mischievous’ – they get bored really easily and a bit restless, always looking for something a bit more exciting. So how are they going to manage always doing remote work? Are they just going to completely derail Zoom conferences? Are they going to suddenly say something, just to spice it up a bit, because they will take that risk just because they are getting a bit bored… you can imagine if they do that a lot that could get a bit tedious after a while. 

The last one is the ‘moving towards’ cluster and this is all about control and controlling your work, being compliant and conforming. And one of these scales is the ‘diligence’ scale – this is about being perfectionistic and wanting things to be just so. I imagine in this world, for people working in large organisations who are doing endless remote working and Zoom calls, that's going to be more difficult especially if other people are doing bits of work for them. How do they coordinate that? How do they make sure that these other people are doing the work to the same high standards that they want it to be done to? It’s going to take up much more of their time to correct stuff that they want correcting and I can see that could be quite anxiety-provoking to people who have that kind of tendency. 

I think there is a more general theme around this, about us as individuals working in this current climate, trying to think about how to be more generous to each other. As psychologists obviously we're all aware there are lots of individual differences – but at work, people aren't necessarily, and are certainly not aware of the individual differences on derailers. If we could just have a more generous interpretation, perhaps, of people's behaviour, particularly at the given time… if you can be aware of other people's derailers, then that can be really enlightening. Otherwise we all just annoy and irritate people endlessly, unless somebody can call us out on it. If we can find a more generous way of doing that that can be really helpful.

Do you think it's a good thing for people to tackle their derailers head-on? 

It depends what they want out of life. If they want to be an effective leader, and they are interacting with their team a lot, then yes, I think it's in everybody's interest, it's in their interest in their colleagues' interests, in the organisation's interest. Because otherwise, they just won't be as successful as they would otherwise be if they don't start to manage those behaviours, and that is something that sometimes people do struggle with, because they may be aware of some of the positive elements of these aspects of their personality and obviously readily hold up their hands to the fact that maybe yes, 'I'm very confident, yes, I'm very optimistic but not very happy about being called arrogant, and being opinionated, and dominating and all those kinds of things'.

But if they do want to progress, and they do want to take on more responsibility, then they start to have more and more impact on more and more people in the organisation so wouldn't they want to have the most positive impact they could possibly have? Obviously, if you are, a scientist working in isolation, you're absolutely brilliant at your job, you're focused, maybe you don't need to, but then there are other jobs like airline pilots, where you might think it wouldn’t be so important to acknowledge derailers but the way that they talk to each other when they get into crisis mode can be significantly impacted by their particular derailers… if you examine things that have happened in terms of accidents it's often to do with one or the other, the pilot or the co-pilot, having a particular extreme of personality because they get wedded to behaving in a certain way. They either don’t take notice of information or won’t listen to somebody else. Sometimes it can have a massively critical impact. 

Most of the time I'm not working in that sphere, I'm looking much more in the leadership, managerial team sphere. When people are asked about their biggest source of stress for a lot of people it’s their immediate boss. There is something to be said here about trying to rein in these derailers and trying to manage them. It isn't just about making your career more of a success, because you are then actually interacting with people more effectively, it is making everything much more pleasant and less stressful for everybody else too.