Theories on individual differences both have theoretical and pragmatic value in interpreting my personal experiences. This essay shall discuss how the seminal theories of Freud and Rogers may be used to explain personal life events. Moreover, the utility of contemporary individual differences theories and empirical researches shall subsequently be tackled. These cover individual differences in intellectual ability, affect, and sociability.
One of the seminal theories of personality which account for individual differences is the psychodynamic theory of Sigmund Freud (Schultz & Schultz 1994); the latter helps me explain my behaviours during crises and other stressful times. For example, faced with the death of a loved one, my initial reaction was denial, and only later on have I rationally accepted this stressful life event. The differences in people’s reactions to such incidents are explained by their past experiences based on Freud’s theory. I realise that since people have differing backgrounds, previous experiences, and upbringing, they correspondingly have various ways of coping mechanisms and ways of channelling their energies (Schultz & Schultz 1994).
Yet another theory which may explain individual differences is Rogers’ theory of self actualisation. He advocated the idea that people have varying levels of motivation. Whereas some people seek physical needs, others are at a higher level and pursue self-actualisation. Physical needs all drive towards survival, while psychological needs have to do with optimising one’s capacities; seeking novelty in life; equipping oneself with new competencies; and overall search for meaning (in Gray 2002). This explains why I had different motivations at various phases of my life. Initially, young people seek experiences that will give them monetary rewards. Moving on, however, higher level needs of recognition, self-esteem, belongingness, love, and fulfilment on the job, are sought.
These two seminal theories on personality and individual differences represent two opposing anchors on a continuum. Whereas Freud views humans as irrational and driven by the unconscious, Rogers’ theory emphasizes the power of the human being to accomplish something beyond himself through the process of self-actualisation. Both theories, however, are capable of explaining why people have varying motivations and correspondingly differ in the way they think, feel and behave. The succeeding paragraphs further delve into individual differences theories and along the dimensions of thinking, feeling, and sociability.
At the level of the individual, difference in intellectual capacity are said to determine differences in job competence (Devine & Phillips, 2001; Kickul & Neuman, 2000). This is especially true for work that involves high mental capacity and a retentive mind; those which are complicated and atypical. Moreover Le Pine (2003) suggested that higher intellectual ability is also significantly related with the capacity to make decisions and to adapt to change. This justifies why some people are better able to adjust to their jobs; are able to take on complex tasks; and overall are able to progress more quickly in their careers. I suppose the same theory on differences in cognitive ability apply to college students as well. The professor, for instance, delivers the same lecture to all students, the same exams, and the same reading material. There are those who are exceptional in how they absorb the information while there are others who are not as driven to learn. Apart from attitudes, differences in cognitive ability account for the pace and the effectiveness with which they react to these intellectual stimuli.
Individual differences theories also suggest that higher intellectual capacity is also significantly correlated with the capacity to work well with a team or to spearhead a team effort (Devine & Philips 2001). Le Pine (2003) et al have further found that teams with members possessing higher intellectual capacity have also displayed greater flexibility and are more agile in responding to novel situations. However, based on my personal experience, the effectiveness of a team does not solely rely on the intellectual capability of its members. The component of attitudes and motivations are equally important in determining team capability. Many times, I have seen ‘intelligent’ people fail because the key values of collaboration, mutuality, and influence are not exercised within their teams. In effect, Devine & Philips (2001) note that while intellectual capacity is an ingredient of effective team functioning, the ability of the team to synergise is also a consideration in team effectiveness.
Apart from intellectual or cognitive differences, people may also differ as a consequence of differences in the way they feel. For example, Kling, Ryff, & Love (2003) have found that there are individuals who are more predisposed to exercising fortitude; struggling amidst hardship; being calm; having high self-regard; and being autonomous. All these traits determine how individuals react to crisis or pressure. People who tend to react ineffectively with stress are also less satisfied with life in general and are more likely to express sadness with the state of affairs (Kling et al 2003). Moreover, people who react negatively in terms of affect also tend to be less satisfied with their jobs, to experience more job-related stress, and be less flexible with change (Burger 1997). Individuals who are incapable of adjusting emotionally are also more sensitive to threat perceptions and tend to be ineffective in team-based contexts (Kickul & Neuman 2000).
These individual differences theories all suggest the importance of being emotionally well-adjusted to maintain healthy work and personal relationships. For example, based on my personal experience, I am able to lead and influence others even if I may not be the most intelligent. I realise that effectiveness in leadership and working with teams does not entail intellectual capacity alone, but also being in control of one’s emotions. In the past, I did have some difficulties in dealing with negative emotions. When faced with challenges, I tend to clam up instead of welcoming the challenge that lies ahead. However, with coaching from my parents and friends, I have begun to develop confidence and composure. My stints at community work have also helped me adjust well to people of various backgrounds. In total, these experiences have likewise taught me that leadership and effective emotional functioning may be learned. Like intellectual skills, soft skills that have to do with feeling also require practise. These theories also help explain why some people are less able to adapt themselves in times of crisis; in part, these may be attribute to their differences in levels of neuroticism or the capacity for emotional flexibility.
There are also theories which explain why there are variations in people’s sociability. One such theory is the personality theory of Myers and Briggs (in Gray 2002), which explains the realms in an individual which might influence how he relates to other people. For one, this theory suggests that individuals differ along the continuum of extraversion-introversion. This justifies where people derive their energy from. Whereas extraverted people are energetic, sociable, assertive, and talkative, introverted individuals tend to be reserved, quiet and averse of social gatherings. This first dimension explains why I have experienced initial difficulty in working with teams and in leading. I am an introvert when I first entered college; however, I believe this has changed as I began to develop new friendships; have exposed myself in leadership work; and have begun to enjoy others’ company; forming meaningful relationships in the process. I have realised that some people are naturally matched to jobs that require entertaining people, being the life of the party, and being in constant conversation with them. However, there are also individuals who are better off being alone in a corner, introspecting, and getting energy from within. If these individuals are matched to jobs that are not ‘suited’ to their natural predisposition, they may tend to feel stressed and even underpeform as a consequence. Kickul & Neuman (2000) have further noted that extraverts also tend to lead project teams; be collaborative in their approach; and to work well in such a context.
In relation to this, the study of Kovach, Surrette, & Whitcomb (1988) found that the best predictor of student attendance to general psychology courses was a compulsive, rule-oriented personality. In contrast, Judge, Martocchio, and Thorensen (1997) found who had high conscientiousness and had lower extroversion were also less likely to miss work. If more empirical research points out such an association between these personality traits and absenteeism, then there might be a systematic way of profiling prospective employees who are prone to being absent. These empirical studies again point out to the value of individual differences in explaining the motivations of people; and the influence of personality in such motivations. I am a particularly conscientious person and do not feel comfortable with failing to accomplish tasks on time and as promised. This is why I have tried my best to always keep my word all the time. I also tend to behave in ways that please significant others. These personality traits translate to preferences in the way I think, feel and behave.
Individual differences theories also explain that some people are generally more predisposed to being satisfied with their jobs and with life in general, compared to others. For instance, Weaver (1978) notes that there are certain individuals who are generally more satisfied and motivated, regardless of the task that they are doing or the job that they have. This finding seems to be very sensible. Many a time, I see people who have the ‘natural knack’ for accomplishing things well, and everything seems to run smoothly when they are around. There are, however, individuals who constantly complain and are very pessimistic no matter how smoothly things are going. This finding has been empirically supported by researches that suggest the stability of job satisfaction across time and circumstances (Judge & Watanabe 1993; Staw & Ross 1985). In relation to this, I have gained insight into why I am naturally predisposed to being enthusiastic and positive about all the things happening in my life. There were critical incidents in my life that seemed very negative at first glance, such as being separated from a significant other, the death of a loved one, or failing to reach a goal. Even amidst these, my instinct is to seek support from others and try to pick up whatever positive learning I can yield from the experience. Many of my friends have commented on my resilience as a person, and I think I can safely say that this is a trait inherent in me.
The present essay has illustrated the utility of seminal and contemporary theories and studies that tackle individual differences. They have helped me gain insight on why individuals differ from others in terms of their cognitive ability, affect, and how they relate with others. More than these, they have helped me introspect about my own personality, predisposition about life, and preferences. These are useful input in determining when, where, and how I am most effective in relating with other people. The insights culled from the essay are yet another step towards self-mastery. Only when an individual understands himself thoroughly will he be able to understand others, manage teams, and accomplish meaningful tasks. Overall, this will lend greater meaning to task performance and to life in general.
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