Personality and the Institution

M. J. Kirton

NOTE: This is a “study” paper (1971) which was part of the thinking that followed from the research that led to the publication Management Initiative, Kirton, 1962. In this “draft”, one reference, Warnotte, was not completed. Also, “staff members” are often referred to as “men” – which, then, they were! This and other papers, based on management thinking, collaboration and leadership, led to the development of KAI.
Kirton, 2017.


Drucker has recently stated that the needs of business for much of this past century have been seen as “the accomplishment of known and defined tasks”. Consequently, managers have been sought who “adapt rather than innovate”, a distinction Drucker defines as “ability to do better rather than the courage to do differently”.

This theory is relevant to industrial personnel management if one is able to demonstrate the existence of a preferred cognitive style to do better (adaption) and of a preferred cognitive style to do differently (innovation). Based on this distinction, a single personality characteristic can be considered in which these two styles represent opposite ends of the same continuum – of preference rather than ability.

Other authors, such as Weber, Parsons and Merton, list qualities which are likely to be related to these style types, and which help to fill out the description of these “ability types” as they, too, viewed them. “The adaptor sees himself and is seen by others as being efficient, methodical and prudent, a man who generally conforms to the institution’s norms. In contrast, the innovator may be characterised as being creative, irreverent of established procedure and erratic – qualities conflicting with those of the adaptive personality”.

These basic personality characteristics are likely not to be functions of, say, extraversion-introversion or intelligence and education. However, if coping is required and taken up, an innovator who is very intelligent and well educated is likely to be able to cope better in an adaptive environment (and vice versa) than others less able or less well educated.

It is necessary to establish the existence of an adaptor-innovator dimension and to develop measures thereof. The knowledge acquired by such measurement can be added to the “tools” of management. Information on this personality dimension could be an important factor in internal posting (wherever this flexibility is possible) as part of management strategy. Alterations in the amount and type of change desired in any area need not be initiated by edict but by manipulating groups to achieve the appropriate “mix” of personality, ensuring that the changes occur with a minimum of friction. Much internal friction is undoubtedly created when innovators have found themselves, by accident or design, in a department in which not even adaption is currently needed; no less disorganising and disturbing, is for a group of adaptors who have formed over the years an efficient tightly-knit group to be faced with highly innovative changes which are beyond- them, the need for which they cannot even readily perceive. In both cases the team is miscast and its talents wasted. This is particularly so when, as often happens today, friction arises to a point in which very talented and experienced staff of both sorts leave or are dismissed from companies. There must be an acknowledged position and function, deliberate recruitment, training, placement and promotion of able men at many points along this personality continuum; leadership must be developed so that all are properly and efficiently used.

It is the aim of this research to (1) demonstrate the existence of an adaptor-innovator dimension, (2) develop measures of it and. (3) explore ways in which persons at different points on the continuum can best work in harmony.

Background of the research
The aims of companies are most often seen as the accomplishment of known and defined tasks. To meet the needs of this aim, managers have been sought who adapt rather than innovate; who have the “ability” to do better rather than the courage to do differently” (Drucker 1969). He defines his terms no further. It would be in accordance with his theme, however, to amplify his terms as follows: The more that the structure surrounding the problem is incorporated into and treated as part of the problem, the more any solution is likely to be radical, innovative, i.e. involve “doing things differently”. By “structure” is meant the regulations and moves governing the whole or key elements of the problem, included are the assumptions, theories and attitudes underlying the problem, as well as the way in which key elements of the problem and its setting are perceived so as to circumscribe the problem. The less the structure is challenged, the more is any solution likely to be adaptive – “doing things better”.

The literature on the nature and function of institutions suggests variables which may be closely related to adaptor-innovator. Weber writes that the “aims of the bureaucratic structure are precision, reliability, efficiency”. Merton (1957) adds to Weber’s list of qualities suitable to bureaucracy: “the bureaucratic structure exerts constant pressure on officials to be methodical, prudent, disciplined … (and to attain) an unusual degree of conformity”.

If one supposes that these qualities of precision, reliability, efficiency, method, prudence, discipline and conformity are related by being dimensions of the “adaptor” personality, a description of one end of a complex scale emerges. This is the bureaucratic personality – an “organization man” (Whyte 1957) suited to work within institutions. For him the more the structure of the problem is established, i.e. has persisted over time, the more he feels it is understood. The more he feels the supporting assumptions and theories can be taken for granted or be stated precisely; the greater his feeling of control over the problem (or the narrow limited area which is now designated as the problem). Once in control of the problem, he assiduously seeks a solution in ways already tried and understood, in accordance with known relevant theory and accepted assumptions, i.e. ways which are relatively safe, sure, predictable. The adaptive solution-seekers can be relied upon to carry out a thorough, disciplined search, within these confines, to eliminate or reduce the problem to acceptable levels, by improvement, by greater efficiency – by doing things better with a minimum of risk and a maximum of continuity and stability.

If Drucker’s (1969) distinction between adaptive change and innovative change is accepted (“doing things better” and “doing things differently”) then the bureaucratic changes observed by some and overlooked or ignored by others, are essentially adaptive. It contradicts no theory or commonsense to state that innovative change leads to increased risk, uncertainty and imprecision (Bright 1964), less conformity to rules, social norms and accepted work patterns and can even lead to deviation from accepted notions of good reason (Charpie 1960). For this reason innovative change rarely occurs in institutions on a scale simultaneously involving substantial parts of the organisation.

There is a strongly argued theory that the bureaucratic personality within the bureaucratic structure (environment) is rigid, inflexible, and over-conforming (Merton 1957) to the point of inefficiency. This personality is said to be insensitive to changing demand or individual need and consequently incapable of appropriate responses under changed conditions (Veblen, Warnotte, Dewey). This theory and image commands wide support despite contrary evidence that institutions are flexible, adaptable, even to the point of acting illegally (Blau 1963, Cohen 1965). These contradictory findings may be reconciled if it is the type and not the amount of change (flexibility) that is primarily considered. This view certainly supports Cohen’s (1970) reconciliation argument. Nor is it always useful to characterise institutions as flexible or inflexible, firms as progressive or unprogressive, for investigation (Kirton 1961) shows that there may be wide variations within companies. Individual departments or sections may be exhibiting different amounts of change at any one time and, in the light of this paper, different types of change.

It is, however, the adaptive (bureaucratic) personality which predominates in institutions where he best fulfils his function when reducing conflict (Weber, Parsons, Merton) and minimising the risks of change by favouring those for which there is a maximum of experience (Kirton). These are changes achieved in a predictable direction, undertaken in a disciplined fashion at a manageable pace. Such changes are aimed at accommodating to altered stimuli while prudently attenuating any risks. (But when the stimuli are more altered than the adaptor perceives, he is leading to those now inappropriate responses (Veblen, Warnotte and Dewey.)

Included in risks avoided are upsets (as distinct from evolutions) of “the clear-cut division of integrated activities which are regarded as duties inherent in the office”, (Parsons) as well as both “the systems of prescribed relations between the various offices…” (Weber) and, the “levels of interpersonal friction bureaucracies seek to minimise” (Merton). In short, the bureaucratic institution is able to contain change in ways and directions expected. In the words of one manager, the aim is “not so much to change as to improve” (Kirton).

It is obvious that with so much “hedging of the bets” there are going to be many occasions when changes in an organization are seen to be too slow, that is, too far behind the changing demand. Or changes are going to occur in which the officials, in trying to adapt to current pressure, pay insufficient regard to the original goals of the institution that may exert less pressure than acquired sub-goals or substituted goals such as some means (Merton). Finally, the changes needed may be innovative with all the attendant risks of instability and friction. But selection, training and promotion may now have left few personnel able to recognise this need and in a position to effect change relatively easily. Nor will these now inappropriate “norms” be easy to change (Cruzzort 1969). Time may be too short to carry out innovative changes since it could at first have been wasted on less appropriate adaptive changes. Innovative changes do often need more time than adaptive change (Kirton using as analogous terms: “marginal” and “radical” change). Such changes often require more than someone perceiving the need for such change – “change is often brought about when an event occurs which brings home forcibly, dramatically, the need for change…”, that is, the “precipitating event”. Since such events have the quality attached to them of crisis (uncertainty, inefficiency, unpredictability), the adaptive man needs and so collaborates with innovative man. It is when the innovative man threatens upheavals (innovation) in a period of no obvious crisis, to avoid a precipitating event, often only perceived by him, that he may well be “viewed with distaste” (Whyte) while he persists in such threatening behaviour – which he is likely to (Schon 1967).

So, it seems, we get ourselves into needing changes that require clearer thought and terms to resolve them. For instance, whatever the weakness of the adaptive personality just outlined, it is also clear from the foregoing discussion, based on the studies of numerous scholars, that he has qualities essential for the functioning of any institution. It is our thesis – despite the occasional verbal linking of adaptor with administrator or bureaucratic personality terms – that he should not be the only type to be developed – in accordance with the past high-conformity pattern – to fit the institution better. He should not be the only type to be rewarded by promotion within the structure. Despite the fact that the innovator has weaknesses (equally well known) – erratic, insensitive to human needs – overly iconoclastic, impatient, abrasive and a taker of risks – which are also potentially dangerous to any organization, he, too, has qualities essential to that organization. The positive qualities of both sorts of person, ably led, are what are required by the institution if it is to continue to function adequately and appropriately within the community. In short, we need a diversity of problem solving styles that collaborate!

M. J. Kirton (1971)


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