Erikson's Developmental Model of Personality

How Erikson's Model Imparts on Organizational Members' Behaviors

Erikson (1953) describes eight developmental stages of personality as we grow from childhood to adulthood and maintains that individuals face major crises or conflicts during the eight stages of development.

According to Erikson, each conflict has its own time for emerging, as dictated by both biological maturation and the social demands that developing individuals experience at particular points in life.

And each must be resolved successfully in order to prepare the individual for a satisfactory resolution of the conflicts in the next life stage.

Erikson’s developmental model of personality Opens in new window is useful in understanding the different types of behavior exhibited by organizational members. The eight developmental stages, the conflicts encountered at each stage and the parallels drawn to organizational behavior are discussed below.

Stage I: Trust versus Mistrust

As children we have a great need for dependency, and develop feelings of trust or mistrust towards our parents based on how well they have met that need. Likewise, in the early stages of organizational life, a person knows very little about his job and is dependable on others for guidance.

Whether he develops healthy feelings of trust towards others in the organization or not, depends on how well they had responded to his needs and helped him to find his place in the system at the initial stage in his career. If they had not responded well, nor met his needs adequately, he develops a feeling of mistrust towards them.

Stage II: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt

As children we felt a great need to operate independently and with freedom (starting from the time when we took our first steps as we learnt to walk) and whenever success did not meet our endeavors, we were left with a sense of shame and self doubt.

Likewise, in the organizational life, after the initial training, we like to operate independently; but if we err too often in performing the job, we are inclined to entertain self doubts about our competency, and experience a sense of shame for not having done things right.

Stage III: Initiative versus Guilt

This refers to the stage when the growing child makes efforts at trying things out on its own initiative and feeling guilty when things go wrong, having ventured into unknown and untested realms.

Likewise, organizational members try to use their initiative by applying their creative talents as they settle down in their jobs, but if things go wrong, they might feel guilty that they have wasted time and other resources of the organization.

Stage IV: Industry versus Inferiority

As we grow up in the years preceding puberty, we diligently and industriously pursue the goal of learning, and endeavor to manage our life. Success in these efforts makes us feel good about ourselves, but in the event of failure we develop feelings of inferiority.

Likewise, in organizational life, we try to be industrious and work hard to find a niche; if we are not successful in our efforts we tend to end up developing low self conceptsOpens in new window and self esteem.

Stage V: Identity versus Role Diffusion

During pubertyOpens in new window and almost to the end of adolescence, we experience conflict due to the socially imposed requirement of becoming an independent and effective adult, to establish our self identity. This, at times, becomes difficult and there is a diffusion of our roles — we are spread thin and feel normless.

In the organizational context as well, we are expected to make contributions to the institution and establish our identity as high performing and valued members; not easy to attain for many. Instead, we might become just one more among the numerous employees with diffused role identities, rather than gain recognition as a distinguished performer.

Stage VI: Intimacy versus Isolation

During young adulthood, there is a felt need to foster intimate relationships with others. However, it is awkward to develop such intimacy, and this might well leave us feeling isolated.

Also in our organizational life, while we may desire to develop close contacts with those whom we consider significant in the system, many might find it hard to do so and as a consequence, experience a sense of isolation in the organization.

Stage VII: Generativity versus Stagnation

In middle adulthood, there is the socially imposed demand to forgo one’s own immediate needs and concerns in favor of the careful tending and upbringing of one’s offspring. In the absence of an effective resolution of this conflict by the individual, a sense of failure and stagnation is felt all through life.

Similarly, in the organization, as we reach mid-career, we are expected to mentor others in the system, help them develop and grow, and rejoice in their success. If we do not do this effectively, we develop a feeling of stagnation in our career.

Stage VIII: Integrity versus Despair

From middle adulthood until death, we experience conflict as our social and biological roles get diminished due to the aging process and we experience a sense of uselessness. If we come to grips with the issue and resolve the conflict, we could enjoy happiness, recalling to mind our consolidated lifelong achievements. Failure to resolve this issue would fill us with a sense of worthlessness and despair.

The same is true in organizational life where members on the verge of retirement might either be imbued with a high sense of self worth as they take stock of their accomplishments or leave the organization with a sense of purposelessness and despair.

Since most of the conflicts are not completely resolved at each stage, those left unresolved are carried over to the subsequent stages. Managers can well play a role in identifying the unresolved conflicts of employees at work and try to help them deal with them. This takes us to next heading Manager's role in channelling tensions.

Manager's Role in Channelling Tensions

Tensions are experienced by individuals because they experience conflict (as per the conflict model), or want to reach certain goals and excel (self fulfillment model), or strive to attain cognitive consistency (consistency model), or conflicts are unresolved at various career stages. They then try to reduce their tensions and maintain a balance or equilibrium by unconsciously resorting to certain modes of behaviors.

There are primarily four ways of maintaining balance. These are: channeling, diverting, repressing, and reversing (Levinson, 1964).

1.  Channeling

By channeling their energies towards solving the problem and reducing the magnitude of the experienced conflict, individuals deal with frustrations and tensions in an effective manner. For instance, if a person does not get the expected promotion within the organization, he or she can channel the energies to secure another suitable position either in the same organization or a different one. By thus appropriately channeling the energies towards solving the problem in the right direction, the individual resolves the conflict.

2.  Diverting

A less effective way of dealing with the tensions is to divert the energies. As an example, if an individual does not get promoted in his job, as he had hoped, he might seek another role where, for instance, he could exercise more authority. He would then experience some satisfaction from doing something that he perceives as more important than what he had been doing hitherto. Thus, even though he had failed to achieve promotion, he would still be rid of a lot of his tension by diverting his energies to another field of endeavor with reasonable satisfaction. Such behavior considerably reduces experienced tensions.

3.  Repressing

A third way in which individuals deal with tensions is through repression; that is, they deny that any problem exists at all. Repressing is dysfunctional because blocking out reality does not in the long run release the tensions experienced by the person. As a consequence, the individual would exhibit dysfunctional behavior in several ways, not having dealt with and resolved the original tension.

4.  Reversing

The most dysfunctional coping mechanism, however, is reversing, that is, turning against one’s self. In its worst form, reversing could result in suicide.

By paying close attention to the personality characteristics of individuals and being sensitive to the stages of their development in organizational life, managers can try to help employees channel their energies when facing tensions, rather than resorting to repression or reversal.

Managers could also try to fit the needs and personality predispositions of individuals to the requirements of their job, wherever possible, so that dysfunctional behavior does not occur. An understanding of some significant dimensions of personality aids managers to help employees experience a better quality of work life.