Interview with HR Developer & Occupational Psychologist Armin Surma: Personality development in practice and the right training strategies for executives

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Armin Surma is Head of Personnel Development at ETO MAGNETIC GmbH in Stockach, Germany, and is also an apprentice in Human Resources Management at the FHW / IMB Berlin. His tasks are personnel development, potential analyzes, assessments, trainings, coaching. Interview with HR Developer & Occupational Psychologist Armin Surma: Personality Development in Practice and the Right Development Strategies for Managers Interview with HR Developer & Occupational Psychologist Armin Surma: Personality Development in Practice and the Right Development Strategies for Managers Surma, born 1964, studied psychology with focus on work and organizational psychology in Frankfurt and completed various further qualifications in the area of ​​personnel management, training & coaching. He was, among other things, a freelance consultant and trainer in the area of ​​managerial development and head of personnel development at apetito AG.

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Mr. Surma, you are dealing with developmental psychology and its application possibilities in practice. Can you briefly explain what it is about?


In a nutshell, developmental psychology outcomes indicate that it depends on the maturity of a person to be able to perform certain complex tasks and to learn or evolve - or not.

Can you explain that?


Conventional learning (eg the appropriation of experience or expertise) is seen as a "horizontal development" in developmental psychology and is distinguished from the "vertical development", which is viewed as a kind of transformation or maturation process towards a more comprehensive / complex action logic. Regarding this vertical development, 3 levels (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional) are distinguished by a total of 9-10 development stages.

The personality develops from a strong impulse control, through processes of social adjustment, to ever-increasing self-regulation and development of its own standards, which are ultimately transcended again. In interpersonal intercourse, a process of maturing takes place from more manipulative / controlling behaviors towards an ever-increasing consideration of the autonomy of others and a systemic understanding of social relationships. The cognitive style develops from an undifferentiated very simple logic to more complexity, multiperspectivity and networking.

How did you come to development psychology at all?


I found developmental psychology interesting during my studies, especially with regard to the development of moral judgment in the adult age. As part of my work as a management trainer or head of personnel development, I have noticed that there are sometimes highly qualified executives who have tremendous difficulties in applying a meaningful degree of empathy, tolerance and serenity to their employees.

Others are able to do so without any special training. I have observed the same with regard to the understanding of systemic processes. Sometimes I have also encountered consultants who, although they are able to give lectures on an abstract level on a topic such as "complexity", but quickly reach their limits with real problems in unclear projects.

I recently visited two very stimulating seminars on the subject of I-development for adults at Thomas Binder in Berlin, where a very good explanatory model for the above mentioned phenomena was presented. In the following period, I became more involved with this approach, which is internationally represented by researchers such as Jane Loevinger and Robert Kegan.

What is the significance of the findings of developmental psychology for professional life?


The question of which level of self-development (in the sense of "vertical development") reached a certain person is, in my opinion, of great practical importance for management diagnostics and aptitude assessment. A highly complex management task, as it occurs at medium to high hierarchical levels, requires a relatively high degree of maturity from the holder to be able to fill this position at all adequately.

This is because it is important to recognize the complex aspects (operational and strategic tasks) and to deal with them accordingly. In my view, this also requires that a leader is able to integrate different perspectives into their actions. However, ultra-authoritarian systems based primarily on command & obedience can also be managed by people at an earlier stage of development (in the long term, however, only those who are willing to adapt to it in the long term).

What problems do you think when the people responsible do not have the necessary maturity for a task?


Controlling complex projects or change processes in the Company Successful implementation requires tasks that require a later stage of development and therefore can not be taken over by any employee who may be available. Change projects often fail due to unsuitable / overburdened project managers - and this has only partly something to do with the know-how.

Or a completely different example: A department head, for example, at the so-called rational development stage, will hardly be able to understand and appreciate the different approaches of an employee who has reached a post-congress level. Because managers at this level often act according to the motto "My way or no way". He will probably even perceive the ideas of the employee as disruptive.

Does such a thing, for example, also apply to perfectionist perspectives?


Yes, a good example: employees and executives, who are particularly inclined to exaggerated perfectionism and who are at an intermediate level of self-development, are seldom able to recognize and recognize this personal pattern distance. For they see, as I have observed, increased effort and the pursuit of perfection as the only way to have any success at all. To a (possibly legitimate) criticism of their perfectionism, such people sometimes react very aggressively, because they can not understand them.

What impact do these findings have on the selection of applicants?


The more complex and complex the task or position is, the more an additional consideration of the respective I-development stage of the candidate or owner is advised.

And what tools do you use when selecting applicants to identify those with the appropriate personality traits?


In my practical work, I use a variety of tools for the selection of candidates and / or aptitude diagnostics, whereby, of course, it is not just about personality but also about task-specific abilities. This starts with structured interviews, goes through problem simulations and assessments up to the use of diagnostic test procedures (although not every psychological test is useful in companies). As a supplementary instrument to recognize the maturity of a manager, the IE profile of Thomas Binder makes sense.

This is a projective psychological test, which allows valid statements about the individual maturity level. This has the additional advantage that it can hardly be answered in the sense of social desirability. The use of a broad personality inventory, with which one can measure stable personality characteristics (such as the "Bochum Inventory" by Rüdiger Hossiep), is recommended for the additional rounding off of the picture.

Is it possible to recognize in advance whether an applicant has the necessary maturity for a job?


In my experience, a traditional simple job interview would be inadequate here - especially when it comes to more important senior management positions.

But are there so many matching applicants at all?


There is sometimes a problem. For certain positions, such as development engineers with project assignments, customer contact and management responsibility, it is sometimes difficult to find someone who seems to be really appropriate both in professional, social and developmental psychology.

So further education is a single nonsense, criticized by Richard Gris in his book "The continuing education lie", because it depends above all on the state of personal development?


Clearly, how useful or effective a training (coaching) measure or a coaching for leadership skills can be is also dependent on the development level or the action logics of the participants.

However, I consider the book "The development lie" as a partial successful polemic and would like to distance myself from the statements made there and very radical conclusions. But: A further training course is only useful if the content and / or experiences offered by the participant can be processed effectively. As soon as a measure clearly exceeds the individual level of the mental abilities or the degree of maturity of the participants, the success or success of the measure is strongly questioned. Pure incentive training without clear goals and careful planning are of course even more questionable.

How then, according to the findings of developmental psychology, do you see any meaningful further training or how do you have to look?


The well-known formats of further training or training for specialists and executives do not have to be changed. From a developmental psychological point of view, however, a deepened consideration of the question of which measure would bring anything at all for a person would be urgently recommended. In many companies, good professionals are promoted to leadership positions, and then the development of personnel is compensated by the lack of leadership skills through training. In this case, it would be more useful to determine at which level of the ego development the candidates are located (and, if necessary, not advised by a management task). Thus, the developmental psychological perspective plays an important role in assessing leadership potential. Furthermore, the individual maturity level can and should play an appropriate role in coaching processes.

It also raises the question of whether traditional management development programs promote development at all, or whether they are essentially only learning programs. Thomas Binder assumes that most of the programs for executives need to be redesigned in order to focus more on the actual development aspect.

Are companies even willing to invest money here?


This depends strongly on the importance of human resources development in the company and the level at which it is operated. Personnel developers who deal with the subject of self-development should, for a sufficient understanding of the subject matter and also to the exercise of their advisory role, naturally have a sufficient development stage.

What does a company have when it applies the findings of developmental psychology, for example, to applicant selection? And can the successes be measured, for example in sales figures?


The risk of malfunctions, especially with highly paid and very complex functions, can be demonstrably reduced by a corresponding suitability diagnosis. (Such misjudgments or errors, including the necessary correction and replacement, can in some cases generate very high costs up to well above 100.000, - €.)

A study of the connections between sales success or sales increase and I development stage is not known to me so far. However, there are numerous studies on the relationship between the I-development stage and effective sustainable management.

Are there other areas of application in practice?


I think that in the future, the selection and training of consultants, coaches and change agents will be a very important area of ​​application.

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  1. Axel

    Shooting takes place in the head instead. Development here something thoughtful:

  2. Armin Surma

    Hello Thomas,
    I am delighted that I have remained so well remembered. I have not been to the north since 2006.

    The best greetings
    Armin Surma

  3. Thomas Kröse

    Hello Armin,
    In the few months I was able to meet you, I learned so much ... Thanks for that. Meanwhile, I landed in Munich and have used my strengths and adhered to the limits shown by you :)))
    I am still grateful for your trainings!
    Many greetings from the South and I wish you all the best. VG Thomas
    ps You can find me on

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