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OPINION! Personnel developer & occupational psychologist Armin Surma: personality development in practice & the right training strategies for managers

Armin Surma is head of personnel development at ETO MAGNETIC GmbH in Stockach and also lecturer for personnel management at FHW / IMB Berlin. His area of ​​responsibility is personnel development, potential analyzes, assessments, trainings, Coaching.

Surma, born in 1964, studied psychology with a focus on work and organizational psychology in Frankfurt and completed various further qualifications in the field of human resources management, training and coaching. He was, among other things, a freelance consultant and trainer in the area of ​​executive development and head of personnel development at apetito AG.

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 (e.g. acquisition of experience or specialist knowledge) is viewed in developmental psychology as "horizontal development" and is differentiated from "vertical development", which is viewed as a kind of transformation or maturation process towards a more comprehensive / complex logic of action. With regard to this vertical development, a distinction is made between 3 levels (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional) with 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.

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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 succeed in doing this almost playfully - even without special training. I have observed something similar with regard to the understanding of systemic processes. Occasionally I have also come across consultants who are good at giving lectures on an abstract level on a topic such as “managing complexity”, but who quickly reach their limits when faced with real problems in confusing 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 degree of maturity of ego development (in the sense of "vertical development") a certain person has reached is, in my opinion, of great practical importance for management diagnostics or aptitude assessment. A highly complex management task, as it occurs at the middle to high hierarchical level, requires a relatively high degree of maturity on the part of the job holder in order to be able to adequately fill this position.

Because here it is important to be able to recognize the complex aspects (operational and strategic tasks) and be able to handle them accordingly. In my view, this also requires that a leader is able to incorporate different points of view in their actions. Ultra-authoritarian systems based primarily on command and obedience, on the other hand, can also be run by people at an earlier stage of development (but in the long run, only employees who are prepared to adapt to it in the long run)

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 who is, for example, at the so-called Rationalist stage of development will hardly be able to understand and appreciate the different approaches of an employee who has reached a post-conventional level. Because managers at this level often act according to the motto "My way or no way". He will probably even perceive the employee's ideas as disruptive and fight against them.

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

Yes, exactly, also a good example: Employees and managers who are particularly prone to exaggerated perfectionism and who are at a middle level of ego development are seldom able to recognize this personal pattern in themselves and to be aware of it distance. Because, as I have observed, they see increased effort and the pursuit of perfection as the only way to be successful at all. On a (possibly authorized) Criticism because of their perfectionism, such people sometimes react very aggressively because they cannot 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 instruments for applicant selection and aptitude diagnostics, whereby of course it is not only about personality traits but also about task-specific skills. It starts with structured interviews, continues through problem simulations and assessments to the use of diagnostic test procedures (although by no means every psychological test can be used sensibly in companies). As a complementary tool to measure the degree of maturity of a Executive to recognize, the IE profile of Thomas Binder makes sense.

This is a projective psychological test that enables valid statements about the individual degree of maturity. This has the additional advantage that it can hardly be answered in terms of social desirability. To round off the picture, it would be advisable to use a broad personality inventory with which one can measure stable personality traits (such as the “Bochum inventory” by Rüdiger Hossiep).

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 training is just nonsense, Richard Gris criticizes in his book "The Further Education Lie" because it all depends on the level 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.

But I consider the book “The Further Education Lie” to be an only partially successful polemic and I would like to distance myself somewhat from the statements made there and the very radical conclusions. But: A further training measure is fundamentally only useful if the course content and / or experience offered there can be processed in a really beneficial way by the participant. As soon as a measure clearly exceeds or falls below the individual level of mental abilities or the degree of maturity of the participants, the learning success or benefit of the measure is strongly questioned. Pure incentive training without a clear one objectives 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 by no means all have to be turned inside out. From a developmental point of view, however, a more in-depth consideration of the question of which measure is beneficial for which person is urgently advisable. In many companies, good specialists are promoted to management positions and then personnel development is given the task of compensating for a lack of leadership skills through training. Here it would make more sense to determine beforehand at which level of the ego development the candidates are (and, if necessary, to advise against a management role). The developmental psychological perspective thus contributes an important aspect in the assessment of leadership potential. In addition, the topic of individual maturity 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 any other fields of application in practice?

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

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3 responses to “OPINION! Personnel developer & occupational psychologist Armin Surma: Personality development in practice & the right training strategies for managers ”

  1. Axel says:

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

  2. Armin Surma says:

    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 says:

    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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