The Personal Effectiveness Curve - a New Tool for Applied Work and Organisational Psychology

Why we need a New Tool

For over ten years we have been delivering trainings, assessments and coaching across countries, industries and organisations. As psychologists with a master in Psychodrama and Group Dynamics we always kept the most up to date with scientific publications as our point of reference. But as we became more experienced and skilled we noticed that the contribution of research, on one hand, was great for describing larger populations but not always fitting particular once or individual clients, and on the other hand that theories and models, even if structured and scientifically founded, always had too broad or strict categories that where not able to properly describe the uniqueness of our clients. In other words, there was a gap to fill between the Big Five Personality Traits and models such as the four fields of Emotional Intelligence or Situational Leadership and even the Competency Models as developed starting from Spencer & Spencer.

Two Crucial Questions that Foster Success

Whenever we are with a client, be it an individual, a team or a full organisation, we put two crucial question that we and the client must answer to be successful:

  • What makes this client unique?
  • What makes this client effective?

The first questions tells us about his full potential, beyond general categories. The second tells us how the client can access and use his full potential to achieve his goals.

A tool to describe Uniqueness and Effectiveness

As a result, we are pleased to introduce you to a tool for applied Work and Organisational Psychology that we developed based on our own field experience, summarising the contribution of the most important modern and contemporary authors of work and organisational psychology: the Personal Effectiveness Curve. This model serves as a point of reference in our work as Assessors and Coaches as well as for other applied industrial psychological practices.

Please Notice that this is to be seen as an additional rather than alternative point of view, we are not questioning the importance of research and other models which we still adopt on their own and in combination with the Curve.


As mentioned above, one aspect that usually is not covered adequately is the opportunity to describe clients in their uniqueness rather than referred to a norm or standard. That is why we did not want the model to fix a picture or define specific traits, but to show a spectrum against which each client could position him self according to different situations and contingencies. Further, both the axes of the abscesses and the ordinates are not defined, but subjective. The client him self has to define what is considered to be complex (vertical) or activating (horizontal). Of course this makes a rigorous comparison between candidates harder but it elevates dramatically the quality of the profile and even more the level of self-awareness of the client!


Effectiveness is the level of complexity a person manages to deal with. Based on the level reached it allows "Survival", "Achievement", "Confident Competence Display" (Confidence) or "Excellence" (Flow). Below we will describe each level of effectiveness. Please notice that as long as we stay alive, we have reached a minimum level of effectiveness! This is the foundation of a mindset that always searches for a learning based on success rather than on mistake. Consider that most of personal and professional development challenges are complex and can't be reduced to a trial and error approach to learning. We will get more information about how to succeed from what we did, rather than from what we did not or might have done; the first is an undeniable fact, the second just a hypothesis.

Practical Application of the Tool

Typically, working with clients, we will start by asking to think of situations where she/he was effective. We would then define at what level of effectiveness they where and gradually describe their very personal graph. Further we would identify internal and external circumstances that contribute to access the different levels of effectiveness, such as motivation, fear... and define them subjectively in the client's own terms and words. Based on the contract we would finally go into strategies that have proven to shift the client's level of effectiveness to the proper level.

This high level of personalisation, as mentioned before, is also why this tool needs to be integrated with more standardised tools, when comparison is considered to be relevant.

The Persona Effectiveness Curve

The two Axes

You find the level of Psycho-Physiological Activation on the horizontal axis: in other words how much we are warmed up in a given situation. As with physical activity, even the psycho-relational starts with apathy passes through optimal levels and ends into panic. One issue is to discuss a complex work issue when we're warmed up, an other doing it as we just woke up in the middle of the night rather than at the end of a particularly tiring meeting or day.

If you are familiar with Psychology you might find similarities to the arousal or stress curve, but in this case there is no reference to endurance and the abscissas are not in a time continuum. In other words, you can stay in Flow for a long time.

On the axis of the ordinates we find the level of Managed Complexity: it shows the growing level of complexity of situations we manage to handle effectively. It makes a difference if we have to talk to friends at dinner and or to hold a talk in front of many people rather than to communicate sensitive news. We may always manage to survive, but have more or less success in meeting expectations by the different stakeholders.

As already said, we have assumed that at all times a minimum degree of effectiveness is achieved, survival. For this reason the curve is always positive.

The Different Efficacy Levels

Starting from the bottom up:

Survival: this area covers the wider portion on the axis, but also the lower one with respect to complexity. This means that on the one hand, in any case, we find a way to ensure our survival, but on the other hand, when faced with complex situations we act with too little or too much psycho-physiological activation, we turn into automatic, responsive programs to ensure survival, but not to respond to the particular challenges of that situation. Kahneman would describe this area as managed by fast thinking: it is when we follow our morning routine or go to work without even knowing it. Yet in these situations, for example, we can effectively, without any effort, manage traffic, a task that the best minds in the globe are trying to teach machines with high investment of time and energy and not jet satisfying results. Not everything that seems trivial is simple, never underestimate your effectiveness, even at the lowest levels.

Achievement: this is a rather large area that covers higher levels of managed complexity than Survival, but has amplitude limits. I have defined this as an area of "conquest" because of the shift from an apparently effortless management to an extremely "controlled" management. It is the area where we express our technical skills, our tactics, but in an executive and mechanical way. In this area we face situations we perceive as tiresome rather than difficult. Great attention reduces our overall vision by pushing us into a predominantly executive mode. This is the area where, typically we, professionals, handle tasks considered routine or bureaucratic.

Confidence: is the area where we feel at ease. At this level, we fully and naturally express our competences, we are able to handle unforeseen situations still maintaining an overview and focus on the final goal. In this area we alternate moments of automatism and moments of deepening and controlling. This is the area where a well-trained and experienced practitioner finds himself most of a good working day; a day when he is called to use his skills to solve professional problems rather than performing standard operations.

Both the Achievement and Confidence area are predominantly characterised by Slow Thinking (see Kahneman).

Flow: this is the smallest area, but it can handle properly the highest levels of complexity. It is that dimension in which we are in full contact with our potential, both in terms of competences, and above all, in psycho-physiological terms. In this area the control leaves room for intuition, answers are not the result of conscious reasoning, but of almost instantaneous synthesis between experience and theoretical-methodological knowledge. It is the moment of utmost expression of our potential. While we are in a state of automation, similar to the one in the survival area, the mental processes in play are much more complex, because, unlike the other area, we are constantly in dialogue with the context and grasp all the complexity of the situation. It then appears evident that although the fatigue is not felt at this time, this state is extremely tiring. Here, with the drop in tension, a phase of exhaustion takes place, where we retire immediately to the Survival area.

Both the Survival and the Flow area are mainly characterised by Fast Thinking (See Kahneman), but the Flow has a richer texture.

Main Theoretical References for the Personal Effectiveness Curve

Although the Personal Effectiveness Curve is our original idea, the graph and, above all, the theory below it summarise the contribution of some of the most important contemporary psychologists. As we are steadily elaborating a formal and comprehensive version in which we will explicitly explain the contribution of each author, so far we will only mention the main ones and link the names to a playlist that collects contributions from and on the author mentioned, and quote the concept that is influencing my work. In alphabetical order:

  • Dan Ariely, author of "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic" for his work on cognition
  • Paul Baltes, author of "Lifespan Development and the Brain: The Perspective of Biocultural Co-Constructivism" for his work on ageing and cooping strategies
  • Robert Cialdini, author of "Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade" for his work on persuasion and on the influence of contextual elements
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Flow" - for his concept of Flow
  • Carol Dweck, author of "Mindset, Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential" - for her concept of Growth Mindset
  • Gerd Gigerenzer, psicologo direttore del Max Plank Institute in Germania, autore di "risk savvy: how to make good decisions" - for his work on Heuristics
  • Frederick Herzberg, author of "Motivation to Work" - for his theory on motivation
  • Daniel Kahneman, author of "Thinking Fast and Slow" - for his theory on cognition and biases
  • Peter Salovey e John D. Mayer, authors of "Emotional Intelligence" - for their description of Emotional Intelligence

There are many other authors that we could quote, but this list should offer you a pretty accurate picture of our scientific points of reference.