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Should We Try to Adapt Our Personalities to Succeed in an Evolving Workplace?

How to adapt to an ever-changing work environment by becoming more agile, proactive, and calm.

Personality traits predict a wide range of outcomes in terms of health happiness, education, and work. Therefore, shouldn’t we be taking steps to ‘change’ our personalities with the goal of self-improvement?

Why does personality matter?

We are living through a unique period in history; where, how, and when we do our work has changed dramatically for many. We have likely experienced various degrees of anxiety, frustration, and loneliness as we have transitioned to new ways of working.

Some of us, have adapted more easily, keeping calm and feeling less stressed than others. Of course, our situations and circumstances are unique, some being more difficult than others, and this will impact our capacity to adapt. However, there are also some important personality traits likely to influence how we feel and react to the evolving landscape.

Research has found that our tendency towards ‘neuroticism’ (to be more reactive, fearful, and anxious in the face of challenges/change) or on the other side of the scale, ‘emotional stability (to feel calmer, less stressed in general) as measured by the ‘OCEAN’ model of personality, can predict how well we may or may not adapt to evolving ways of working. For example, those who rate higher on the trait of ‘emotional stability’ and have a more ‘proactive style’ show the greatest positive influence on an employee’s ability to adjust successfully (Huang. J.L et al 2014).

Should we try to change personalities?

As an Occupational psychologist, I use SHL’s personality assessment (the OPQ) to help others understand their ‘natural potential’; how their personality preferences may impact their behavior at work. One of the questions I am often asked is ‘can and how can we change personality’? When I started working in this area over a decade ago, I found these conversations a little difficult. There is something ‘sacred’ about your personality… it is unique to you, it makes you who you are, so should we be advocating to try to change it? As our understanding of the concept of personality has advanced, so too has my experience. I believe that we can gradually adapt some specific personality traits and their expressions — with self-awareness, focused effort, and practice.

As parents, teachers, and employees we implicitly know that if a change makes us better, we should work towards achieving it. There are a plethora of ‘self-help’ books out there that target our desire to ‘improve’ ourselves. The good news is that contrary to the widely held belief that personality is fixed, personality traits can and do shift, with major negative life events, in particular, being most likely to impact.

I believe that we can gradually adapt some specific personality traits and their expressions — with self-awareness, focused effort, and practice.

Can we ‘change’ our personalities?

Research tells us that while genetic influences are important, and dictate the expression of personality traits, the environment begins to play more of a role as we move into adulthood. People do change, for example, to become more responsible and more emotionally stable as they move past adolescence, but they do not change drastically. Researcher Brent Roberts, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Illinois believes that we shouldn’t hold out hope of changing a whole person. However, he continued, “if you’re willing to focus on one aspect of yourself, and you’re willing to go at it systematically, there’s now increased optimism that you can affect change in that domain”.

Dr. Darren Stevens – a researcher at Coventry University presented at the ABP conference last month on ‘Constructed Development and Psychometrics’. Here he focused on the subject of how personality is constructed and thus how best we can measure it. He spoke for example, about how our personality traits are likely fairly stable over time, but that our self-construct, intention, awareness, and choice at the moment also dictate how we respond to situations. Therefore, there is a wide range of elements to consider in understanding individuals’ personalities. This increases the complexity of accurate measurement and whether it is being changed through various interventions.

What does this mean in practical terms?

In my experience of reviewing personality data, as expressed by employees for particular organizations, it can sometimes be quite noticeable how traits on particular dimensions such as ‘rule following’ can appear to be shaped over time by a person’s work environment.

Whilst exploring such traits, people would often comment that although they would not naturally have seen themselves as someone who always followed the ‘rules’. However, their work environment requires them to adhere to strict protocols. Thus, deliberate awareness and intention are needed to observe these rules and it becomes a habit over time.

I believe that we can consciously work to adapt our thoughts, beliefs, and behavior patterns and thus some specific personality traits through self-awareness, deliberate and sustained effort, and practice. Examples of studies in clinical, non-clinical, and social settings support this, with research findings that various medium to longer-term interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, social skills training, and even mindfulness can lead to sustained personality trait changes to include decreased neuroticism, increased extroversion, and emotional stability.

However, the debate rages on – are we actually changing our underlying personality traits or simply our expression of them?

I believe that we can consciously work to adapt our thoughts, beliefs, and behavior patterns.

How can we adapt our personalities to improve ourselves?

So, if we do decide in the interest of ‘self-improvement’ we want to become more ‘extroverted’; more comfortable and outgoing around other people at work, or demonstrate less ‘neurotic’ traits to be more resilient and relaxed for example, how might we go about this?

1. Self-awareness is the first step. Get to know your ‘personality’, what do I naturally enjoy, less enjoy doing at work? You can do this through introspection for example. However, a better way is to complete a reliable trait and work-based personality assessment, e.g. the OPQ to help you understand your preferences in the workplace.

For HR/Business Leaders this could also form part of a ‘talent review’ of a particular group, function, level to understand overall natural strengths, potential development areas at a group, as well as an individual level. A two-way conversation with a trained and experienced practitioner is key here, to enable correct interpretation of results, and outcomes are discussed relative to the individual’s self-concept and context.

2. Be clear on the outcome you want to achieve. Adopting more of a ‘growth mindset’ is important. We must want to and believe that we can change. The ‘how’ to get there needs to be defined and purposeful, with clear actions that will modify, interrupt or redirect relatively stable patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to specific personality traits. Carol Dweck, an American psychologist who has researched this area outlines that changing these patterns that underlie broad personality traits is the key to change.

3. Focus on the process and sustain the effort. Hennecke and colleagues (2014) proposed that purposeful personality trait change can only occur under 3 conditions, one of them being that you must frequently engage in desired personality states, so that these states turn into habits. Changes in states lead to change in self-concept which can, in turn, promote identity confirming changes in personality states.

For example, if you want to work on being more ‘conscientious’, you may want to focus on being more meticulous in what you are doing by regularly checking to-do lists and monitoring progress on medium-term goals. Over time with effort and practice, changed habits can begin to modify your general self-concept—and you will likely begin to see and describe yourself as more conscientious. Business Managers, Leaders, and HR can support individuals and groups in this respect, by providing the space and opportunities for employees to gain the practice they need, whilst being open to mistakes as a sometimes-necessary path to learning and change.

Moving forward

Change is neither easy nor comfortable. There are, however, many reasons why we might want to work on adapting underlying or even expression of personality traits in workplace settings. What we have learned to date is that simply focusing on change at a behavioral level may lead to short-term adaptations, but not to long-term change. In contrast, increasing self-awareness and zeroing in on adapting personality traits and the patterns of beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that underlie our outward behavior, maybe the key to long-term change.

On a personal level and as a coach and mentor, I have witnessed the benefits of self-awareness, focused and sustained effort to modify ‘less desirable’ personality traits to become more successful at work.

As the world of work continues to change at a rapid pace, perhaps then one of the key enablers of success, is to work on developing those personality traits like ‘Openness to Experience’ and ‘Emotional Stability’ that research tells us to lead to more positive outcomes in many settings. This could support us in adapting and building confidence in our capacity to develop the capabilities we need to succeed in the future workplace.

Contact us to learn more about how we can support you to gain deeper insights into your people and transform talent strategies to unlock the full potential of your greatest asset – people.

headshot karen mcloughlin


Karen McLoughlin

Karen has over 15 years of consulting experience spanning across the talent management lifecycle from design and delivery of Early Careers talent acquisition and onboarding solutions through to assessment and development initiatives to support Restructure, Succession Planning, Executive Hire, and Development Activities. Karen’s particular interest in Early Careers recruitment is borne out of her experience working with a diverse range of clients across EMEA to help solve a range of talent attraction, recruitment, and retention issues, supporting organizations to create high-performing, inclusive workforces from the ground up. Away from work, she enjoys traveling, hanging out with her two young daughters, and running.

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