One day when I was working as Learning & Development Manager in a German corporation, an executive approached me to talk about a manager on his team who was seen as difficult to deal with.
The man was not focused at work, he sometimes missing deadlines, and he was not a clear communicator.
However, he had been working for the company for many years, and his manager wanted to keep him on board. Many previous attempts to correct his behavior had not worked out. This manager was in his late 40′s and the executive asked me this question:
“Do you think we can still change his personality?”
Answering the Question
- Do people change personality?
- Can they change to “become someone else?”
- Are people stuck with what they have become when we meet them?
Here is Another Scenario
My husband was working with a programmer who was being groomed for a career as a top-notch specialist. He was excellent at his job, yet his management did not consider him for a leadership position because they felt “that’s just not who he is”.
These examples lead to an interesting question:
Is our personality carved in stone?
Can People Change?
I am a psychologist with a career in employee learning and development, so it is not surprising that I fundamentally believe that people can change.
But what does research say?
In the early days of personality research, psychologists came up with many different models to measure people’s personalities. Most of them had one thing in common:
- They measured personality traits
- Supposedly anchored in the brain structure
- Have a stable starting in early adulthood
Nowadays, science is leaning more towards a fluid and contextual understanding of personality. The situation in which a person displays a certain behavior has an influence on how the person reacts.
In leadership training, models that assess personality traits (MBTI, DISC etc.) are widely used. Most of these models understand personality traits as relatively stable. I like using these models for example as a tool to get a quick assessment of your team’s personalities.
With the information provided in these assessments, leaders can quickly understand how to approach individual team members, adjust their leadership style and distribute tasks according to personal styles of employees.
The risk in extensively using these models is that they lead to assume that personality is carved in stone. I believe that focusing too much on personality traits takes responsibility away from yourself: As an individual, you’re not actively trying to be your best self.
As a leader, you might not give your employees your best effort to develop and coach them.
A Smart Approach
In reality, there is ample research evidence to support both approaches. And at this point in time, it is not possible to say which one is correct.
In the end, I believe that it doesn’t really matter for you as a leader.
Instead of musing about personality, focus on behavior instead. If an employee is not performing on the level you expect her to perform, ask yourself what the reason might be. Does the employee lack skills and knowledge to do the job, or is it maybe a question of self-confidence and motivation?
Adapting Your Leadership Style
Adapt your leadership style according to the needs of your employee. Agree on SMART goals with your employee in order to measure performance, and review progress regularly. Give your employee regular and timely feedback on her behavior. Be specific, e.g. by pointing out that she showed good leadership when facilitating a meeting.
In my experience, the most relevant factor to learning and changing behavior is the will to do so, open-mindedness, and a commitment to continuous improvement.
The programmer I mentioned before received continuous feedback and coaching from his manager. He was highly motivated to develop towards a leadership role and worked hard to improve his skills.
He is now considered a high-potential within the company and will be definitely be considered for a management position in the future.
So, how are you doing in understanding the best ways to use personality and personality profiles in leading your people? Have you been giving people “a pass” for poor performance because you simply “accept their personality?” Or have you been effective in coach/training beyond personality? I would love to hear your thoughts!
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Image Sources: success.com
- Cheerful women are not associated with leadership qualities — but proud ones are (eurekalert.org)
- 5 Leadership Styles that Help You Build a High Performance Team (lifehack.org)
- Your employees ARE NOT your employees (leadershipmints.com)