Update: Can You Change Your Personality?

In the popular mind, characteristics like introversion and extraversion are unchangeable. Although I’ve never explicitly pooh-poohed that interpretation, my career as counselor, university faculty and management coach long since brought me to the conclusion that personality distinctions like that are largely useless and often destructive. Yet people continue to believe that the personality is encoded in the genes, fixed, and unchangeable. However, research now shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that personality is a flexible and quite dynamic thing. By personality, psychologists refer to those enduring, long-term patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that distinguish one person from another. That would include, for example, increased levels of self-confidence, warmth, self-control and emotional stability. It also includes the temperaments, the introspective and extraverted. Although these changes are more predominant in young adulthood (age 20—40), the research has demonstrated that personality traits can change at any age. So when someone tells you “that’s who I am,” don’t take it seriously. That may well be just who they want to be. Or that they believe that they can’t make those changes. Or that they’ve never given thought to making real changes, and certainly that they don’t know how to make the changes of importance….What changesThe studies of twins, for example, often highlighted specific patterns and broad traits, viewing them as fixed characteristics. But now we know that the conclusions drawn from those studies were inadequate, incomplete and sometimes wrong.Instead, studies from as far back as 1995 show that much of human change action takes place below or inside broad traits such as the supposedly fixed traits of introversion or extraversion. But those changes don’t take place alone or in a vacuum apart from the broad traits. Changes such as goals, the way a person decides to relate to others, the way they interpret others, and the way they make sense of another person’s behavior, will impact those so-called big, broad, fixed characteristics. Just imagine an employee going from not usually trusting people to the place where she begins working with people on the basis of trust. That will impact a lot more issues than elementary trust relationships.Carol Dweck has found that the most significant change that can bring about other change is our basic belief system. She’s nailed the issue firmly. What must change is the belief that you are who you are, and that your basic abilities and personality are fixed. Changing that belief system is key to all change, key to growth and, ultimately, key to personal and career success.Why people changeOf course the big question is why do people change? Or, why do they intentionally make changes? One answer is that changes are the result of specific life experiences. A marriage, a divorce or a child can bring about big changes in a person. But a commitment to a specific career can also bring about changes in behaviors and thinking—and even feelings. Sometimes more than you’re aware of.Still others in business make changes because their job requires it. Rarely is it the boss that demands change any more. Today, it’s the recognition that change, growth and career security go hand in hand. Plenty of directors and vice-presidents have come to me asking for help and saying that he’s going to be “out on his ass” if he doesn’t make some changes. Not all motivational fear is bad stuff. When personally imposed, fear can drive change.Still others make changes because they want to move up or on to another position, organization or career. That intrinsic motivation, when supported by personal strategy, is a prime motivator for change.At the bottom of most of those changes is a belief that one can change and grow. Without that belief, not much is going to happen.How people change their personalityIt’s the small wins that impact the big changes. Or, to borrow from Sutton and Rao’s new book on Scaling, a few small changes can bring very significant major changes. Though they focus their study on organization change, the same is true for personal change.  Nearly thirty years later I still remember with laughter the gruff, colorful-talking sales director from Old Pillsbury who hired me to work with him. Though most loved him once they got to know him, he could be scary to new hires. His best friends had advised him to work with me, and so he followed their recommendation.The first meeting was unforgettable. Once we’d talked a little about the development process, he looked at me and said gruffly, “Erwin, I don’t want you doing any “mind f—ing on me”. In other words, he didn’t want me screwing around with his gray matter. I smiled slightly, looked at him, and told him that of course I wouldn’t be doing that. I didn’t believe in it. And then I set out to screw with his brains and beliefs in the best coaching fashion possible. [One unrelated insight from that experience is that though transparency and truthfulness can be valuable, they can also be stupid.]A thorough diagnosis revealed that my gruff friend believed that relationships had to develop over time and that nothing could be done to escalate that relationship. He believed that “sometimes two people have the right chemistry and sometimes they don’t. Only time will tell.” The consequence of that fixed belief was that he was also clueless about the skills for developing relationships. Over time I shredded that fixed belief with stories, examples and demonstrations. And he gradually developed the necessary behavior for building new relationships. Those two behaviors occupied our time for the next six months—and they changed his personality. So much that some of his people literally “cornered me” to express their gratitude and thanks. And he was a lot happier too. Two small interventions, but a very large impact.As a result of Carol Dweck’s work, we now have much more clarity on the elements of change. We also know what to look for and where to intervene to help a person and ourselves. Changing that belief or mindset takes time, but it always works. Using recent research, Dweck argues that beliefs lie at the heart of personality and human development. Her extensive and now systematic research focuses on a single class of behavior: beliefs. One belief is that a person’s abilities are limited and fixed. The upshot—which Dweck has shown to be absolutely accurate in situation after situation, country after country and throughout the lifespan—is that the person and the personality are malleable and can change and grow.Can you change your personality? Absolutely yes!
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