Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could change our personalities at will?
And as employers, wouldn’t it be grand if we could help our employees achieve greater career success by changing their styles of behavior?
Employee behavioral assessments are helpful to understand the personality traits of job applicants and current employees. Sometimes individuals naturally evolve over the years to become more effective in their work and personal lives. And sometimes we are able to help individuals consciously develop the characteristics they need in a given job. However, certain traits are easier to change than others.
Researchers have identified five characteristics that largely govern how our personalities function. These “big five” factors are generally believed to be fairly constant throughout our lives and may be attributed to genetics as well as environment.
In concert with this finding, researchers at Stanford University propose that change is possible over our lifetimes. Even more encouraging is a finding that change tends to be for the better. But note that scientists don’t agree on this proposition. Some observe that while change may occur, it is likely to be nuanced.
Each of the five personality traits tend to develop in different ways through our lives:
1. Conscientiousness. People are likely to improve in this area throughout their lives; with maturity comes greater conscientiousness. We develop this trait most strikingly in our twenties as we take on the work and family responsibilities of adulthood.
2. Extroversion. Extroversion is the trait of being energized by interacting with people; introverts are energized, in contrast, through thought and other solitary activities. However, extroverts may perform quite competently and even excel when working alone, and introverts may socialize effectively.
It has been observed that women may need somewhat less social support as they age, but men stay more constant in their extroversion orientation. Both genders may improve their social skills through experience and practice.
3. Agreeableness. Our abilities to get along and emotionally support others may improve as we age. The thirties and forties are the life decades most apt to show development in this aspect of personality.
4. Openness. Openness is defined as the willingness to try new ideas and experiences. This trait may decline somewhat with age. As we grow older, we may become more set in our ways. Still, there is a great deal of variation among people at all stages of life, and we are not doomed to become inflexible over time.
5. Neuroticism. Neuroticism is our tendency to worry and to sense instability. Women are more likely to somewhat overcome this trait over the years relative to men.
What you can change . . . and what you may not be able to change
While these five personality traits are the cornerstones of personality development, there are many other specific competencies that are amenable to measurement via behavioral assessments and that can be changed. The extent of change that is possible varies by trait.
The competencies that are the easiest to alter are generally those that are primarily relevant to the work environment. Coaching and training can help the willing student make progress in oral and written communications, political savvy, chairing effective meetings, planning, goal setting, and customer service.
At the other end of the “changeability” spectrum are those characteristics that are most resistant to change. Intrinsic intelligence is difficult to improve, though book learning is, of course, possible. Creativity, analytical skills, integrity, energy, assertiveness, and even ambition tend to remain unyielding to training and coaching.
In the middle are certain behaviors that may be susceptible to change, but the process is not easy. These competencies include listening, negotiation, change leadership, being a team leader, and conflict management.
All in all, it is important to understand our own personality traits and associated competencies as well as these characteristics in those we employ. Acknowledging how traits vary in their amenability to change helps us determine how to help employees contribute most effectively to the workplace and select (and achieve) appropriate career goals.