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Can Personality Change Over Time?

Heather Myers

Chief Psychology Officer | PhD | Analyzer/Mentor in Psychology

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of using personality assessments to provide insight in the workplace. Personality can be used to help match people to jobs they might enjoy, but it can also be used effectively to provide insight into how people see the world and how they might more easily interact with others who see it differently. Arguably, the most useful reports show how people with different personalities might see you and how you might see them. Such reports contain suggestions for improving your communication with others.

The usefulness of these suggestions often depends on one key factor: Does the person reading the suggestions for personal improvement truly believe he or she can make these changes? Some people believe that personality is the core of who we are and that it cannot be changed no matter how hard we try. People who hold this belief are typically unwilling to try to make changes because they think doing so is simply a waste of time. In contrast, others believe personality is malleable and can be changed relatively easily, with a bit of work. These people are unsurprisingly willing to put in more effort to change the way they interact with others.

In truth, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. As Dr. Woody Woodward points out in his article Why Personality Matters in the Workplace, to truly understand ourselves and others, we need to differentiate between personality and behavior. Personality can be understood as the filter through which we see the world. This filter develops both through our genetics and our social experiences. It influences the thoughts and feelings we have in different situations and the ways in which we tend to behave in those situations.

How do other people make guesses as to our personalities?

Only we know the thoughts and feelings behind our behaviors. Others can only guess at what we are thinking and feeling through what they observe of our behaviors, and their understanding of our behaviors is colored by their own personalities. The following example illustrates this point. Jesse works closely with several colleagues. One aspect of Jesse’s personality is introversion. This means that hanging out with large groups of strangers drains his energy. He is more comfortable hanging out one on one or in small groups of people he knows well. Say one of his co-workers, Alice, asks Jesse to dinner with her and a large group of her friends on a few occasions, and Jesse declines each time. Now Alice has to make a guess as to why Jesse has repeatedly turned her down. If Alice is an extrovert, someone who feeds on energy from being in large groups, she may wrongly conclude that Jesse simply doesn’t like her. In reality, the large group is what’s scaring him away, and he’d be much more comfortable in a one-on-one dinner with Alice or with a small group of people they both know. This situation can easily lead to hurt feelings and difficulty at work between Alice and Jesse, so what can they do about it?

What changes can we realistically make?

While Jesse may not easily be able to change the way he feels about big dinners with many people he doesn’t know, he can certainly change the way he behaves when Alice asks him to dinner. Jesse can tell her that big groups are not his cup of tea and that he really prefers one-on-one or small-group dinners. This will help Alice understand why he is always saying no and even prompt her to invite him to different events. In turn, if Alice tells Jesse that big-group dinners are important to her because she likes having all of her friends together in one place, then Jesse can make changes to his behavior. He can invite her over for a smaller dinner, or he can agree to go to a big dinner but ask to be seated next to a few people he knows.

This I think gets to the heart of the matter. While the way we see the world – our personality filter – is consistent over time and difficult to change, the way we behave and what we show to other people is more easily changed. While Alice and Jesse can’t easily change their social styles, they can communicate more clearly. The more we know about each other and the way we each see the world, the more information we have to use in understanding the reasons behind the way we behave. This understanding can help us change our behaviors and meet somewhere in the middle so that we can be comfortable and improve our interactions. The improved communication that comes from understanding our own personalities and the personalities of others broadens our minds and helps us to see our own world from another perspective. It can shape the way we interact and lead to positive changes in our relationships with others, at work and in our personal lives.

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