Should You Try to Change Someone’s Personality?

Individuals differ in terms of their personality scores, and these differences contribute to effective performance. It isn’t always possible to identify personality traits successfully during the hiring process, and sometimes there simply aren’t enough people with the “right” personality traits available. So should organizations try to shape their employees to make them more conscientious, agreeable, open, emotionally stable, and extraverted? Is there a potential ethical problem with exercising this type of control over workers?

Some evidence suggests that people’s basic temperament is largely fixed by biology, and in this case, attempts to change personality will mostly lead to frustration and dissatisfaction. An employee who tends to see things negatively is unlikely to suddenly become an optimist just because a manager pushes him or her to read self-help books and take up meditation. Moreover,   such efforts may send a strong message of disapproval—who would want a manager saying, “We don’t like you the way you are, you need to change!” Employees who are forced into working environments that don’t fit their dispositions will also likely experience high levels of psychological strain.

On the other hand, it is possible to change the way personality is expressed. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher notes that despite the importance of biology, “the environment always molds your biology.”  Someone who isn’t particularly open to experience might be comfortable with new work assignments if they’re framed appropriately, and someone who isn’t very conscientious can display organization and dutifulness if the right environmental supports like checklists and formalized goal-setting are in place. And personality does change somewhat over time. As people age, their scores on conscientiousness and agreeableness increase rather dramatically, and neuroticism decreases substantially (the results for openness and extraversion are more complex).

So what might employers do to accommodate employee personality differences while still obtaining maximum performance? One strategy is to focus on outcomes and allow employees to determine their own way to achieve them. An extrovert and an introvert might both be able to produce a very high quality report, even if the extrovert will want to collaborate and discuss during the process of writing whereas the introvert will prefer to work out problems alone. Employers can also try to assign employees to activities that best match their personality types.

 

Source: Based on B. W. Roberts and D. Mroczek, “Personality Trait Change in Adulthood,”  Current Directions in Psychological Science No. 1 (2008), pp. 31–35; Anonymous, “Five Ways to Change Your Personality,” <emphasis>CSE</emphasis>CBS News (August 21, 2010), www.cbsnews.com.</source></sidebar>