In a recent workshop, a participant was alarmed when a personality assessment indicated that she had no interest or skills in being a leader. She immediately shot up her hand and asked how she could change.
That woman's alarm reflects a core tenet of contemporary society: We should always be striving to improve ourselves and if we don't, for example, have the skills or desire to be a leader, we are somehow deficient.
The push for self-improvement is also enshrined in organizations, which use competency profiles - descriptions of desired behavioural characteristics, such as decisiveness, empathy and achievement motivation - that employees are told they should develop themselves to attain.
But I have some difficulties with the idea that we need to be constantly improving ourselves according to prescribed behavioural standards. To begin with, what is the gold standard for ideal behaviour?
Take my workshop participant, who had a knee-jerk reaction to her low score on a measure of leadership. The truth was that she was happy in her professional role and had no desire to take on a leadership job. And her lack of interest or skill in leadership had never affected her performance. Still, she felt she ought to be concerned about this supposed weakness.
I am often surprised when clients tell me which areas of behaviour their bosses have told them they need to improve. One for example, was chided, as her boss put it, to "work on becoming tougher," because she was concerned about, and went to battle for, a group of employees she was asked to terminate. The clear implication was that being more tenderhearted and taking a strong values-based position is bad.
The second assumption behind many development activities is that, with appropriate coaching, you can change almost anything. But how much can you really change? And what should you really try to change?
Research shows that our core psychological predilections are significantly determined by our genes. These characteristics don't change much: The shy child becomes the quiet adult, the novelty-seeking kid becomes the risk-taking adult.
This doesn't mean we are all prisoners of our DNA or that this is a "don't worry about it" pass for people whose behaviour is troubling - for example, that it is fine to be obnoxious or insensitive or so introverted that all of your personal interactions are problematic.
But sometimes, when, or even if, we display behaviour that negatively colours how others see us, it is the environment, not our personalities, that needs fixing.
Take my friend, for example, an outspoken and exuberant extrovert who, to some people's sensibilities, comes across as "over the top." She was repeatedly admonished by bosses to dampen her personality to better fit into the executive ranks. She tried. She spent two decades in an unsuccessful struggle to change her behaviour, a battle that took a huge toll on her self-esteem.
Finally, she quit the corporate world, set up her own business and thrived by moving to an environment which benefited from her temperament. The tragedy was the price she paid before she realized she needed to change roles, not herself.
Of course, at times, we do need to change ourselves. And although we may not be able to eradicate underlying personality characteristics, we can learn to temper how we express these characteristics if they interfere with our performance and personal goals.
A client, for example, was working on a high-profile project that required her to market it to colleagues. Because she was shy, she felt uncomfortable approaching people she didn't know well. She set herself a schedule for talking to people. First, she started with a more junior acquaintance, then gradually worked her way up to unfamiliar executives.
She now has developed a strong network and finds all the relationships rewarding. She'll never be the life of the party. But with time and practice, initiating conversations with strangers is becoming easier.
In the same manner, people can learn to manage and modify other troubling behaviour. For example, a person who comes across as strident and loud can soften how they are perceived with simple tricks such as talking more quietly, and making themselves sound more tentative.
But after that, your best development investment is to become better at something you are already good at, rather than try to change or develop something that is not in your personality's DNA - much like my friend who opened her own business. In other words, know who you are, leverage your key strengths, and find an environment which welcomes your qualities.
Before you decide what you want to change or develop, or whether you need to, ask yourself key questions: What is the effect of my behaviour on others? Does it make them feel good or bad about themselves? Just as important, what is the effect of my behaviour on increasing or limiting my career options in the short and longer term?
On one hand you can say, "This is who I am. Take it or leave it." But if demonstrating certain qualities is hurting you, perhaps you should develop a realistic plan to change them.
But don't be too quick to beat yourself up. Just as my workshop participant wasn't inadequate because she isn't a leader, there is no "right" way to be effective and successful. That is a matter of personal inclinations - and opinion.
SHOULD YOU CHANGE?
If you answer "yes" to one or more of the following questions, consider developing a plan to change your behaviour:
Is this behaviour getting in the way of your performance?
Have you been admonished for this behaviour/tendency by several people?
Are your personal relationships suffering as result of this behaviour?
Do people whose opinion you value suggest you change this behaviour?
Over all, is your work a good match for your skills and personality outside this one area of difficulty?
Does your behaviour make others feel uncomfortable?
Does this behaviour interfere with your longer-term career aspirations?
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life.