Originally published on Psychology Today.
Most people believe that personality is generally very stable—and in many ways, they’re right. If you are an extravert, for example, it’s not quite possible for you to turn into an introvert overnight.
Indeed, personality research over the last century has focused primarily on the enduring and consistent nature of personality; the dominant stream of research (the Big Five model) focuses on five fundamental personality traits as the underpinning framework of human personality. And in daily life, we often draw on such a “fixed” perspective when describing ourselves and other individuals we come across, by saying things like “I am conscientious” or “he is emotional.”
But is personality really as stable as we tend to believe?
Increasingly, researchers in social and personality psychology have concluded that personality is less fixed than previously thought and is instead significantly more malleable. A wide range of factors can influence how our personalities shift over time, such as experiencing significant life events—starting our first job, starting a family, getting a divorce, becoming unemployed, or retiring—and being exposed to certain environments, such as having “good” jobs that offer us great autonomy and opportunities to utilise our skills.
Why does our personality change?
If personality does change, why? Academics have offered various theoretical perspectives over the years in an attempt to understand this phenomenon.
One perspective suggests that people develop and grow toward maturity, and experience subtle shifts in their personality as they do so. For example: Most people, as they age, tend to gradually become more self-controlled, more self-aware, more responsible, and more considerate. Such a personal development trajectory can thus be reflected in our personality traits corresponding with these areas. Another similar perspective suggests that investment in social roles—such as being a parent, a worker, or a leader—can cause us to behave in ways that meet the expectation of those roles.
Ultimately, humans are an adaptive species, and we develop and change our personalities in line with what our environment calls upon us. It is also important to recognise, however, that we do not merely respond passively to the environment; instead, we regularly apply individual agency to direct our lives. This might manifest, for example, as choosing to enter certain environments, such as taking up a certain job or career. Thus, the relationship between our personality and our environment can be considered reciprocal—they shape each other over time.
How does work change who we are?
We all know that work plays an important role in our lives. We spend a substantial amount of time at work; thus, what we experience in this context can significantly impact our personality development. Research in the personality and work psychology domain over the last decade has revealed that a wide range of workplace-related factors matter for personality.
For instance, the characteristics of one’s workplace environment are important. Studies have indicated that high levels of job autonomy—in other words, jobs that provide employees the freedom to decide what, when, and how to perform their jobs—enable employees to develop their personality by offering a sense of control.
On the other hand, high time demands—jobs that provide limited time to perform and complete work activities—and high job insecurity—jobs that have great uncertainty in terms of employment prospect—tend to increase employees’ personality trait of neuroticism over time. It seems that “good quality” jobs—such as those that offer high autonomy and high security—tend to positively shape employees’ personality development.
Additionally, our vocational choices also impact who we turn out to be. Studies have shown that, for instance, taking up leadership positions is associated with an increase in the personality trait of conscientiousness, possibly because taking on leadership responsibilities demands the development of this personality trait. Yet taking leadership positions can also have negative connotations on personality development; it may, for instance, lead to an increase in the personality trait of narcissism. In sum, our work environment and the career choices we make can have a great impact on our personality change.
How can we shape our personality?
The aforementioned research unpacked how our work changes our personality. But that’s not to say that we are merely pawns to our vocational environments. Instead, we can also actively shape our personality journey—if we have the intention and are committed to such an endeavour.
Humans all strive towards achieving goals, and personality change can become one of such goals. Indeed, research indicates that many people have the intention to change some aspects of their personality, such as reducing their level of neuroticism. However, it appears that just having goals is insufficient to enact personality change, as we also need to put conscious efforts and work persistently towards achieving these goals.
Personality is not as static as we used to think. The beauty of this realisation is that it allows us to see all the ways that personality can be shaped in an ongoing, adaptive process. This process involves not only the influence from our environments, but also incorporates individuals’ motives and drives. Although empirical research on this relatively new perspective of personality change is still emerging, evidence is accumulating that sheds light on how work experiences can shape personality development—as well as how employees can intentionally develop personality change goals and undertake work activities to better achieve these goals.
As individuals, embracing the notion of personality development could allow us to take a more open-minded perspective to our life experiences and find strategies to help us become who we want to be. As organisations, recognising the role of work on personality development will allow them to better support employees’ positive personality growth in the long run, such as by offering high-quality jobs and providing positive work cultures, which ultimately contributes to the betterment of human society.
Ying Wang is Senior Lecturer in Management at RMIT University in Australia. Her research interests include personality and individual differences, positive organisational behaviour, and diversity management. Chia-huei Wu is Professor and Chair in Organisational Psychology, Leeds University Business School, UK. His research interests include work and personality development, proactivity at work, and subjective well-being.
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