Can People's Personality Change?

Janet inherited her team from a previous director who managed the department for over ten years. As a director, she had the expectation that she would invest her time in promoting the department and in strategic issues, but instead she felt she was drawn into the nitty-gritty of production. “My team is downright lazy. I have no better way of describing it. If I don’t ask for things, no one else will think about them or initiate them. If I do ask for things I need to spend half of my time answering a million questions that could have been answered with just a small effort on their part. The personality of everyone on the team is nice, but it is also passive and at times even apathetic. I sometimes wonder if I am the only one who really cares about the quality of our results.”

Janet was hired, among other things, because she believed that academic offices should be run like a profit center. In her own words she felt her team had the mentality of working in the not-for-profit world. Goals were frequently not met, people often spent their time doing, but without direct output that could be associated with needed outcomes. Janet felt as if everything was moving in slow motion for no reason other than some invisible attitude that she believed was associated with the personality of the individuals on the team.

When we put personality in brain science terms, scientists now believe that who people are reflects patterns of interconnectivity of neurons and synapses in our brain. In a way, what we used to call personality is a collection of patterns that we have reinforced for many years, creating a strong enough “imprint” in the way our neurons communicate.

Difficult people, as well as 90% of people in general, are, in a way, trapped in patterns they have reinforced for years. What we see as challenging personalities is real. If you have tried to get difficult people and cultures to make needed changes and adjustments, you know that in some cases an individual, a team or an entire organization may be nearly impossible to change.  As a result, you may have mistakenly concluded that the culture or personalities are fixated, but it may have been because you did not have access to the right toolkit.

Behavior is an emotional based reaction, based on a lifetime of experiences and outcomes. To change this, you must change how people see and process a particular issue. Once a viewpoint changes and it is strong enough to impact many different areas consistently, some of the most entrenched personality traits can be replaced by new ones.

Janet discovered that what she thought were personality issues were in fact habits that were a response to a different management style. Janet’s predecessor micromanaged the team, expecting every little detail to cross his desk before it was submitted. The team was reinforced to follow instructions and use very little independent thinking. When Janet asked them to make adjustments, it was as if they did not understand what she was saying. The team needed a new way of seeing things in order to translate Janet’s expectations into practice. “It is unbelievable to see the transformation in the team, especially in such a short time. It was like suddenly what I have been trying to accomplish with them for months has finally gotten through to them. As if the light was off the entire time and now suddenly it is on. It is a transformed team and I cannot thank you enough.” (Director, Engagement and Outreach, education industry)

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