In much of my professional development work with individuals and organisations I use an assessment called The Birkman Method®. It provides a person with data and insight on their personality; specifically on their motivations, behaviours, perspectives and career matches. The question I am most frequently asked when I explain the stability of Birkman data over even 10s of years is ‘but don’t we change over time?’
It’s such a good question because we are definitely aware of change in ourselves. Our experience is that, to a greater or lesser extent, yes, we do change with the passage of time or sometimes as the result of a particular experience.
Aren’t we often taking an assessment, a profiling tool or 360 feedback exercise for the whole purpose of self development and change? We receive the results and the feedback, often along with some debrief or coaching and isn’t the whole point that we identify and plan our development goals to result in change?
So, why is it that it sometimes feels so difficult to make real changes and behave differently to our comfortable default self?
Let me share a personal example: some years ago, I became aware that my slow decision-making was deeply frustrating my teenage daughter. She could never get a simple, straightforward answer out of me. In one way or another, I was always ‘putting her on hold’ - bringing in other considerations and options - and from her perspective, I was annoyingly indecisive! So, I deliberately started choosing to be ‘decisive’. She felt so happy! I felt so uncomfortable!
Could I adopt that ‘decisive’ behaviour for the long term and therefore change? My conclusion is not really. I couldn’t sustain being decisive all the time without creating an inner stress, that would leave me worrying and endlessly going back over things to consider whether there might have been a better decision.
I personally work from the fundamental perspective that its important to think thoroughly about things, to consider alternatives, to gather adequate information, to consider implications on situations and people. Now, I am quite extreme on that personality dimension and plenty of other people are extremely comfortable being quick decision makers.
I have, over the years, learnt to recognise where a quick decision is the best option, and where my slow thinking process is not productive and I can ‘change my behaviour’ accordingly - but I don’t do it all the time. I feel at my best when I can give careful thought to things. So, am I really changing my personality in any way when I am decisive?
To make sense of what this example illustrates (and you will have your own examples I’m sure), I have found it very helpful to make a distinction between personality and behaviour. Personality being the relatively stable measure of who we fundamentally are and behaviour being the variable expression of what we outwardly do in different contexts and situations.
Way back in 1936, social psychologist Dr Kurt Lewin, presented a formula B = ƒ(P/E). The equation is that B (behaviour) is equal to the function (interaction) of P (the person) and E (the current environment).
He realised that peoples’ behaviour changed, or was a function of the interaction between their personality and the context or environment they were in. Think about the scenario of a person who is very successful in a certain role and then shifts to a similar role in a new team or organisation. Sometimes it doesn’t go well and they and others are puzzled - they seemed a good fit, they had good track record; now they are exhibiting or experiencing counter-productive behaviours. Sometimes its the opposite; someone has been a ‘difficult character’ and then in a new environment that changes and they suddenly flourish and behave productively. What’s changed? Lewin’s explanation is not that their personality changes but that their behaviour changes as a function of their environment.
So, my response to all those people who ask me ‘but don’t we change over time?’ is that there’s a fundamental and stable part of us (personality) that doesn’t really change, but we have behaviours that definitely do/can change, for better or worse, depending on our context. We can learn to notice those changes in behaviour, understand what triggers them and how to manage them, even modify them at times. We may well seem to ourselves, and to others, to have ‘changed’. But what we have really done is started managing that interaction with environment and context in a more intentional way, and that empowers us!
(N.B. Some profiling assessments attempt to measure personality, some measure behaviours, and one or two do both; its good to know which you are dealing with!)
Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Psychologists have statistically explored the ‘stability case’ and the ‘plasticity case’ and report evidence for both. See McCredie, H. (2016) Adult personality change: Mission impossible? Assessment & Development Matters Vol. 8 No. 4 Winter 2016