It’s okay to have multiple personalities

The many facets of one guy....

I think we all agree on what growth and development mean. Getting bigger and better, right? To improve, you just need to inject a little math into things – add this skill set, subtract that annoying personality foible. Slowly and inexorably, our tinkering will allow us to arrive at the ideal equation for success. Unfortunately, growth and development are rarely linear, and the process is often messy. It demands introspection and analysis. And when change happens – is that growth necessarily? By what yardstick?

Wharton professor Adam Grant’s most recent LinkedIn post got me thinking. He reported an interesting finding concerning authenticity – that people who are more authentic actually fare worse at work. They receive lower performance reviews and are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions. Grant’s take was that authenticity, like any virtue, has its downsides at the extremes. That the Popeye’s of the world may too rigidly cling to their sense of identity and fail to grow. While Grant continues by suggesting we focus instead on sincerity versus authenticity, I was sidetracked by the notion of identity, of self, as being more pliable and complex than perhaps many of us have imagined.

This rings true to me. I noticed one of my kids saying, “sowwy! sowwy!” all of the time, and was floored to realize she was mimicking me. I later observed that out in the wider world, I tend to be apologetic and self-effacing – if you aren’t paying attention to your surroundings and happen to step on me, I’m quick to apologize for presuming to occupy the space you blundered into. At home, on the other hand, I tend to take the other extreme. At work, I like to think I bridge the gap between apologizing-for-existing and bossy-with-a-side-of-attitude. Three situations, three versions of me.

Which of these selves of mine is being inauthentic? They are all aspects of me and my personality, but they surface at different times and in different ways. This excess of Danas illustrates a fundamental finding from social psychology research, which is that we often fail to appreciate the extent to which situational pressures influence behavior. Further, we are much quicker to appreciate situational constraints on our own behavior and much less likely to grant the same to others (he was abrupt because he an unkind person versus he was feeling rushed and stressed).

When we work with clients on personal and professional development, we underscore the importance of understanding that a “strength” or “development area” is a function of where you are and what you want to achieve – like virtues, there is no absolute. To be effective, we need to be hone our capacity for discernment and insight. What does this situation call for? What inside of me can meet the needs of the situation? What does this type of context trigger in me that gets in the way of that self attending? For example, being among unknown people apparently draws out my “stranger in strange land” schema, and I tend to be much more meek than when I don my “this is my house, fool!'” mental model in my own abode.

We need to be able to flexibly use our various potential identities to better meet the situation. To do that, we need to become aware of the unconscious patterns and models that underlie our behavior in various contexts. Who are we here, and there? Can I be that me, here? Can I write over the old pattern and extend that aspect of myself?

But then again, do we always want to change the way we present to different circumstances, or do we want to change or leave the situation? What if the changes we make to fit the situation aren’t to our benefit? Maybe to fit the climate you’re in, you find yourself becoming more aggressive or more cynical than feels aligned with your ideal self. What if your circumstances inadvertently calcify the least attractive parts of your self, which bleed into your behavior across situations and affect your life negatively? You also have to consider the bigger view of your life – the capital s Self.

Effectiveness is a function of fit between the qualities the person brings and the aspects of the situation, and development should be appreciated as such. Development is often discussed as an attempt to “close the gap” between the demands of the job and the skill set. But perhaps another way to look at it is to “widen the margin” by creating space where multiple aspects of our identity can come in to play. Perhaps there is a side of ourselves that just needs to be encouraged to meet us there.