You are not an amoeba

Amoeba on blue background. 3d render

In recent posts, we made the argument that personality is not as fixed as it appears to be, and that we need to be aware of the pressure cognitive biases exert on our perceptions and thinking. In the nature of pendulum swings, in this post I want to point out that personality is also not wholly fluid either. While our selves aren’t as solid as rocks, we are also not as amorphous as amoeba.

There are predictable and consistent patterns of similarities and differences between individuals. These patterns of behavior can be quite strong, some even biologically driven. We can attempt to use these awareness of these patterns to predict how people are likely to behave in future situations. There are countless assessments available that attempt to measure the underlying structures that drive behavior (or reveal the behavioral patterns that we perceive as our personality). Cognitive profiles, personality patterns, interpersonal tendencies, emotional volatility, values and motives – all of these characteristics can provide insight into person-job fit for selection or career planning purposes, as well as help people be more effective in their current role. (In case you’re curious, here is a descriptive list of some of the assessments we commonly use.)

If our personal attributes are not fixed, but not entirely fungible either, that means we have options – we can attempt to change the things that aren’t working for us, or we can change our situation in order to find one that better matches those qualities. How to know which path to take depends on a number of factors. Some patterns are more ingrained than others and therefore more resistant to change. Self-mastery is predicated on self-knowledge – awareness is key.

Option A: Even when we can’t change an underlying characteristic, we can manage our behavior to be more effective. Take emotional volatility. Some people are steady Eddies, and they are delightful and calming to be around; nothing seems to ruffle them. Others of us are Fiery Frans, quick to flares of angry indignation, but are equally quick to laughter and joy. To change this attribute would be difficult. While Fiery Fran may always experience situations in a more emotionally charged way, she can learn to take a breath before making a defensive or critical comment. While Steady Eddie may not be inclined to express emotion, he can learn to show more energy and feeling in order to increase his effectiveness motivating and connecting with others. When we are unconscious of our patterns, we are oblivious to the fact a small space that exists between our internal reaction and behavioral response. Leveraging the reaction-response gap allows us to choose how we manifest our latent attributes.

Option B: It can be exhausting to be in environments that demand you to go against type. Take introversion and extroversion. It is inherently stressful for introverts to spend every day in back-to-back meetings, with no time alone to reflect and recharge; it is likewise miserable for an extrovert to work alone in a quiet room day after day. While we naturally tend to gravitate toward fields that suit us, there will always be frictions like this. Sometimes we realize too late and need to make a job or career change to thrive. But more often, we need to find ways to tailor our environments in whatever way we can. In this example, maybe that means delegating some meetings to direct reports to carve out time for planning and reflection, or volunteering on a cross-functional committee to get more face-time with peers.

We are not caricatures of ourselves but neither are we formless potential. There are strong patterns, magnetic fields if you will, that compel and constrain our behavior. We can use our understanding of these to either select ourselves and others into and out of environments that suit, or adapt our behavior to fit the environment. It’s good to have options.