The Science Of Personality In The Workplace


Jane Porter

December 3, 2014

We can be quick to judge others in the workplace—bosses, coworkers, even ourselves—based on our ideas of personality.

But our preconceived notions about personality aren’t just wrong, they can be downright dangerous to our health and relationships, says psychologist Brian Little, author of a new book on the science of personality Me, Myself, and Us.

Personality isn’t something you can easily determine and label with a set of Myers-Briggs type indicator questions. “So many people take things like Myers-Briggs that allow them to label these restrictive pictures of themselves and others and I think that’s dangerous,” says Little. “When we construe ourselves or others as being a particular type of person, we have really set limits on our and their capacity to develop.”

While we can’t simply slap a personality read on anyone, there are five key qualities—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—psychologists refer to as the “Big Five” traits that are useful when talking about personality. The key is that these traits aren’t fixed in any given person. “Each of those can be enacted in order to advance a project that matters to you,” says Little.

Personality is tied to a complicated set of systems at work in the brain. Understanding what’s going on neurologically and how most people get it wrong can help improve your relationships in the workplace.

Fixed Verses Free Traits

Each of us has what Little calls “fixed” and “free” traits. The distinction is important. Fixed traits are those qualities that feel natural to us. But they only tell half the story. If you’re predisposed to like being around people, for example, extraversion is one of your fixed traits. But this doesn’t mean you can’t display qualities of an introvert when needed, particularly in your work environment.

That’s where free traits come in. A person’s free traits can run counter to their natural disposition. If you know the qualities that make a person extroverted—talking loudly, standing closer to people, striking up conversation, to name a few—you know how to take on that trait even if it’s not intrinsic to you.

Why First Impressions Are Overrated

Free traits are the reason it’s dangerous to assume your first impression of people can tell you much about their personality. An introverted person who prefers being alone may appear extroverted at a work event because that’s what’s expected. “Often we misconstrue what people are like by judging them on the basis of their behavior,” says Little. But we often act out of character or, as Little explains it, against our biogenic attributes.

much of our behavior at work is driven not by our fixed traits, but rather by our core projects. We often act out of character.

Say you’re someone with a lot of oxytocin—what’s often known as the “bonding hormone”—in your system. This likely means you’re predisposed to be as agreeable as possible. But if a project you care deeply about is being taken from you against your will, you may act out of character to try and hang onto it. “It’s called rising to occasions. It’s called professionalism,” says Little. “So much of our behavior in the workplace is driven not by our fixed traits, but rather by our core projects. We often act out of character.”

How Acting Out of Character Can Take Its Toll

Of course, this can be draining over time, putting a strain on your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls your internal organs and affects functions like heart rate, digestion and breathing. “When free traits are being exercised, you are putting a load on the autonomic system. This is linked to the immune system,” says Little. “You can burn out if you protractedly act out of character.”

Why Our Brains Need Time and Space to Reset

That’s why it’s important to create what Little calls “restorative niches” that enable you to let your fixed traits come out. If you’re an introvert constantly acting out of character at work by have to work in large groups, you’ll need to get away and have time alone to recharge. In contrast, an extrovert who has to remain silent and solitary at work might find it necessary to get his energy out by going to a raucous dance party. “We need a free trait agreement,” says Little. “I will act out of character in order to advance our core projects as long as you allow me restorative niches.”

Not Everyone Is Hardwired For Happiness

Our happiness wasn’t created equal, according to Little. Typically, the happiest people are those who are stable extroverts and the unhappiest are neurotic introverts. But that doesn’t mean stable extroverts live more fulfilling lives. “The projects that you pursue are more important than the state you want to reach,” argues Little. If you’re brain isn’t hardwired for happiness, you’re better of going after those projects and activities that you find most nourishing, rather than always striving to be happy.

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