Sunday, October 27, 2013

Changing the leopard’s spots

I remember reading, some time ago, about a guy who had a large South American python. Not one of our Australian carpet snakes but one of those big ones that make ours look like garden worms. It turns out that he raised it from a baby and they got on like a house on fire: not sure how they did walkies and that sort of thing but they were friends. That is, until one night he woke up with the beast wrapped around him and it’s jaws over the top of his head. It seems that no matter what he thought his relationship was with his friend, it was still a python. And I guess, you should always remember to feed your pets: otherwise they get annoyed.

A question I get asked a lot is whether or not it is possible to change someone’s personality. This is often in the context of a relationship or at work, and especially about those in leadership positions, where someone’s behaviour is posing problems. And mostly it is of the type, ‘Please can you sprinkle some fairy dust on them and make them into somebody else’. Fair question and often asked in a moment of quiet desperation, of the Thoreau kind.

By definition personality is tricky to shift, given it is a set of enduring traits. These traits define patterns of behavioural and emotional responses to events. The sticking point is the word ‘enduring’: they are rather persistent. So the short answer is that it often takes something impressively confronting, even catastrophic, to change a strong personality trait. As the old joke goes, How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is ‘one’ but the light bulb has to want to change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Changing a personality trait is not as easy as changing a single behaviour or even several behaviours. So, for example, a person might have a tendency towards being what in the Big 5 is called Conscientiousness. People high on this trait like to be planned, make lists, tend to take great care about things, like facts and are systematic. A person, like me, who is low on this trait is the opposite. So, I might be able to force myself to make plans and lists, to use spread sheets and Gantt charts, but I’d rather not. It is stressful for me. But it is unlikely that I would ever become high on the trait as I am likely to avoid work or relationships where I would be required to be high on Conscientiousness. And I am unlikely to ever change from being an extravert. But I can curb my tendency to ‘think out loud’ in meetings, for example, and to recognise that I need to give introverts time to process information before expecting an answer.

We can modify traits when they are more marginal and when desire is strong. Under stress, however, there is a tendency to revert back to our previous predilections. It can be hard work changing ones traits, being aware all the time of what we are doing, catching ourselves so that we don’t slip and then applying the new behaviour. If the behaviour becomes a habit then we are well on the way to permanent change. So, yes, it’s possible to tinker around the edges, which is what happens with the massive industry around personality profiling, coaching and leadership programs.

One of the more difficult tasks I get as a psychologist, and the most frustrating, is working with people who don’t understand the impact they have on people around them. Because they have no insight into their own personality, they don’t have any chance of knowing what they are doing. When we are confronted by our real ‘self’ humans have a tendency to get defensive, to protect the ego. So getting insight can be a difficult business. It takes a rather special event to get beyond this barrier and it can be quote painful. People who have had personality disorders throughout their life and who eventually start to get insight later in life can be more prone to turn to alcohol or even self-harm when they realise the havoc they have created in their life was of their own making.

So, what can you do: about that over-controlling person at work or in a relationship:  with someone who cannot plan at all and is always in chaos: when your boss is agreeable (another Big 5 trait) that he avoids making decisions because he is too busy socialising; about the extrovert who will never stop talking and seems to change their mind in the middle of a conversation; to help someone who is so closed to new experiences that they cannot see the value of new innovations and creative staff; and about the manipulative bully?

The answer is, not a great deal other than quietly lead them to understanding the impact of their behaviour if you have a close relationship with them, or to confront them head on. Both of these approaches can be problematic and occasionally may work. In the end, though, the motivation to change has to be present and even then the task may not be easy. 

Having said that, the recent work on training the brain and evidence-based psychological methods have been shown to work, where the person recognises the need to change and are prepared to put in the work.

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