Can what you do for a living actually change who you are?
We generally think about personality as relatively stable over time (and it is).
But then again, personalities can change.
Especially with experiences that are repeated, day after day and year after year.
Researchers recently published a study following a large group of employees over the course of 3 years, while repeatedly measuring their personality and working environment. They focused on a set of traits called proactive personality.
No matter who you are, you have probably at some point been in a situation where you had to choose between people.
Whether you were hiring someone for an important job or just deciding the roster of your schoolyard dodge-ball team, it’s likely that you were looking for someone who is enthusiastic, positive, and motivated. Someone who sets goals and looks for opportunities to succeed.
Someone with the “right attitude.”
It’s a pretty good intuition.
(These effects even remain after accounting for different ability levels and some other personality traits).
But that’s not the whole story…
Personality can change based on work characteristics
Employees with more job responsibilities—and more control over how they did their job—actually became more proactive over the course of the 3-year study.
Their personalities changed significantly.
Meanwhile, the employees with less control and less demanding jobs did not show changes.
Keep in mind that this is not just the simple case of employees acting a certain way to perform their job roles.
When the job required employees to be more proactive on a regular basis, they developed an increased tendency in general to find opportunities and set goals. At work, and outside of work.
It seems that having the “right job” can give you the “right attitude.”
Work characteristics can also change based on personality
Employees who started off with high levels of proactive personality were actually able to change the dynamics of their companies and jobs.
When companies hired more proactive people in the first place, their work situation changed over time to match their personalities.
After 3 years, they had gained more responsibilities and increased control over how to do their jobs.
Your job can change your personality
We often look for that proactive “right attitude” person.
But it’s important to keep in mind that people tend to become proactive when their jobs that are more demanding and allow them more control.
Sometimes, the “right attitude” can just as easily be learned by giving someone the right opportunity.
Perhaps even more interesting, personality can affect the characteristics and dynamics of the job itself.
For better, or worse.
In this research, proactive employees had an overall positive impact on their organization’s functioning over time.
But there are probably other traits that can be just as influential, in potentially damaging or counterproductive ways.
It will be interesting to see future research uncover these things.