“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, chapter 2)
Recently during a lecture to 100 International students about achieving success in their future careers, a young woman stood up and asked me “How much of my own personality should I put in my job if I want to get ahead?” The fact that this question came from a female member of the audience did not surprise me. Expectations and the influence of gender in the workplace lead to many women to asking just this question.
This question is very common among professional women since the natural female personality traits often conflict with what is expected in the boardrooms of the world. Women manage differently and because they have different traits than men, this sometimes leaves women asking themselves: “How much of myself shall I expose? How much of my personality should I inject into my job?”. While there is no concrete answer to these questions, there are a few tips, a few things to keep in mind in order to help you decide how much of yourself you should reveal.
- Make sure your personality fits your job
Ensure that your personality fits your job. We all have naturally occurring patterns of thought, feelings and behaviors that influence our personalities. Understanding our own traits is essential to matching oneself with a job. Our initial self-discovery usually occurs in our early twenties, during our studies or as we take our first steps into the workforce. At these life crossroads we begin to ascertain who we are and what may be the best possible job fit for ourselves. Sometimes we find the ideal fit right away, sometimes after a few trial positions, and sometimes the searching never ends. What is important is that you continue to look for the best match until you find it. If you struggling to find the right fit, there are resources that help.
Career counseling is one option. Personality tests may also help you find a job that fits. Although, tests are not always accurate therefore I believe the best way is to listen to your instincts. Your instincts will tell you what to do. For example, if you are someone who is unable to sit still, then a detailed desk position is not the ideal position for you. Your instincts will tell you this immediately. So follow your instincts and find out what kind of position makes you feel satisfied. This is the first step, the step that allows you to expose and use your personality in your job. The next step helps you determine how much you should or can afford to expose.
- Understand what brings success in your job
There is a lot of research and there are many experts that believe there are five contributing personality traits that lead to job success. These traits are extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience (1). Having or exhibiting any of these personality traits could contribute to your chance for success. What if your natural personality does not exhibit these traits? Will that hinder success? In my 20 plus years of management experience I believe that any combination of these five traits can contribute to success, even if you do not exhibit them all at once. In my experience I have come to believe the two most important traits are conscientiousness and emotional stability. Conscientious is a trait exhibited or observed in women quite often, although emotional stability; is a trait not often associated with a woman’s management style. This can sometimes cause conflicts within oneself and within management teams. If your personality is somewhat emotional, then you cannot allow your entire personality to permeate the job. If you do you will not be demonstrating one of the success factors-emotional stability. When it comes to the other five traits, you have to understand what leads to success. You will need to balance and manage your natural traits. Promote your stronger traits and depress those that may be in conflict with success.
Although these five traits are viewed as indicators of success, they are not the only traits or acts that make someone successful. Each position and each job has its own demands, which can determine whether someone is successful or not. If you understand what they are then you are on the right track. If your tendency is to have traits that are opposite to those that contribute to success, then you need to decide the amount of success you want. How much of your natural personality traits you are willing to suppress in order to gain a certain level of success. The alternative is changing your position to something that better suits you.
- Understand the stereotypes are personality types and sex
There are certain personality traits that are naturally considered more masculine and others that are considered more feminine. There are many personality traits, which are totally gender neutral. In looking at the gender perception within my own company, I asked a group of managers to tell me if they perceived a series of personality traits as masculine, feminine or neutral. Even within our company, which is not hierarchical and is exceptionally noted for its equal opportunity mix, the following traits stood out as either primarily male or female.
What is interesting here is that people’s instinctive reactions of specific personality traits, and the kind of behavior that is typically associated with either a male or female. To take this a step further, these associations are conveyed as behavior expectations. When transferred into the work place, these behaviors may be viewed as either positive or negative experiences. For example sensitivity in the workplace, especially from a female may be frowned upon because of its association as a weakness. Bravery, on the other hand, may not be expected from a female, but is stereotypically associated with a male. If a woman exhibits bravery it might be seen as an exceptional quality or as out of character and be considered a negative trait. These types of observations and understandings are critical in order to help you determine, how the perception of gender and culture works in your workplace.
These perceptions may be very visible or hidden below the service. I had one young women share with me a very visible gender perception story. The women who shared her story with me are a young woman who recently began her career. As the only female in her investment-marketing department, the CEO of the company approached her one-day with an urgent project. He asked her to come with him to another department where the project was. When they both arrived in the other department the CEO showed her a stain on the carpet, and told her that as a female she would know how to get the stain out. Her “critical” project was getting the stain out of the carpet. Her personality instinctively told her to give him a backhand (for being sexist); but instead she suppressed her natural instinct because it would not have helped the situation. This incident is a clear example of gender perception in the workplace, and how we sometimes need to decide to surprises or not suppress our natural instincts or personality traits.
In other situations gender and cultural perceptions are hidden. I recently overheard a few male colleagues accusing me of being a bitch because I did not participate in their game. Sometimes these perceptions are communicated behind closed doors; you may not be confronted directly with them. The important point is to remember that gender and cultural perceptions are all over. It is best to acknowledge and understand the tolerance level in each organization in order to make accurate judgments of how much of your entire personality you want to contribute and when, and how you will deal with them.
- Understand how valuable you are to the organization
Extremely valuable persons can pretty much allow their entire selves to be seen, regardless of whether or not their personality traits are positive or negative. Managers are often more tolerant of difficult or unique people when they contribute greatly to the company. While this is an unfortunate truth, one should never forget there is a line, and crossing it could cause you to lose your position because no matter how valuable you are, everyone is replaceable.
- Decide how much you want to share in the workplace
Lastly it is up to you how much of your entire personality you want to share in the workplace. There are aspects of my own personality I try never to bring to work since these aspects belong to my family and friends, and they will not help me to succeed nor do they contribute to the workplace. Only you will know which of those traits belong in each aspect of your life.
In conclusion, my answer to the young woman who asked me the question was that each person has to decide who he or she is, just as Alice had to reflect upon who she was. Like Alice, you may change depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. You may need to make changes according to the achievements you may want to attain. You may modify your personality exposure depending on the rules and the expectations of the current situation. To be successful, you have been provided with some of the things you need to reflect upon, especially if you are a woman with an eye on achievement. But remember, only you can answer the question of how much of your personality to put into your job or who you are!