Can people change, I mean really change?

Can people change, I mean really change?

Hmm, depends how we’re defining our terms. How often have you heard, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And the answer, of course is, “You can but it depends if the old dog want’s to learn them.” It’s like when people say, “Well that’s just the way I am,” or the put down, “A leopard can’t change its spots,” ouch! And “You can’t change your personality,” which is true, but we can all, if we choose, change our behaviour. In fact we do, many times a day depending on who we’re with.

The difference between personality and behaviour

So, this leads us to exploring the difference between ‘Personality’ and ‘Behaviour,’ which are two very different, but interrelated, constructs, which are often conflated as one. When we psychologists assess someone, we see behaviour as the ‘stake in the ground’ with which we are presented and then we ‘walk them several paces back’ to discover the basic personality. Why would we want to do that? Well, because it’s really helpful to understand the basics.

‘Because vs Despite’

For example? OK, let’s use the ‘because vs despite’ approach. A senior manager we assessed in a Private Equity MDD projects extremely dominant, takes charge, is always the first to speak, is frequently assertive and competitive. The assumption? That ‘because’ she is extremely confident in herself and comfortable in her skin she dominates. Right? Wrong! Analyse her personality and we find that it’s not ‘because,’ but ‘despite’ being low in confidence and being uncomfortable in her own skin, she projects in a dominant way. Doesn’t that change the picture? So then it is an overcompensation on her part, her lack of confidence, means she gets in first, will not allow herself to be dominated. Why? Because at a younger age she felt unworthy, lacking in self-esteem and her coping method was to go on the front foot. Then we get to know the person at a deeper level and can help.

The constructs

Personality is the result of the interaction between Genetic conditions, what is in our biological data, and Environmental Conditions, all the myriad of experiences fed into us during the early part of our lives. So, Personality can be represented in this way: P = (G X E).

Behaviour is the result of the interaction between Personality and Situation, so change the situation we are all capable of modifying our behaviour, as we do every day, with differences at work, home, with friends, etc. Behaviour can thus be represented in this way: B = (P X S).

This means that personality is roughly set in the early years, by aged 10-12, and remains pretty stable and predictable. There’s lots of statistical data to back this up, but all you have to do is go to a school reunion, they may be older, balder, heavier but they’re just the same, aren’t they?

Behaviour is, to a large extent, our choice

So, what do we learn from this? Well that people can change, not their personalities but they can modify their behaviour and so can’t really hide behind the old chestnuts, “That’s just the way I’m made,” or “I’m too set in my ways to change,” or worse still, “He made me do it!” So, it can be argued that behaviour is a choice, that we can choose how we project ourselves in different situations and with different people, because we do, every day.

Behaviour has an impact and a consequence

And how we behave can directly affect other people because behaviour has an ‘impact,’ and a ‘consequence.’ The impact is how we leave people feeling, and the consequence is what they do about that. So, a really simple example, you ask someone to work late, they do giving up their own time, and you don’t thank them. The impact is they feel undervalued, and the obvious consequence is next time you ask them to work late, they will remember the impact and tell you firmly, “no.” So, it’s easy to assume we live in some existentialist world where no one impacts anyone else, but we do, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and they impact us.

Respond rather than react

So, what about when other peoples’ behaviour impacts us? Well, that’s an interesting one as it depends if we ‘respond,’ rather than ‘react.’ To react is instantaneous, not thought through at all and is our basic limbic system kicking in, our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode, all from our unconscious mind, and ‘bam’ we react: “It’s not fair, “You’re not so good yourself,” “I’m upset.” But if we take just 3 nanoseconds to respond, then it can change everything. That means weighing up what has been said, passing it through our conscious mind, and come up with the most suitable response for ‘that’ situation and ‘that’ person. That takes nano-seconds and means that we can control the situation. Now, I am not a ‘happy clappy’ psychologist, where everything has to be spun as positive, not at all. A response can be, “no!!” provided it is indeed a response and not a reaction, ie it is the one you consider most appropriate, but that you have thought about it and compared it to other protentional responses.

People are complex, but not unknowable

Like the last two minutes of a US sitcom I guess we say, “What have we all learned?” well, that people are complex, but not unknowable, we can better understand people at a deeper and more meaningful, practical and useful level, whether managing, engaging or competing with them, and to do so it is worth just lifting the lid a little to get a fuller picture. Otherwise it is all assumption and conjecture and then we get surprised! Personality is roughly stable and predictable, but behaviour changes all the time which is why people are so interesting and complex.