Developing Employees – The Role of Personality

Personalities at Work

One day when I was working as Learning & Development Manager in a German corporation, an executive approached me to talk about a manager on his team who was seen as difficult to deal with.

The man was not focused at work, he sometimes missing deadlines, and he was not a clear communicator.

However, he had been working for the company for many years, and his manager wanted to keep him on board. Many previous attempts to correct his behavior had not worked out. This manager was in his late 40’s and the executive asked me this question:

“Do you think we can still change his personality?”

Answering the Question

  • Do people change personality?
  • Can they change to “become someone else?”
  • Are people stuck with what they have become when we meet them?

Here is Another Scenario

My husband was working with a programmer who was being groomed for a career as a top-notch specialist. He was excellent at his job, yet his management did not consider him for a leadership position because they felt  “that’s just not who he is”.

These examples lead to an interesting question:

Is our personality carved in stone?

Can People Change?

I am a psychologist with a career in employee learning and development, so it is not surprising that I fundamentally believe that people can change.

But what does research say?

In the early days of personality research, psychologists came up with many different models to measure people’s personalities. Most of them had one thing in common:

  • They measured personality traits
  • Supposedly anchored in the brain structure
  • Have a stable starting in early adulthood

Nowadays, science is leaning more towards a fluid and contextual understanding of personality.  The situation in which a person displays a certain behavior has an influence on how the person reacts.

Personality Traits

In leadership training, models that assess personality traits (MBTI, DISC etc.) are widely used. Most of these models understand personality traits as relatively stable. I like using these models for example as a tool to get a quick assessment of your team’s personalities.

With the information provided in these assessments, leaders can quickly understand how to approach individual team members, adjust their leadership style and distribute tasks according to personal styles of employees.

The risk in extensively using these models is that they lead to assume that personality is carved in stone. I believe that focusing too much on personality traits takes responsibility away from yourself: As an individual, you’re not actively trying to be your best self.

As a leader, you might not give your employees your best effort to develop and coach them.

A Smart Approach

In reality, there is ample research evidence to support both approaches. And at this point in time, it is not possible to say which one is correct.

In the end, I believe that it doesn’t really matter for you as a leader.

Instead of musing about personality, focus on behavior instead. If an employee is not performing on the level you expect her to perform, ask yourself what the reason might be. Does the employee lack skills and knowledge to do the job, or is it maybe a question of self-confidence and motivation?

Adapting Your Leadership Style

Adapt your leadership style according to the needs of your employee. Agree on SMART goals with your employee in order to measure performance, and review progress regularly. Give your employee regular and timely feedback on her behavior. Be specific, e.g. by pointing out that she showed good leadership when facilitating a meeting.

In my experience, the most relevant factor to learning and changing behavior is the will to do so, open-mindedness, and a commitment to continuous improvement.

The programmer I mentioned before received continuous feedback and coaching from his manager. He was highly motivated to develop towards a leadership role and worked hard to improve his skills.

He is now considered a high-potential within the company and will be definitely be considered for a management position in the future.

So, how are you doing in understanding the best ways to use personality and personality profiles in leading your people? Have you been giving people “a pass” for poor performance because you simply “accept their personality?” Or have you been effective in coach/training beyond personality? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Katrin Kaehler
Katrin Kaehler steers Organizational Learning and Development
Before moving to the US, she worked in International Roles in Europe
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Sonya Kahler on June 6, 2013 at 8:56 am

    In my years as a manager, I utilized both situational leadership, and personality type to approach performance coaching. I would begin with the assumption that I had to change in my leadership style to meet the needs of the particular person, and personality was just one aspect to consider.

  2. Katrin Kaehler on June 6, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Sonya. I completely agree with your approach!

  3. Katrin Kaehler on June 6, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I’d love to hear your experiences: Did you ever work with a leader who focusses too much on personality?

  4. Douglas L. Flor, Ph.D. on June 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm


    Thanks for the article in L2L. It raised a number of questions I have been talking about with the students in my Leadership course over the last few weeks.

    Having been trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist in my Master’s program and managed several research projects funded by NIH during my doctorate at the University of Georgia, including having my major professor during time who was one of the top researchers investigating The Big Five (Charles Halverson) and a mentor in the department who did a fair amount of work with the 16-PF (Peter Martin), I have come to note the following.

    First, research supports much like you stated that certain aspects of personality are able to change, some more easily than others. The measures used to assess these aspects of personality that are open to change from day-to-day, week-to-week, or across various time perspectives are “State” dependent measures, like the 16-PF. To change these, a coach or psychologist can often easily work with the client to change some aspects of these State dependent aspects of personality, and is why even an individual can be successful in making adjustments.

    Second, research also supports that there are more stable aspects of personality across time that are resistant to change, but not impervious to change. These are Trait dependent aspects of personality. Measures used to assess these are the NEO-PI. To change these, a trained psychologist or therapist would have to work with someone often and over a longer period of time with great skill to effect change. And even then, it may not be successful or long lasting, as people revert to the more stable aspects when in crisis mode.

    The problem between these two is that when an unqualified coach, psychologist, or even an individual themselves tries to change the latter (Trait) like they do the former (State) and then wonder why they cannot do as well.

    The MBTI has a considerable amount of research showing that it is a measure more like the 16-PF, in some respects, than the NEO-PI. The fact that there is conflicting results with the MBTI, may in fact demonstrate that certain aspects of the MBTI may be more like the NEO-PI than the 16-PF, though. Hence the conflicting results.

    Anyway, I liked the article. Thanks for keeping these things in mind and in people’s viewpoint.


    Douglas Flor, Ph.D.
    Top Flor Coaching…and beyond
    361 Boy Scout Road
    LaGrange, GA 30241
    (404) 931-1737

  5. Katrin Kaehler on June 7, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to write this excellent comment, Doug! I appreciate how you connected this article to psychological research. As for the MBTI… My profile definitely changed in the past 5 years 🙂

    • Doug Flor on June 8, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Back in the 80’s I was an INTJ on the MBTI. In the mid 90’s I was still an INTJ. Then in 2004 I took it again and I was an ENTJ. I asked how that was possible. The person said, you probably had to be Extroverted to be successful. But I doubt you share much about your inner self. To that I said, Yes.” Thus, I am still an INTJ.