Wharton Business School Professor and best-selling author Adam Grant wrote, " 'That's just the way I am' is a missed opportunity for growth. Personality is not your destiny. It's your tendency. No one is limited to a single way of thinking, feeling, or acting. Who you become is not about the traits you have. It's what you decide to do with them."
I agree (and not just because I have an "agreeable personality"). In my work as an executive coach, I help leaders reflect on how what they say and do -- as well as what they don't say and do -- affects the people around them.
After doing 360 feedback interviews, I find myself giving this feedback frequently to those I coach, based on what their colleagues have observed over time:
"You talk more than you listen."
"You ask about your colleagues' work but you don't ask about their personal lives."
"You don't actively seek out opinions and perspectives that are different from your own."
"You don't speak succinctly or get to the point quickly."
"You present your ideas in great detail, regardless of how much detail your listeners want or need to hear."
And far too often, what I hear in response is: "Well, that's just my personality."
That's when our real work begins.
When we respond to feedback with "that's just the way I am," we are, in essence, giving up personal responsibility for our actions and impacts. And while there is plenty of scientific evidence to support that how we behave is a combination of both nature and nurture, it doesn't matter to others whether you were genetically predisposed to talk more than you listen -- or you were raised that way.
What matters is that you take into account how what you say and do makes other people's work or lives easier or harder -- and show that you care about that, too.
Based on my family of origin, I can reasonably assume that I am naturally hardwired to talk more than listen, and was also raised in a way where that behavior was positively reinforced. In my roles as a keynote speaker and business school lecturer, that behavior is also positively reinforced, as in "it's my job." However, in my roles as an executive coach, parent, partner, and friend, listening is as important (if not more important) than speaking. So, despite my natural and nurtured tendencies towards talking, I have learned when and how to adapt my approach.
Like so many of us, I am drawn to those who appreciate "me being me" -- especially so I don't have to work so hard. But that also means I have to put in extra effort to make sure that I have a diversity of styles and approaches among my friends and colleagues. A whole bunch of people who prefer talk over listening are not likely to consider multiple perspectives, take a methodical approach, demonstrate empathy, or realize that there's something important they don't know or understand.
I recognize that my biology and sociology aren't destiny. As a result, I bring a growth mindset to my work and life -- a belief that I can change, learn, develop, and adapt. Finally, it means that I care more about the impact I have on others than I do about doubling down on "me being me."
That's not to say I don't slip into old habits and behaviors, or that I don't mess up when I'm under stress or not paying attention. I do all of those things. But then I read the room, clean up any interpersonal messes I might have made, and get myself back on track.
So the next time you get a piece of feedback about your approach, rather than dismiss it by saying "it's just my personality," try starting the conversation by admitting that you are capable of something different and better:
- "I recognize that my go-to behavior is..."
- "I know that I have a tendency to..."
- "While my preference is X, I know that I can also do Y..."
- "I realize that I have a habit of..."
- "That's my go-to behavior when I'm not thinking about it..."
- "What was rewarded in my family was..."
- "It's easy for me to fall back on..."'
All of these demonstrate that you recognize that you are not your personality -- and that you have a choice about what you say and do next.