How Understanding Personalities Can Change Your Career

You know how important emotional intelligence is to success. Here’s how “Personal Intelligence” impacts the dynamics of the modern workplace.

How Understanding Personalities Can Change Your Career
[Image: Flickr user Mariel Peñafiel]

How well do you think you know yourself? Are you a good judge of others?


If you want to become your best self, it’s important to tune into personalities–your own as well as those around you–says John D. Mayer, author of Personal Intelligence.

“Personality is a means by which each of us navigate our lives,” says Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the co-developers of the theory on emotional intelligence. “It balances social requirements placed on us, and helps us go through a series of settings and situations in everyday life.”

Defining Your Own Personality

Whether you’re outgoing, reserved, high-strung, or laid back, you can gather some information about your personality through introspection, but this process has its limits. “We often can accurately identify how we feel during certain situations,” says Mayer. “But we aren’t good at identifying other traits, such as how smart we are. The best we can do is infer information on that by looking at others.”

We can also pick up clues to our personality by listening to what other people say about us. “If someone calls me controlling once, I might not pay attention,” says Mayer. “But if somebody else says the same thing, I might say, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know that about myself. I may have to examine that a little bit more.’”

You can also actively solicit information about your personality, although Mayer says it’s hard to do. “Information about ourselves is not neutral,” he says. “It can make our blood boil or warm our hearts. It’s not always something we can hear right away.”


Our personalities make it easy or hard to perform certain tasks or get along with other people. Part of it is preprogrammed, but Mayer says there is considerable flexibility in how we apply it. In fact, it’s possible to change certain qualities.

If you’re naturally introverted, for example, Mayer says you have three options:

  • You can simply live with it, choosing an occupation and social life that fits.
  • You can mitigate certain aspects of this personality trait, pushing yourself to go to parties, but explaining to friends why you must leave early.
  • Or you can actively work to change it, practicing being more social.

“While moving outside of our natural areas encourages us to stretch in different ways, it takes a huge amount of energy to change your personality,” he says.

Using the Information

Knowing your personality helps shape your future by giving you a range of your abilities. This lets you put yourself in the right situations. If you’re a risk taker, for example, then you could go into enterprising positions such as entrepreneurship; while people who like orderliness might pursue a career in accounting.

Personality can also help us systemize goals by telling a coherent story, says Mayer. It helps you choose a career instead of a job, providing long-term information about what you can contribute and accomplish.


You can also use knowledge of your personality to shape the way you behave with others. For example, if you find out others consider you to be abrupt, you can work to soften that aspect by actively practicing politeness. You can also take partial steps to manage it.

“You might tell coworkers, ‘I know I come across as rude at times, but that’s not my intention. If I do that, please let me know but don’t take it personally,’” says Mayer.

Understanding Others

Those with high personal intelligence are also good at identifying what makes other people tick. This is done through observation, inquisitiveness, and natural curiosity. Information gathered can then be used to adjust your own behavior or thoughts.

For example, Mayer says a receptionist at a medical office he visits is very stern and disapproving. “I’ve come to know that person and understand that to be a habitual quality of hers,” he says. “There is something pleasing in its familiarity. While it is off-putting, I know she is efficient at spotting issues with paperwork, saving me trouble later.”

It’s easy to take someone else’s personality personally, but Mayer says that’s not the correct thing to do. Instead, determine if the other person’s behavior is based on something you did or if it is the person’s way of expressing things.


When you begin to understand the personality of others, you can form models of how that person may react under other situations. Mayer says this is helpful in forming relationships with others, such as coworkers, as you can predict behavior.

“People who are good at figuring other people out possess an advantage,” he says. “They understand people’s needs well enough to know how to cooperate with them, and they identify the troublesome members of the group and can keep an eye on them.”

While personal intelligence is just one of many intelligences we each possess, Mayer says it’s an important one. Other types of intelligence include general, social, emotional, and verbal.

“People who achieve notable successes–however they want to define it–often do so from a sustained effort in a particular direction,” he says. “It’s hard to have a sustained focus without high personal intelligence.”