There are myriad things that can hold back your career, from obvious factors like the skills, experience, and educational background you possess, to less obvious factors like your physical appearance or your boss’s reputation.
One factor you probably haven’t considered is your personality, defined as your typical preferences and style; but it doesn’t have to be that way. With a bit of self-awareness—understanding how you differ from others and especially what others think of you—you can turn your personality from a heavy roadblock to a killer career weapon.
Unless you’re a second-generation dictator, genius inventor, or extraordinary entrepreneur, odds are your potential to get ahead in your career is going to depend on your capacity for getting along with your bosses, colleagues, and clients. And that requires understanding and managing your personality—coming to terms with it and being in control of it so it doesn’t end up controlling you.
Here’s some advice on how you can leverage your natural predispositions, style, and preferences to advance your career:
Everyone brings a different set of personality-based strengths to the table: for example ambition, extraversion, self-discipline, and curiosity. Identifying your strengths is necessary but not sufficient to succeed in your career; you also need to embrace these bright-side aspects of your personality because they provide the raw materials of your talent. Indeed, talent is little more than an exacerbated version of your personality in the right place.
Say, for example, that you’re a confident, ambitious person who is quite extraverted. A career in public relations could be an excellent fit for you. If you’re less extraverted but more disciplined and curious, a technical field like programming or engineering could be a better fit.
Think of some of the more successful businesspeople in the last quarter century. Would Apple’s Steve Wozniak have experienced the same kind of success had he chosen a career as a stockbroker? Probably not. Would Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman have excelled in electrical engineering? Unlikely. Both men were aware of their strengths and reached their full potential as a result.
It is a cliché to say that everybody has some strengths, but when you look at generic personality characteristics that is indeed true, for three reasons:
- Because everybody has a personality
- Because those default behavioral tendencies will enable adaptation to some environments
- Because in other environments the reverse personality profile will be more adaptive.
To go back to extraversion, it may help you perform well as a salesperson or public speaker, but introversion will be more adaptive when you are required to work independently, display attention to detail, and focus on thinking rather than socializing.
Most companies hire and promote on the basis of key competencies. Although their lists vary, they are largely overlapping. Competencies such as EQ, good judgment, resilience, and global mindset appear time after time. Your personality is key to unlocking these competencies. In fact, the bright side of your personality determines what competencies you are likely to develop, and how well.
Although our natural inclination may be to ignore our negative qualities, that is a recipe for disaster. In fact, understanding the bright side of your personality is important, but it is equally important to be aware of your dark side tendencies.
These toxic assets are default behavioral tendencies that harm your ability to get along with others, posing a serious threat to your career potential. History is full of examples of individuals who derailed in their careers despite being clearly talented and knowledgeable.
So how can you manage or tame the dark side of your personality?
First, you need to identify what your derailers are. Just like we all have different strengths, we also differ in our dark side tendencies. Some of us may be moody and irritable; others too skeptical; others passive-aggressive; and others Machiavellian or narcissistic.
Each of these derailers has specific career implications: For example, the skeptical may be unable to trust others or build close relationships. The passive-aggressive may be immune to negative feedback. And the narcissist may be too self-centered to attend to others.
Second, all of these dysfunctional behaviors are actually rooted in your bright side. In particular, they are extreme manifestations of otherwise adaptive traits. For example, excessive confidence turns into arrogance, excessive prudence into counterproductive perfectionism and risk-aversion, and excessive creativity into eccentricity and weirdness. If you can recognize the strengths behind your derailers, you can use them in moderation, instead of overusing or abusing them.
Third, your dark side is most problematic when you are under stress, when your guard is down, or when you are not making an effort to proactively manage your reputation. So the best way to keep your derailers in check is to avoid not only taxing situations—events that take you out of your comfort zone—but also situations where you feel overly relaxed or complacent.
In short, many of the things that determine the trajectory of your career are out of your control. What you can control, however, is you. Indeed, with a little self-awareness, understanding your personality and how it affects your potential, you can turn your personality into a powerful career weapon.