The surprising benefits of acting out of character on performance and well-being
Whether the Myers-Briggs, personality colours or the Big-Five, most of us have taken a personality test at some stage in our lives.
The issue is that the majority of these tests are built upon this assumption: personality is stable and unchanging. If you are an INTJ, you will always be an INTJ. If you're an extravert, you behave the same way with your friends, your colleagues and your partner.
This thinking has not only pervaded our psyches but our organisations. In the academic world, the notion of "personality-fit" and the benefits has long been researched. In the real world, organisations often use personality tests as an anchor to "match" personalities to roles during hiring and in team-work. Extravert hires are assumed to flourish in client-facing, sales type roles, while introverts thrive in more solitary, research heavy environments.
Recent research in personality science, however, suggests we think a little differently.
The Benefits of "Acting out of Character"
In personality science, researchers acknowledge that our personalities are made up of stable, biologically-based traits, but emphasise that we are not necessarily confined by them. Rather, we can choose to accentuate, exaggerate or even suppress our traits when we wish (with a little or a lot of effort). We call this “acting out of character”.
Acting out of character involves transcending your biological traits in order to achieve a goal, fulfil a role or measure up to the demands of a situation. It's how a natural introvert like Barack Obama learnt to command a crowd, or how an introvert can appear more sociable and assertive at work to be liked by others.
Interestingly, recent studies suggest that acting out of character can in certain instances, actually make us feel good. In a number of studies in both lab and daily environments, personality scientists have been surprised to continually find that introverts who act extraverted for short periods of time report an increase in positive mood afterwards. Part of this may be due to individuals feeling positively challenged or in the workplace, experiencing reward and recognition that boosts their happiness. An important caveat here is acting out of character over short periods - research suggests that longer periods may lead to burnout and exhaustion.
And it's not just an impact on happiness, but acting out of character may even positively affect performance. In a study of a digital marketing firm in collaboration with Prof. Brian Little, we found that behaving extravertedly at work, for both introverts and extraverts, is linked to higher performance review ratings and salary. In other words, introverts who act more sociably or assertive at work, can reap the workplace benefits too.
Where do we go from here?
There is no doubt that some degree of “fit” between one’s personality and a role, team or environment is desirable. A highly extraverted individual who enjoys sociability and attention may well prefer a role which involves a large proportion of team-work and an introverted individual a role with more research and reflection.
However, instead of pigeon-holing individuals into personality labels, we must recognise that there are some who enjoy having their personality stretched a little, or acting differently at work to how they are at home. In our organisations, we should enable individuals to act out of character by giving them the space but also the support to ensure they do not feel pushed too far.