As learning and development experts (L&D), we are in the business of making learners perform at even higher levels. Often our context is preparing them to take on bigger leadership roles. Sometimes, we are helping newly appointed talent successfully transition to their next opportunity. The meta-skill that is essential in such contexts — the one that we must understand and teach as advisors, trainers or coaches — is how to “go against the grain.”

The Problem: Why Personality May Beat Intentionality

When preparing for or confronting new challenges, humans rely heavily on their past experiences. We delve into our toolbox of proven strategies, applying what has worked successfully for us before. We tend to play to our strengths, both experiential and behavioral, to drive our results.

Specifically, when it comes to behaviors, the behaviors that have worked well for us, we’re typically relying on the traits that come naturally to us. In other words, behaviors that align to our personality. If I’m naturally an extravert, I might go about tackling my current challenge by connecting to more stakeholders, consulting more widely, presenting my results at meetings, and so on.

Herein lies the problem for learning professionals: Our leaders will continue to develop. They’ll grow by layering on top of a natural predisposition a range of new experiences. They’ll further embed existing approaches and in doing so, may miss out on a valuable learning opportunity. They miss the opportunity to fill a behavioral gap by extending beyond what comes naturally, and to embrace new skills and approaches, from the full range of skills that leaders need. A typical case of “too much of a good thing!”

In the case of our extravert, they get better at something they’re already good at, and learns little that is “new,” failing to advance their skill set. In relying on behaviors that align with their personality, our learner increases their level of comfort, and reduces the cognitive effort required whenever we must learn something new. And they may even over-rely on the behaviors they’re predisposed to. As Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan wisely admonish in their synonymous book, “Fear Your Strengths,” an overuse of a behavior can be a weakness.

The Remedy

An African proverb teaches that, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” So, our role, as trainers and coaches, must include teaching learners to “go against the grain,” that is, to intentionally do what doesn’t come naturally. Traditionally, in preparing talent for new or bigger roles, we teach “skills:” strategy, negotiation, project planning, developing others and so on. But if they approach any (or all) of these skills with the same personality-based behavioral approach, we have reduced their opportunity to be most effective.

Of course, operating on “automatic pilot” is fine for simple tasks or unimportant choices. But if we are to prepare leaders for big roles, we need to prepare them for life where tasks aren’t simple, and choices have consequences.

Take our extravert. If their approach to strategy development, negotiation and project planning involves setting up teams, building relationships, reaching out to others, and talking a lot … they may not be utilizing the best approach. “Going against the grain” in this case may be listening to others, working behind the scenes, or letting others be in the spotlight. The best coaching we can give learners is how to be deliberate and intentional  in deciding how they will go about any important initiative, so that how we work is a result of conscious choice, rather than by “default.”

We need to teach leaders meta-thinking, to consciously ask, “How would I normally go about this?” and to challenge the question of “Is this the best way?” For example:

  • If our learner’s personality is characterized by bias for action, teaching them to ask, “Would this initiative benefit from more time spent on ideation?” has the potential to both deliver better immediate outcomes while also giving our learner practice at skills that are less aligned to their personality, which in this case may be creative idea generation.
  • If our learner’s personality predisposes them to involve others, teaching them to ask, “Is this a decision I should just take?” improves immediate performance and gives practice in timely decision making, especially for low-risk decisions or decisions where there isn’t one “right” answer, but simply preferred options.

Training programs often spend time helping learners understand their behaviors. We use personality assessments, or 360-degree assessment instruments, to provide self-awareness. But often, that is where efforts stop. We don’t teach learners how to deal with the practical implications of their wiring by making conscious, regular, choices to override their personality.

When we work with learners or coachees, we aim to teach them how to think intentionally about how to process, rather than work on automatic pilot.

We suggest a process-based approach, which has the learner ask:

  • What is the most important thing I am going to do today?
  • How will I go about it?
  • What are the downsides of my typical approach?
  • What is the opposite positive behavior (e.g., the positive opposite of action orientation is patience)?
  • What is one action I can take, that will advance this work, and which involves a behavior that isn’t typical for me?

This injects intentionality into our behavior: the intention to be strategic in identifying not only what we do, but how we do it, and to enhance our leadership by building overtime a full set of behavioral responses from the initial limited repertoire we come with.

The trick is to make the process of thinking about, “How do I want to behave” a routine. In doing so, it forces us to go against the grain and can lead to exponential growth.