Business managers look to their training professionals to share knowledge and support behavior change. Training programs typically focus on sharing knowledge and building skills while staying away from personality. However, personality has a significant impact on behavior.

The business world moves fast. Therefore, overly-simplistic models are often used to make quick decisions. Asking, “Is it a skills issue or a personality issue?” is one of those over-simplifications used to assess a performance situation. Unfortunately, this simplification creates the illusion that personality and skill are distinct, separate and easily identifiable.

When you observe a behavior, the reality is it is hard to know what you are seeing. Knowledge? Skill? Personality? Attitude? Motivation? The cause of the behavior can be easily misdiagnosed. What if it is a personality issue? Is that fixable or, as adults, is it too late for change?

Business Professionals and IO Psychologists Don’t Always Agree

In the cross hairs of business practice and the science of psychology is the topic of personality. What is the disagreement? Consider this exchange between a CEO and an industrial and organizational psychologist:

CEO: I won’t hire someone into a sales hunter role unless persistence is part of their personality.

IO PSYCHOLOGIST: I wouldn’t be so quick to call persistence a personality trait.

CEO: I disagree. It is absolutely a personality trait. I have seen it exhibited in many situations.

IO PSYCHOLOGIST: Research shows that you don’t know if the persistence you are seeing is a sustainable personality trait or if it is a situational behavior caused by some external motivation, such as fear of failure or promise of reward.

Why is this disagreement important? Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem accurately. Quickly and wrongly labeling something as a personality trait predetermines management and training decisions that often miss the mark. Behavior must be examined more closely to determine if it is a personality issue or a gap in skills or knowledge before we decide how to address the behavior.

Which is Personality and Which is Skill?

A former NHL hockey player, now in the business world, is intensely quiet and focused. He always chooses a seat in an empty row in a classroom. He rarely smiles or looks around. When his turn to present comes, he shocks the room with a charming sense of humor and animated smile. He engages each person with high energy and eye contact. And when he is done, the moment passes and the quiet intensity returns.

So which part was personality? Which was skill?

You likely guessed it. Two well-known personality tests confirmed his personality was thoughtful introversion. When asked about his presentation success, he said he was motivated by another personality trait: drive to achieve. He did what he had to do to achieve the results he wanted. If that meant he had to master the skill of presenting, he would master that skill.

Will People Overrule Their Personality Preferences to Get a Different Outcome?

Only if they want to. This is called self-management. Yet, self-management comes at a personal cost. Acting in opposition to your personality is paid in emotional labor, the energy it takes to regulate feelings and expressions to fulfill the requirements of the job despite your natural approach. It might sound like, “Does acting this way come naturally to you?” or “Would you be willing to act outside of your comfort zone to achieve a different result?”

So yes, people can regulate their personality to exhibit the behavior they need, but they need to be motivated to expend the emotional labor to do so. Training can teach skills, but, without the specific personality traits present to fuel the interest and energy, it may never transfer to the job.

What Can Be Done When Traits Best Suited for a Desired Behavior are Not There?

Trainers fall in love with the people who have the personality type that naturally fuels the skills being taught. Those are the participants you see quickly excelling in the program and are excited to put the training to work.

Then there are participants who feel out of their comfort zone and require more emotional labor to practice the behavior in class. They may exhibit frustration, impatience or negativity. They may need a substitute fuel to drive their interest and behavior.

Training must serve those with and without desired personality traits. This can be tackled through the training program design.

Design Training to Include the Fuel Needed to Drive Behavior Change

Intentionally designing elements into training programs for those without the personality traits to fuel the behavior change is a new opportunity. Yes, training is in the business of personality.

Consider these factors when designing a training program that promotes behavior change:

  • Use personality assessments when benchmarking star performer’s behavior to identify the personality traits most correlated to the desired behavior.
  • Show participants that their personality-based preferences don’t necessarily control their destiny. Share success stories that demonstrate they can perform the new behavior with or without the personality trait.
  • Consider personality traits that predict the degree of emotional labor needed to execute the desired behavior. Design training to provide the fuel for those without the driving personality traits. You achieve better training outcomes by including and engaging this group of learners.

What can provide the fuel to replace the natural enthusiasm the others are feeling?

  • Include the emotional appeal for using the new skills. Experiential learning is better than simply relaying information in this case.
  • Connect participants during and after training to leverage the social motivation to use the new skills.
  • Connect the use of the skill to something intrinsically rewarding for them.
  • Help them anticipate the external rewards that await their changed behaviors (i.e., higher job performance).

Design Fuel That Transfers into Learners’ Work Environments

Include these factors in your program design in order to hold learners accountable for using their new skills on the job:

  • Ensure there is a job feedback mechanism that demonstrates how the new skill is enhancing their performance.
  • Establish a process that expects the use of the skill upon their return.
  • Enable leaders and others to coach learners on their new skills.
  • Create social pressure or rewards to use the new skill regularly on the job.
  • Ensure their leaders understand, reinforce and recognize the new behaviors.

Support Leaders in Helping Them Overcome the Cost of Emotional Labor

“How long will I have to do this?” is the cry of an individual living outside of their comfort zone. This is where people may run out of fuel to perform the new behavior, as it is using up valuable energy.

Will they last? Will they still be happy and engaged? Can they excel? These are legitimate questions for the leader to address once employees return from training. The goal is to create new desired habits in their people. Give leaders recommendations on how to foster behavior change in their newly-trained employees:

  • Explicitly reward the use of the new behavior.
  • Ensure there are other parts of their job that are rewarding enough to make this a worthwhile trade-off.
  • Acknowledge this is outside their comfort zone. Ask them how motivated they are to make the change and for how long.
  • Continue to acknowledge the extra effort needed by those without the desired personality traits to sustain a level of performance, even though a habit will ease the effort over time.
  • Remove the permission to use old habits.

Energize Learners to Produce More Behavior Change from Your Training Programs

Facilitators are expected to be motivating in the classroom. Arm them with the skills they need to motivate learners by highlighting the personality traits that support the desired skills. This enables them to identify those that will require more emotional labor to do so.

To provide more value to the learner, give them tips on how to refuel themselves following the training program, such as working with a peer who excels, practicing with a colleague on a weekly call or utilizing a personal coach. The fuel will be needed until new habits are formed and they taste success. Design your programs to provide these practical fueling plans.

Training is the business of personality. It is essential to design and deliver training solutions for learners who naturally possess personality traits that align with the desired skills and trainees who will have to expend additional emotional labor due to their personality. By accounting for both groups of learners, you will see a significant increase in workers adopting behavior change.