Is it possible to help people change their personality through coaching? New research looking at this issue had some really interesting results. Our latest podcast.
Sarah Smith and David Wilkinson discuss a new study looking at whether it is possible to change someones personality through coaching.
Speaker 1: 00:02 Hi, this is the Organizational Success Academy from the Oxford Review, bringing you the very latest research in leadership, management, organizational development, design, transformation and change, human resources and human capital, organizational learning, coaching and work psychology from around the world to make you the most up to date and knowledgeable person in the room.
Sarah: 00:27 Hello and welcome to another Oxford Review podcast. I’m Sarah Smith, the commissioning editor for the Oxford Review and with me today is?
David: 00:36 David Wilkinson, the editor in chief of the Oxford Review.
Sarah: 00:40 Today we’re looking at a paper, which is particularly exploring the impact of coaching on personality change. I will start off by reading a little bit through the information set out in the research briefing, and as things catch your attention then we will perhaps discuss and explore it in a bit more depth as we go through.
Sarah: 01:02 This is coaching for personality change. Recent advances in personality research have shown that a number of aspects of our personality are flexible and can actually be consciously changed. There is quite a lot of good evidence now to show that our personality tends to change over time anyway as we mature.
Sarah: 01:21 However, there is a growing body of evidence to show that the number of personality domains, such as our level or neuroticism and conscientiousness, for example, can be consciously changed. So not just those things will be changing as we go through time and we’re maturing anyway, but with a bit of deliberate, kind of intentional practice or adopting new behaviors. We might be able to shape some of those things. Is that?
David: 01:47 Yeah. This is fascinating because quite a lot of people kind of just assume that our personalities are our personality and is therefore fixed. What this paper is saying two things. One is our personality changes anyway as we start to mature, so there is already change going on in the background, but also that we’ve got probably a lot more control over what our personality is going to be, we’ll see as the paper goes on and that we can consciously make changes to our personality. So we’re not fixed and we’re not, therefore, victims of what our personality seems to be now.
David: 02:20 If we want to make changes, we can do that, but we’ll come across that as we go through the paper.
Sarah: 02:25 Yeah, but it is interesting, isn’t it? I think one of the … I know one of the things I’ve used quite a lot in my work and particularly in some of my coaching work is the use of psychometrics and using kind of instruments to kind of help people to explore what are the different dimensions of their personality? People often really enjoy the aspect and they kind of read the information and have this real sense of, “Oh, this captures something about who I am.”
Sarah: 02:49 I’m kind of really excited, I think, about some of the changes in the personality research in that I’ve always cautioned as sort of people sometimes get very … they identify fully with that.
David: 03:00 Yes.
Sarah: 03:01 Which I think has some limitations in terms of people feeling as if that limits their openness to change. It’s really interesting to see some of the stuff that’s coming up in this paper.
David: 03:11 Yeah, well, years ago when I was doing psychology at university level, we did a series of experiments, actually, on this. Using a couple of the more famous personality indicators, we did this really fascinating experiment where we put 150 people through the personality indicator.
David: 03:37 What we did was we gave feedback to 100 of those people and we split that feedback into half. So 50 people got their real feedback. Yeah, I’ve told you all this before.
Sarah: 03:48 Oh, yes.
David: 03:49 Fifty people got their real feedback, so they were told exactly what the indicator did. The other 50, the feedback that they received was chosen at random from all the other people, so they got somebody else’s profile, just at random.
Sarah: 04:04 Yeah.
David: 04:04 Then the last 50 got no feedback. Three months later, they were tested again for their personality profiles. What we discovered was, the people who got their own feedback back about the indicators, they deepened their personality profiles. They were even more like what they were.
David: 04:26 The interesting group were the people who had been given somebody else’s. What we found was that their personalities started to shift more towards the profile that they had been given rather than what that actually, what it was.
Sarah: 04:40 Yes.
David: 04:41 Then the group who didn’t have any feedback, the control group on either cases, they stayed roughly about the same, which was a really interesting study. That’s years ago, you know, we were doing this in the ’80s. Therefore, clearly there’s something going on in terms of our ability to be able to shift our personality anyway.
Sarah: 05:05 Yeah, yes. This … recently I was reading a paper the other day that was this idea of seeing personality more as a phrase that’s often used now, is this kind of density distribution of traits. This idea that there are different traits that we show to increasing or decreasing levels in specific contexts.
David: 05:25 Yes.
Sarah: 05:25 Actually, the contextual element being something that’s enormously important and has, perhaps, been historically not as addressed as much as it could have been.
David: 05:34 Yeah. One view of personality is that actually it’s a set of behavioral traits in order to survive certain situations. We constructed these personality dimensions, if you want. These ways of behaving in certain situations in order to, and we’ve learned to do this, based on how we’ve done them successfully, what we’ve considered to be successfully, even if it’s maladaptive in the past, which is quite interesting.
David: 06:02 The interesting thing about this paper is it’s actually an experiment based on coaching people for personality change. That’s quite a significant departure from all of this.
Sarah: 06:12 Yeah, yeah. Let’s have a look at what they were doing then. They were drawing on the fact that a number of recent studies have shown that our personality predicts a significant number of life and work outcomes both positive and negative. There was kind of an underlying assumption that there might be certain personality traits or characteristics that might be beneficial for people or people might intentionally want to develop in.
Sarah: 06:39 Personality really refers here to a set of reasonably and persistent emotional thinking and behavioral patterns that predict a tendency to respond and behave in specific ways under particular sets of circumstances or situations. So that contextual element we were talking about.
Sarah: 06:57 Therefore, in order for someone’s personality to have been considered to be changed, the following criteria needed to be met.
Sarah: 07:04 They would need to be a change in the thinking, emotional response, and/or behaviors when the individual finds themselves in a particular situation. That these changes would need to consider to be an enduring pattern of behavior, emotional responses or thinking. Lastly, that the changes would need to endure over a lengthy period of time. All of those factors are important.
David: 07:30 Yeah.
Sarah: 07:31 So personality change, whilst traditionally studies have suggested that by the age of 35, the majority of people’s personality is set for the rest of their life, which is interesting. More recent studies in 2006, 2015, 2016 and 2018 are showing that whilst for the majority of people, there may be little change in personality after this age. This does not mean that their personality is unchangeable. Just because large-scale studies have seen little mean level change for a population, it does not mean that some people within the samples did not change their personalities.
Sarah: 08:07 To assume that our personalities are fixed after the age of 35, based on the date of a majority of people don’t change their personality after this time has been shown to be erroneous.
David: 08:18 Yeah. I think that’s quite interesting, actually, because it’s really starting to question some of the assumptions that we make about the research just because we’re not seeing something across a large population doesn’t mean that it’s not happening within the population.
Sarah: 08:31 Yes.
David: 08:32 To make the assumption, therefore, that it can’t happen is erroneous. Completely erroneous. This is what these studies are starting to show.
Sarah: 08:38 Yes. They’re starting to question and yeah. The current thinking is that about 40% of our personality traits are genetic, and that this still leaves 60% of our personality open to environmental influence.
Sarah: 08:53 This new study, which was conducted out, it’s conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia and the University of Ghent in Belguim have further questioned how open to change our personalities are in a series of experiments using a ten-week coaching program.
Sarah: 09:10 Using the idea of intentional change, the researchers set up an experiment whereby people were given the opportunity to choose which areas of personality they would like to change. During the experiment, volunteers were either randomly assigned to a waiting list for coaching, so some not given coaching at all. Some were provided with a ten-week coaching course of intentional personality change.
Sarah: 09:34 All participants completed the NEO PI-R Personality Indicator, which is based on the big five personality characteristics or traits, before, during and three months after the experiment.
Sarah: 09:46 The participants comprised of 54 adults, so there were eight men and 46 women and they were ranging from the ages of 18 through to 64. The average age was 42.
Sarah: 09:59 The coaching program for intentional personality change consisted of a ten-step process. They had ten weeks and there were ten steps that the participants went through.
Sarah: 10:09 The first step involved assessing the participants’ current personality and then helping them identify their values. The second step, the participants were asked to look at both the positive and the negative aspects of their life and then think about how their current personality may be having an impact on these, which is interesting because that’s very much about rounding their assessment of their personality traits in kind of their behavior, their context, the kind of results and outcomes that they’re experiencing in their lives.
David: 10:41 Yeah, definitely. As you’ll see with this, the whole thing was based on the participant’s wishes, so what it is they actually wanted to change. I think some of the participants, it doesn’t come out in the research, but I think were quite surprised.
Sarah: 10:58 Yes, yes.
David: 10:59 Of the changes that they had achieved.
Sarah: 11:02 Participants were then asked to articulate a vision of the kind of person they would like to be and where the differences were between who they were at the time of the start of the experiment. That real vision of kind of creating a vision of what you would like to be moving towards.
Sarah: 11:18 A lot of this, when you think of coaching work, a lot of some of these steps can be things that we might recognize in a coaching process anyway.
David: 11:28 Yeah, they’re fairly standard things, aren’t they?
Sarah: 11:29 Yeah.
David: 11:29 You would expect to be doing something like this, as a coach.
Sarah: 11:32 Yeah. So the result of this step is then there was a short list of personality attributes that the individual wanted to change. The fourth step then was the participants chose a realistic number of the personality attributes that they wanted to change. They focused in on what they wanted to pay most attention to.
Sarah: 11:52 The participants were then assessed for their attitudes towards change. There’s kind of the work that’s been done on looking at what were the personality attributes, then there’s the bit about openness to change. The key things they were looking at or attitudes towards change were firstly, the importance of change, self-efficacy. So their confidence in their ability to make change. The timeliness of the change and then both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for the change. That was a step in this …
David: 12:21 Kind of like why do you want to make these changes? Got a good reason for it, it wasn’t just kind of an academic exercise from their point of view?
Sarah: 12:28 Quite, yeah.
David: 12:29 Yep.
Sarah: 12:30 Then a coaching plan for each individual was created to address the changes they wish to make and the coaching commenced. For example, participants who wanted to reduce their anxiety or level of neuroticism, they were shown how to set goals, engage in positive self talk, behave and think like people with lower levels of neuroticism, et cetera.
Sarah: 12:51 Week five, participants regain assessed for their personality and progress was evaluated. Then there was a final five weeks of coaching. And then a final coaching session and reassessment of the individual’s personality and how the client felt they had progressed towards their desired change was assessed.
Sarah: 13:11 Participants also developed a plan to maintain their changes. Then three months later, the final step in the research, was that three months later all participants were again assessed for their personalities. It was quite a period of time after the ten weeks of coaching as well. Remember the looking for that kind of enduring change over a period of time, eh?
David: 13:31 Yes. These assessment points were also applied to the people who were just on the waiting list for coaching, which is an interesting thing. The whole thing about being put on a waiting list, it was a series of studies done years ago looking at therapy.
David: 13:48 There were certain types of therapy that were … in fact, it was found to be much more effective therapy to be on the waiting list than actually receiving the therapy.
Sarah: 13:58 That’s remarkable.
David: 13:59 Yeah.
David: 14:02 Be on the waiting list.
Sarah: 14:02 Yes.
David: 14:02 Just that anticipation that something is going to happen.
Sarah: 14:05 Yes. Yeah.
David: 14:06 People actually start to make a change, which is very different than not being on a waiting list and just thinking nothing’s happening.
Sarah: 14:11 Yes.
David: 14:12 That step itself could be creating some changes. That’s one of the reasons they had this research method, I suppose.
Sarah: 14:21 Yep. The results. The researchers focused on three particular aspects of personality for change. There were three particular ones out of big five that ended up being focused on the most. The neuroticism. People who are high in neuroticism tend to respond worse to stressors and are significantly more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They are, therefore, more often self conscious and shy and they may have trouble controlling urges or delaying gratification.
Sarah: 14:56 One of the second aspects they looked at, particularly, was conscientiousness. The personality trait of being careful, or vigilant. So conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well and to take obligations to other seriously. Conscientious people tend to be efficient and organized as opposed to easygoing and disorderly.
Sarah: 15:16 The final one, the third one, was extroversion. Extroversion tends to be manifested in outgoing, talkative, energetic behavior, whereas introversion is manifested in more reserved and solitary behavior.
David: 15:29 Yeah. I don’t know about you, but you know certainly with the experience of coaching, how many clients that you get over time who say, “Well, I’m just the kind of person that can’t do this.”
Sarah: 15:39 Yes.
David: 15:40 Or, “I’m that kind of person.” What this is really opening up is actually we can change that.
Sarah: 15:45 There’s that too. Yes.
David: 15:47 Just because you think doesn’t mean we can’t shift this.
Sarah: 15:51 Yeah. Which is interesting in as part of the ten steps that they went through was that whole reflection piece on actually your levels of self efficacy and how open do you believe you are to what are some of the underlying … it’s one of the key things, I think often isn’t it that we’re exploring in coaching is the openness or desire to change.
David: 16:11 Yeah.
Sarah: 16:11 That kind of belief that you can is the fundamentally important part.
David: 16:16 That’s right.
Sarah: 16:16 Actually, with that in place, all sorts of things can then be achieved.
David: 16:19 Yeah. It makes you wonder how many times, and I kind of think back to the coaching that I’ve done, how many times I’ve actually explored with a client what their beliefs are about change.
Sarah: 16:33 Yeah.
David: 16:34 Quite often, I’ve got to admit, that I haven’t. I haven’t even thought about doing that step because that’s going to be crucial on what comes next. If you’ve got a client who thinks, “Well, no. Everything’s fixed,” you may be having a very difficult time about it. That may end up, it’d be interesting to look to see if there’s any studies on this, actually. It may start to explain the difference in outcome that coaches are getting with people, depending on what their sense of their belief about change is anyway.
Sarah: 17:03 Yes, yes.
David: 17:04 I think we’ll look to see what research there is on this.
Sarah: 17:07 There might well be some. Thinking about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and fixed mindset and wondering how much coaches are … yeah, maybe have a look and see.
David: 17:17 Actually, I’ll make a note of that.
Sarah: 17:18 On that research there might be around reflection based on some of that [crosstalk 00:17:22].
David: 17:23 We’ll go off and have a look. Yeah.
Sarah: 17:23 The researchers found that they were able to significantly decrease levels of neuroticism and increase levels of conscientiousness over the ten-week coaching program. Not only did they increase over the ten-week coaching program, these changes were still enduring three months later when they went back and checked.
Sarah: 17:41 Additionally and unexpectedly, the researchers also found that participants had significant increases in extroversion over the period of the study.
David: 17:52 Yeah. One of the reasons that was unexpected is that whilst they were testing for extroversion, there weren’t actually coaching directly for it.
Sarah: 18:04 For that improvement.
David: 18:05 They were largely coaching for neuroticism and conscientiousness. They weren’t too sure that they’d have an impact on extroversion.
Sarah: 18:14 Yeah.
David: 18:14 Yet, they did have an impact on extroversion and just it sounds like certainly the paper doesn’t go into this too much, but it sounds like just the process of changing personality as the coaching goes through is helping people move into a more extrovert place when they want to.
Sarah: 18:35 Yes. Yes, which is interesting because that opens up sort of possibilities about I guess kind of a sense of psychological safety and if you’re feeling more psychologically safe because you feel more confident in your levels of decreasing neuroticism and increase conscientiousness, does that mean you kind of you have more voice in that situation or context, which then leads to I don’t know. I’m kind of, you know.
David: 19:03 Yeah. What it sounded like to me is this whole thing about self efficacy. This belief in our ability to be able to do something.
Sarah: 19:11 Yes.
David: 19:12 It may well be, and this study doesn’t cover this, but it may well be the fact that they’ve made the change gives them more confidence in their ability to make other changes. That may well be –
Sarah: 19:23 Raising confidence.
David: 19:24 Yeah.
Sarah: 19:25 So the researchers have concluded that coaching can provide significant personality changes for individuals who want to. They note, however, that coaching needs to focus on specific aspects or facets of the personality changes that an individual wishes to make, so some of the things they’ve picked up on.
Sarah: 19:42 Lastly, the last two personality domains of the big five, the other two, agreeableness and openness were not targeted for change. The individuals did not wish to change those aspects of their personality. As a consequence, there was no change in those personality domains.
David: 19:59 Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see and I think this is going to give rise to some of these studies, just because there’s still the question of can this change occur in all domains? So across all five domains of personality.
Sarah: 20:13 Yes.
David: 20:13 That’s why that whole thing about extroversion was a surprise because there’s kind of an assumption, which is interesting even amongst the researchers, that some of these are a bit more fixed than others.
Sarah: 20:24 Yes.
David: 20:25 This is suggesting that actually they are more plastic, you know, there’s more plasticity in the domains of personality than we really anticipated. So, yep.
Sarah: 20:35 Yep. Another thing that the paper emphasizes, so the coaches involved in the research were all registered psychologists with significant coaching experience. These were skilled and experienced professionals.
David: 20:49 Yeah and that was largely for the study and it was done by psychologists, so you would expect that. That doesn’t mean that people can’t engage in both changing their own personality, but also as coaches, engaged in helping people to change their personality.
David: 21:07 What it is saying is you’ve really got to think through about how you’re going about that. They had a clear plan for every participant and that plan was different for every participant, depending on what they wanted to achieve.
Sarah: 21:19 Yeah.
David: 21:22 Clearly, they had, although again they don’t go into the details in the paper, they had an idea about the steps that are going to be required to move somebody from … things like neuroticism are a bit easier because it tends to be around anxiety so there’s some well-worn steps here about reducing people’s anxiety and giving them more confidence.
David: 21:44 The thing around conscientiousness I find quite interesting because you know how do you … what are the steps that are going to go to make somebody have that sense of more efficiency and moving into that? It sounds like it’s more habits, developing the habits and then that changes the personality. As people learn they can actually do it, so they become more conscientious. They become more organized.
Sarah: 22:13 Yeah.
David: 22:14 Certainly, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that. I know myself, you know, I’ve moved from being very chaotic to kind of these days because of my work, I’m having to be a lot more organized.
Sarah: 22:23 Yeah.
David: 22:23 As a result, I’ve become much more conscientious and because, you know, kind of running the Oxford Review, I’m much more aware of the outcomes, being responsible for those, whereas years ago when I was employee at lower levels, I just did my job really and that’s what I was doing. There has been a shift but that’s kind of a mutarotation issue.
Sarah: 22:47 Something maybe in there around that kind of tapping into a more intrinsic motivation that then kind of provides you with a very compelling reason for seeing conscientiousness is something that enables you to achieve things that are really important and very kind of value spaced and having a real sense of kind of purpose. Actually, really helps for some of those things.
David: 23:11 Yes. Yeah. Actually, one of the things this paper has answered for me, because there’s always been an assumption, because I’ve always known that people do change their personality over age and with some of the things I’ve worked on in the past around trauma. Some trauma can change people’s personality.
Sarah: 23:33 Yes.
David: 23:35 A death of a loved one or an accident or being involved in a large-scale disaster can create personality changes. Quite often you find after those sort of major life experiences, people come out quite differently. They can come out significantly differently in either positive or negative ways.
Sarah: 23:53 Yeah.
David: 23:53 You know, you can have people who were quite steady and okay suddenly becoming alcoholics or drug addicts or the opposite way around, actually become kind of more engaged in the world. I think I kind of always assumed that that kind of large scale change was going to be as a result of some kind of emotional shift or trauma or something like that, but this is suggesting that well, more than suggesting. It’s showing that we can plan. We can say, actually, this is the kind of person I want to be and take steps towards that.
Sarah: 24:30 Yes, yes.
David: 24:32 We’re not fixed.
Sarah: 24:33 No.
David: 24:34 This idea that I’m just a type of person, forget it.
Sarah: 24:37 Yeah. That whole it’s one of the things that I find myself reflecting on more and more is this idea, and I know it’s one of the things, I know I’m talking about more with leaders and working on more and more increasingly with coachees is this idea of that moments matter. That in every moment we’re making choices about what we do, who we are, how we behave. Actually, in that process of how we are being in a moment, we are becoming another person or we are constantly in that kind of journey of change.
Sarah: 25:11 Being more deliberate mindful. I think that’s one of the key things in here is that a society of being intentional about that. Because it’s happening anyway, every day we are making choices in what we choose today we’re kind of shaping who we are and some of the things we’re doing the next day, et cetera. If we bring a bit of intentionality to that.
David: 25:32 I think that whole thing about mindfulness is really quite important.
Sarah: 25:35 Yes.
David: 25:36 That noticing where I am and want to be and taking the steps. Because quite often, we’re not thinking about ourselves in a day-to-day. We’re just getting on with stuff without thinking about the effect and how we’re doing it. This is saying that we could have an awful lot more control. From a coaching point of view this is really powerful.
Sarah: 25:58 What’s so great about research like this is being able to share research like this with your coachees, because you’re coming back to what you were saying earlier about kind of fixed mindset versus growth mindset in there’s something quite compelling sometimes about being able to say to a coachee, well, actually, this is what some of the research is actually indicating about the ability for us to be able to change some of these core traits.
David: 26:23 Yep.
Sarah: 26:23 Actually, sometimes kind of hearing that research opens people’s minds up to the possibility that, “Well, if they can, maybe I can,” and tackling some of that, I think, is really helpful.
David: 26:34 Yeah, definitely. It certainly opens up possibilities for people. It also opens up possibilities for coaches because there’s going to be a lot of coaches listening to this who won’t … and I haven’t until I read the paper, really considered using coaching in this way. It was largely about more transactional things.
David: 26:52 This becomes really powerful because you can move mountains with coachees using this kind of thing.
Sarah: 26:58 Yep.
David: 26:59 Really.
Sarah: 26:59 Yeah.
David: 27:01 Great.
Sarah: 27:01 Good. Thank you. Okay.
David: 27:04 Do you want to say what the reference is?
Sarah: 27:06 Yeah, I’ll say a little bit more about, give you the full reference. The reference for the paper we’ve been talking about today then. The paper is Application of a Ten-Week Coaching Program Designed to Facilitate Volitional Personality Change and Overall Effects on Personality and the Impact of Targeting. It was published in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring. The authors of the paper were Allan, Leeson, and Martin. It was published only a few months ago, I think. A couple of months ago.
David: 27:37 Yeah, yeah. We just about a month ago.
Sarah: 27:39 Yeah.
David: 27:39 So you know hot off the press, as it were.
Sarah: 27:41 Hot off the press.
David: 27:42 New research briefing in that way.
Sarah: 27:43 Yeah.
David: 27:44 That’s brilliant. Thank you very much and that’s the end of another research briefing from the Oxford Review.
Sarah: 27:51 Goodbye.
David: 27:52 From Sarah and goodbye from me, David.
27:55 Thank you for listening to the Oxford Review podcast. For free research briefings, audio and video research briefings, research infographics and a whole lot more, visit Oxford-review.com. That’s Oxford-review.com. That’s Oxford hyphen, or dash, review.com. Please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. It would mean a lot to us to have your feedback so that we can make this podcast even better for you.
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