First, a brief synopsis of the story: Young princess Elza's magical powers allow her to create winter at will. Elza and her sister Anna have a lot of fun with Elza's magic - what child wouldn't like to instantly create enough snow and cold to build snowmen, play with snow angels, or ice skate? One day, however, Elza accidentally hurts Anna. After that incident, Elza becomes desperately afraid to hurt others. She refuses her sister's friendship, hides in her room and wears gloves when in public.
When Elza's parents die, she becomes the Queen of the land - and must, at least for one day, show her face to the world. During that day, people discover Elza's magical powers. Elza now has nothing else to lose and realizes that she can "let go" of secrets and lies. If you haven't seen the movie, watch this one scene below.
Yes. I am talking about personality.
Few people would see anything wrong with the picture I painted above - in theory. Practically speaking, however, we value certain personality traits over others. In fact, deeply embedded cultural norms may determine which personality traits are seen as "better." In the U.S., for instance, extraverts are clearly favored over introverts (check out an interview with Susan Cain on this topic). Other U.S. culture preferred personality-related characteristics (some connected to a blend of traits) may include ambition, energy, calmness, focus, and organization.
Fortunately, most of us are able to stretch. Introverts can act extraverted for an hour or so, during a party. Free spirits learn to create plans and follow them - at least during a critical meeting with the powers that be. Original souls force themselves to implement - again - blueprints of a project they would really like to toss and start over. We wear gloves. We pretend.
To be clear: There is nothing wrong with occasional stretching. In the real world, people must learn to do things they may not like so much. It's part of growing up. The problem is when occasionally becomes always. When we are asked to develop traits we are not wired to express.
Here are a few key lessons for leaders about human personalities:
- Personality is a neutral concept. It's neither good nor bad. Asking someone to develop a trait implies that there is something wrong with that trait to begin with.
- Strengths and weaknesses are interconnected - and depend on the situation. For instance, it's not better in general to be an extravert. Instead, extraversion may be helpful in highly social situations and less helpful when one needs to listen carefully or work independently for long stretches of time.
- Each competency is best supported by certain traits. For instance, individuals perceived as creative are (predictably) more likely to be imaginative and complex thinkers. They are also more likely to be comfortable expressing their ideas and challenging the status quo. These same individuals, however, may find constant requests to "be results-oriented," "focus on execution." or "get things done quickly" particularly draining.
- Since each competency may have its own supportive trait infrastructure, asking everyone to develop the same competencies is unrealistic. For example, service orientation is often supported by a bit of a nervous edge (which generates a sense of urgency and heightened levels of empathy for the customer's problems). Expecting this same rather nervous person to later be stress free and ultra calm makes no sense.
What about you? What strengths are you hiding? How effective would you be if you could take off your gloves?