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How Your Job Changes Your Personality

Which kind of work experiences matter most for personality development?

Key points

  • On-the-job experiences can lead to personality changes, in both positive and negative directions.
  • Stimulating work experiences that challenge one's skills and allow for autonomy are associated with increases in agency and proactivity.
  • Experiencing success at work is similarly linked to positive changes, such as increases in optimism and an internal locus of control.
  • Excessive job stress, by contrast, can increase neuroticism and decrease extraversion.

Co-authored by Chia-huei Wu and Lena Wang

Personality can change, and it can be changed by one’s work experiences. In a previous blog post, Dr. Lena Wang and I discussed why personality can change, how our work experiences can shape personality change, and how we can actively engage in certain activities to shape our personality development journey.

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But what are the work experiences that matter most for personality development? Studies so far suggest that stimulating work experiences and work success are the two kinds of work experiences that can help guide personality development in positive directions.

Stimulating Jobs and the Development of Individual Agency

An emerging finding from longitudinal studies over the years suggests that stimulating jobs—or jobs that require employees to deal with a wide range of data, tasks, and people, and that allows them to apply their own judgement in their work—are associated with increases of personality traits reflecting one’s agency. Such traits include an internal locus of control (one’s belief that one can affect events in one’s life) and proactivity (an individual’s tendency to enact changes in their environment).

Why does this occur? Stimulating jobs provide opportunities and challenges to workers, allowing them to effectively influence their environment and thus bringing mastery experiences that foster and strengthen their individual agency. In addition, an increase in job autonomy, or the extent to which one can exercise discretions at work, has also been associated with increases in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. These findings suggest that an autonomous work environment can contribute to personality growth toward maturation, making people be more collaborative and responsible.

Work Success and the Development of a More Positive Self

Personality is also shaped by how we evaluate our work achievements. We like to know how well we are doing, and we tend to regulate our actions and activities based on such evaluative outcomes. If we do things well, we are likely to develop a positive view of ourselves and thus experience a strong sense of agency.

My own studies show that employees who are more satisfied with their work are more likely to increase their positive self-perceptions in general, and their internal locus of control specifically. Objective measures of work success have also been associated with positive personality change. For example, employees with higher incomes are more likely to increase dispositional optimism, openness, and emotional stability over time.

Some Work Experiences Can Harm Personality Development

While it is encouraging to see that positive work experiences can contribute to positive personality change, stressful work experiences, unfortunately, can direct personality change toward undesirable directions.

My research has shown that over five years, an increase of time demands (i.e. having insufficient time to perform work activities) leads to an increase of job stress over time, which in turn was associated with an increase in neuroticism and a decrease of extraversion. Job insecurity also has negative implications on one’s personality change because it brings uncertainty, which can undermine the stability of one’s life activities as well as one’s ability to make long-term life plans. Indeed, job insecurity has been found to be associated with decreased dispositional optimism, and continuously experiencing job insecurity over a long time period has been associated with an increase of neuroticism and a decrease of conscientiousness and agreeableness. These findings show that an unfavourable work environment can have negative implications on personality development.

The Takeaway

What we do at work can shape who we are. While such an effect may not be obvious to us within a short period, over time, its impact can emerge as our work continually shape our perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, which in turn mould us and leave a mark on our personality.

Knowing the impact of work on personality development can empower us to actively shape our work activities by findings way to embrace their positive impact and prevent any potential negative impacts on our personal development in the long run. It can also help managers and organizations to design a better work environment that not only improves workers’ performance and well-being, but also facilitates their personality development from a lifespan perspective. In essence, organizations can contribute to the whole society when they can cultivate workers’ personality growth toward maturation and optimal functioning in the long run.

About the co-author: Ying (Lena) Wang, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer, School of Management, RMIT University, Australia. Her research interests include personality and individual differences, positive organisational behaviour, and diversity management. Lena and Chia-huei are the authors of Work and Personality Change: What We Do Makes Who We Are, published by the Bristol University Press.