How Your Job Can Change Your Personality

Psychologist Chia-Huei Wu talks about his new book on careers and personality change.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 4, 2021

In a new book called, "Work and Personality Change," psychologists Chia-Huei Wu and Yin Wang offer an in-depth look at the ways our jobs can change our personalities.

I recently talked with Dr. Wu about the inspiration behind the book as well as some of their key findings. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate this topic and what did you find?

My interest in studying how work can shape personality development is inspired by my life and work experiences in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Not only because those experiences have provided different ingredients that gradually shaped who I am today, but also because those work experiences are different enough, due to the different cultural settings, to help me see and reflect on how different work environments and experiences can affect an individual.

Before publishing this book with my co-author, Ying Wang of RMIT University, I conducted several studies on work and personality change. In one study, my colleagues and I found that job autonomy — that is, whether employees have the freedom to decide what, when, and how to perform their jobs — is associated with an increase of one's internal locus of control (one's belief that s/he can control events in her/his life). In another study, I found that time demands at work can contribute to higher job stress, which is associated with a decrease of extraversion and an increase of neuroticism.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I used data from 1046 employees over a nine-year period from the Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia Survey and found that people who experience chronic job insecurity tend to increase their neuroticism and decrease their agreeableness and conscientiousness over time. These findings provide evidence that different features of jobs can facilitate personality change in different directions.

Of course, the focus of my research is very specific. In our book, we seek to offer an overview of how different aspects of work might contribute to personality change. We identify three important sources of work experiences: "What I do." "Who I work with." "How I am doing at work." These have been linked to personality change. The first source ("What I do") concerns our job content and the ways of performing our jobs. The second source ("Who I work with") concerns relational factors at work, such as influences from supervisors, colleagues, and employees' relationship with the organizations. The third source ("How I am doing at work") relates to one's evaluative experience of work performance, such as job success. In our book, we reviewed studies under each source and offer suggestions for future studies.

Which personality traits are most conducive to leadership positions, and can these traits be developed?

In a recent study, my colleagues and I reported that those assuming a leadership position enhanced their levels of conscientiousness more than those who did not take a leadership position.

Practically, these results have implications for both individuals and organizations. We suggest that promoting employees into leadership roles may have the potential to enhance their conscientiousness, which in turn, may further enhance their leadership effectiveness. For organizations, it may prove beneficial to assign promising employees to informal leadership roles to help develop their leadership capabilities over time.

Looking ahead, how can jobs be better designed to facilitate positive personality change?

Consistent with our research, it is desirable to design jobs that have higher job autonomy, lower job insecurity, and lower time demands to protect employee well-being at work and to facilitate positive personality change, or at least to prevent negative personality change.

Research suggests that personality is both fixed and malleable. Which view do you support?

Personality is relatively stable but is malleable. It is not as malleable as our mood that can change within a day, but it is not fixed at all. This is why studies on personality have now taken a developmental perspective to understand why, how, and when personality is likely to change.

What types of life events and experiences tend to result in the most personality change?

I don't think we have a good answer to this question yet. Intuitively, we might expect that personality change results from significant life events. Studies have supported this idea by showing, for example, that unemployment can change one's personality in a negative direction, such as reducing one's agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. However, personality change can also be driven in a chronic way. When an individual is exposed to a specific environment over a long time, the environment may reinforce her/his thinking, believing, and behaving in a particular way over time and gradually shape her/his personality. My research on chronic job insecurity has demonstrated this chronic effect in driving personality change. As such, in some cases, we might find that life events could be powerful enough to direct personality change in a specific way, but the power of a chronic environment in developing one's personality should not be ignored, though we may not be aware of it.

What happens to our personality upon retirement?

Using data from 690 retirees, Schwaba and Bleidorn (2019) reported that there is a sudden increase in openness and agreeableness followed by gradual declines in these traits after retirement. Emotional stability increased before and after retirement. They also found that retirement was not associated with changes in conscientiousness or extraversion. Importantly, they also found that there were significant differences across individuals in the change of these traits, in line with the idea that the impact of the same life event can vary across individuals.