Career coach: Learn to manage your personality traits

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, May 3, 2010

You've seen it happen: That superstar employee on the way to phenomenal success peters out, gets fired, is demoted, or burns out and leaves. Don't let it happen to you. You can prevent your own derailment from the fast track to success if you recognize aspects of your personality that can quickly morph from strengths into weaknesses.

These personality traits include excitability, skepticism, cautiousness, reservedness, boldness and diligence. Generally, a certain level of these traits is constructive in the workplace. Under pressure, however, individuals can overdepend on these traits and cause problems for themselves. These traits may impede your effectiveness with customers, colleagues and direct reports. And in Washington, you need to be particularly careful about embarrassing or heated incidents -- you never know where those around you will land next in this power town.

The higher you go in a firm, the more likely you are to be vulnerable to characteristics that can derail you. When you're at the top, others are less likely to point out your flaws and give honest feedback. (Would you tell your boss he's arrogant or too cautious?)

Derailed executives have problems with interpersonal relationships; fail to hire, build and lead a team; fail to meet business objectives; are unable or unwilling to change or adapt; and lack a broad functional orientation. Those who derail cling to past habits. They like to do things their way (which is to rely on their greatest strengths). They have been visibly rewarded for doing things their way. Over time, they get into trouble for what they don't do -- which is to change their management behavior in response to different demands and different people.

The goal is not to eliminate these traits -- they are part of your personality -- but to learn to identify and manage them. This way you can spot failure coming a long way off and take the steps necessary to keep it from hurting your career or firm.

Take the leader who shows a lot of excitement and emotions, which can be great in motivating the troops. But these same traits can also impede success, and as a result, a leader's unpredictable mood shifts can drive business decisions. With this trait, being overenthusiastic about people or projects can lead to disappointment with them. Managers that score high on the "excitability" charts are described by the people who report to them as yelling at people in response to mistakes, expressing emotions improperly, becoming easily upset, self-doubting, or not accepting feedback or criticism well.

But there are very effective ways to keep this trait and emotions in check -- this starts with recognizing your tendency to become discouraged and taking time to reflect before reacting. Make sure others understand your expectations. Try to remain relaxed and lighten up during stressful times -- your staff may interpret your mood as an indicator of the firm's well-being.

There are strategies to deal with each of the specific traits that could derail you, and many books and personality tests can help you pinpoint your potential hot-button traits and offer solutions to deal with them.

More simply, to prevent your own derailment or that of your staff, be aware of your actions and attitudes. Ask for quality feedback from your team and your managers. Have seasoned execs share their stories of challenges and blunders -- this can be eye-opening in explaining the nature of leadership.

Increase the variety of experiences for you and your team to offer challenges that teach how to cope with pressure or deal with difficult subordinates. And create an active learning environment for everyone where you can constantly assess and update your management skills.

Have a question for the Career Coach? Send an e-mail to Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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