You Talk Too Much!

Note:  I had a major jolt to my psyche in the past two weeks from two different clients. As well as I think I know myself, then events can come along to surprise even me. See if you can identify with the following. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog can be found on my website at

Can Your Personality Derail Your Career?
After the feedback I got from two different clients in two different parts of the country, I have become a believer that you can learn something new every day, no matter where you are in your career. For me the news I received about my interaction with these two consulting clients really rocked my world and potentially could influence my future in a very negative way. So, what was it that they told me? Simply put, I talk too much and don't listen enough!

I cannot just blow this type of criticism off, either. I have been doing planning research for two different organizations, which involves interviewing a lot of their customers, and some of these people actually contacted my clients to point out that, while the interviews may have been informative, they had a hard time giving their reactions to the plan that was presented to them by me, because I talked too much.

What's Going On Here?
As someone who has spent many years counseling people and more recently, executive coaching CEO's and leaders, this concept of active listening is fundamental and a prerequisite to the fields of endeavor wherein, as human beings, we try to assist others through hard patches in their lives and/or serve as a guide to help them know more about themselves and achieve higher performance in their interactions with others in the workplace. Now I come around to the question for myself; "where and when did I go off the rails?"

The Answer Lies in My Psyche
Twenty years ago, two psychologists, Robert and Joyce Hogan, created an inventory (the Hogan Development Survey) of the “dark side” traits of human personality —11 qualities that when taken to the extreme, resemble the most common personality disorders. After profiling millions of employees, managers, and leaders, they found that most people display at least three of these dark-side traits, and about 40% score high enough on one or two to put them at risk for disruption in their careers — even if they’re currently successful and effective. The result is pervasive dysfunctional behavior at work.

Research over decades suggests that it’s challenging to change core aspects of your personality after age 30. But you can — through self-awareness, appropriate goal setting, and persistence — tame your dark side in critical situations, by changing your behaviors. First steps first, though; you have to identify the unproductive behaviors.

Understanding the Dark Side - There are Three Clusters
Those in the first are distancing traits—obvious turnoffs that push other people away. Being highly excitable and moody has this effect, for instance. So does having a deeply skeptical, cynical outlook, which makes it hard to build trust. Another example is leisurely passive-aggressiveness—pretending to have a relaxed, polite attitude while actually resisting cooperation or even engaging in backstabbing.

Traits in the second cluster are, in contrast, seductive qualities—geared to pull people in. They’re often found in assertive, charismatic leaders, who gather followers or gain influence with bosses through their ability to “manage up.” But these traits can also have negative consequences because they lead people to overestimate their own worth and fly too close to the sun. Being bold and confident to the point of arrogance is a good example; so is being puckishly mischievous, with an enormous appetite for reckless risk.

The third cluster contains ingratiating traits, which can have a positive connotation about followers but rarely do when describing leaders. Someone who is diligent, for instance, may try to impress her boss with her meticulous attention to detail, but that can also translate into a preoccupation with petty matters or micromanagement of her own direct reports. Someone who is dutiful and eager to please those in authority can quickly become too submissive or acquiescent.

Not all dark-side traits are created equal. In a global meta-analysis of 4,372 employees across 256 jobs in multiple industries, distancing traits had a consistently negative impact on individuals’ work attitudes, leadership, decision making, and interpersonal skills (reflected in poor performance ratings and 360-degree reviews). But the seductive traits sometimes had positive effects. For instance, colorful, attention-seeking leaders often get better marks from bosses than their more reserved counterparts. And bold, ultra-confident CEOs often attain high levels of growth in entrepreneurial ventures. Dark-side traits also differ in their consequences. A mischievous, risk-taking leader who is under pressure to demonstrate financial growth can destroy an entire organization with a single impulsive decision. An excitable leader might simply wreck his/her career with a public temper tantrum.

It’s worth noting that a complete lack of these traits can be detrimental as well. An extremely calm, even-tempered, soft-spoken manager—someone who isn’t remotely excitable—may come across as dull or uninspiring. The key, then, is not to eliminate your personality weaknesses but to manage and optimize them: The right score is rarely the lowest or the highest but moderate.

Managing Your Dark Side
If you are in a situation where it's possible, complete a full psychological assessment to identify your potential derailers. Even better: Ask bosses, peers, subordinates, and clients to give you honest and critical feedback on your tendency to display these traits. Tell them that you want to improve and need their candor. How do they see you when you’re not at your best? Do any of the traits sound a little (or a lot) like you? You might mention a pattern you’ve noticed or that others have commented on. You can improve your self-awareness through formal feedback mechanisms, such as performance appraisals, 360s, check-ins with your manager, and project debriefs. The key to gathering accurate information is to recognize that people will generally avoid offering critiques, especially to leaders, unless the behaviors are truly egregious. So in addition to assuring them that you welcome their honest assessments, you should listen carefully for subtle or offhand remarks.

Where Do I Fit In?
After taking the Hogan Development Survey and looking at the three clusters, I land pretty squarely in the middle cluster - seductive - I am geared to pull people in, and my workplace life has reflected that with many leadership positions and an inherent ability to manage up. The question remains, though, why has this personality cluster trait suddenly exhibited itself so dramatically and dominantly in my behavior?

One answer that comes to me is age; I am at a point in life and work where the opportunities to feel valued and worthwhile don't seem as plentiful as they used to be or better yet, I am not making those opportunities happen! Even though I felt some deep humiliation from the feedback I received, I also believe that a healthy dose of humility is always good to remind us that we are human and keep us from flying too close to the sun.

Note: Special thanks to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. His recent article, "Could Your Personality Derail Your Career" (excerpted here) from the Harvard Business Review couldn't have come at a more opportune time for me to help me untangle what is going on amidst the flotsam and jetsam called my mind.