This Could Be the Most Important Personality Trait. Really.

And It's Yours for the Taking

Posted Jan 10, 2019

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Many articles tout short lists of the "keys" to leadership, productivity, or well-being.  Often they are presented as personality traits. Usually I’m skeptical, but I feel strongly about the importance of a key you’ll read about here. 

First, please take a moment to consider what you think the most crucial trait might be.

Now, what are you thinking: self-confidence, decisiveness, wisdom, resilience, charisma, Type A personalty, grit, something about intelligence, something from Myers-Briggs, something from the Big 5?

I nominate something different: the “free trait.” Cambridge Professor Brian Little writes about this concept based on his decades of studying the psychology of pursuing personal goals and projects. 

Elaborated in Dr. Little’s recent book Me, Myself, and Us, free traits are a dynamic feature of personality that people can invoke strategically to meet their goals, needs, and role demands. Stable traits do not bind us; we also can purposely behave differently from our general tendencies to make progress toward our goals.

I love free traits because they can override our usual trait tendencies. They give us options.

For example, with effort an introvert not attracted to public speaking can learn to give compelling presentations and enjoy them just like extroverts can.  A talkative extrovert can be a good listener, upon choosing to listen carefully.   A person who scores low on a conscientiousness scale can behave more conscientiously (reliably, carefully, persistently) when it really matters.  Conversely, someone who scores high on conscientiousness and shows it via focused hard work and long hours can take more leisure time for the sake of health, well-being, and family. 

A free trait is more likely to appear naturally when pursuing a personally-important project or goal.  However, you can capitalize on its primary function—to override a personal disposition—whenever you decide to.

Imagine taking this further: strategically changing a mediocre or dysfunctional current trajectory, making a significant course correction, and charting a new path to a better future.  This is what it means to be proactive

A Prime Example

The ever-popular Myers Briggs Type Inventory offers a clear example.  Myers-Briggs workshops are entertaining and thought-provoking. The instrument sorts people into four categories: either extrovert or introvert (E or I), sensing type or intuitive type (S or I), thinking or feeling (T or F), and judging or perceiving (J or P).

The results place every participant into one of 16 cells in a 4x4 matrix, each representing a four-letter combination. Trainers usually tell participants not to box themselves or others into their cells, but very often that’s what audiences do. 

Helpfully, MBTI manuals say that no score is better or worse than other scores.  They encourage us to break out of your box and try new ways of behaving.  Good facilitators want you to learn to be comfortable and effective operating on both sides each dimension (E and I, and so on).  But I’d wager that few people remember this important point, actually work on it, and intentionally maintain a regular practice of branching out.

A couple of decades ago I trained to become a Myers-Briggs facilitator.  What I liked best was a metaphor, one that I wish were better known and applied.  The metaphor is the 4x4 matrix of the 16 Myers-Briggs types, viewed as a house with 16 rooms (envision the matrix, and put a little tent roof on top).  Your four-letter type is your favorite room, the one you gravitate to after a tough day or a long trip so you can relax, crash, and behave however you are most comfortable.

A big point, though, is that you shouldn't spend your entire life or home time in that one comfortable room. Instead,  you should explore the other rooms.  Get out and about, get to know your other options, step into new possibilities. 

Back to Free Traits

The trait psychology literature is complex and dynamic. Unfortunately, people think about traits—their own and others'—in overly rigid ways. Fortunately, though, people can decide to overrule their trait tendencies and behave in new and different ways.

Professor Little sees free traits as behaviors carried out in the service of a personal project even though it may run against one's "first nature."  As you might be thinking, it can be stressful to act differently from your natural tendencies—out of character, as Little says.   The stress can take a toll, and Little recommends finding “restorative niches” (metaphorically, your favorite room in the Myers-Briggs house) to relax and refresh.

What to Do

To allow traits to define and confine you is to constrain your growth.  Far better is to strategically expand your behavioral repertoire by exploring possibilities, thus developing yourself both personally and professionally.

So may I suggest deciding not to let trait labels dictate your behavior.  Think of your traits as behavioral guidelines, not rules.  Consider them your unthinking defaults, your fallbacks when you're not strategically choosing your best behavioral options.

Furthermore, consider why you might want to sometimes override your usual tendencies, plus when and how to do so.  Move beyond mere thinking and into real action by writing down your implementation intentions.  These are plans that describe the new behaviors you want to enact, plus likely upcoming situations that would be good times to try them.   Phrase them as if-then statements—if X occurs, I will do or say Y. Doing this makes it more likely that, when opportunities arise, you will act as you wish, unconstrained by what personality "tests" say you are.