I’m not sure how many readers will remember that old Cole Porter song, but ‘Don’t fence me in’ is the phrase that keeps springing to my mind when I discuss personality assessment with clients.
“Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in,
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in.”
What’s the problem?
Well, depending on what personality questionnaire someone has completed, what kind of feedback they’ve had, or what kind of management course they’ve been on, they may be tempted to reduce their complexity as a person to a series of letters. Or worse still, a single colour!
They might also start to refer to others at work by the same shorthand, which can impact how they interact with them and what expectations they have of them.
Personality it, by it’s nature, expressed best on a continuum – not as a series of boxes. And when we adopt a label to describe our personality, it’s tempting for it to become more of a self-limiting label, than a useful snapshot of how we like to operate at work.
“I’m no good with detail”
“I can’t handle ambiguity”
“Of course I’m late, I’m an XYDR (or similar ‘code’)
I’m sure you’ve heard similar self-limiting statements from your colleagues and friends – or even muttered a few yourself. You probably really don’t believe your complexity and life’s experiences can be distilled into a code, but it’s tempting to fall back on these abbreviations as they can serve as a comfort zone.
But you know what? So are star signs. And star signs confirm what we think about ourselves to begin with!
We need to regularly get out of our comfort zone if we’re to become rounded professionals. Avoiding discomfort means we’ll avoid situations and experiences that will stretch, challenge and develop us.
Additionally, reliance on these over-simplified views of something as complex as personality can lead us to adopt inflexible responses to the world around us. The self-limiting beliefs can turn into rules we apply to ourselves and others.
So the next time you’re tempted to reduce someone’s personality, attitudes and behaviour to a simple code or colour, ask yourself if you’d like to be ‘fenced in’ like that. And when you hear yourself thinking a self-limiting or rule-sounding belief about you and your capabilities, challenge yourself to remember that a thought is just a thought – it’s not necessarily true or even a good prompt for action.
File those labels away and consider the very flexible ways you and your colleagues can respond to what’s going on around you.
Incidentally, I was tempted to link to the Bing Crosby recording of ‘Don’t fence me in’, but I thought I’d be charitable and share the much more upbeat and fun David Byrne cover instead. Enjoy!