Are You Successful Because of Your Personality or in Spite of It?

Imagine two doctors: one 'Eagle' and one 'Dove'

Benjamin Child
When people match their personality to their career, they have the potential to thrive. Benjamin Child/Unsplash

Sometimes success is draining. You closed the deal, you finished the report, or you launched the marketing campaign, yet you feel deflated. It’s as if you trekked to the top of a snowcapped peak unaware that you had a bowling ball in your backpack. That invisible burden is often your personality crying out, and it can signify one or both of the following things:

  1. You succeeded, but the work wasn’t a good fit for your personality. No matter how high you climbed, every step felt strained, wobbly, and unnatural.
  2. You were in the right role, but under stress, you overused personality strengths. You turned to confront problems and swung that bowling ball right into teammates.

So, what work fits your personality? How do you recognize when your personality has run rampant? When are you successful because of your personality, and when are you successful in spite of it?

The four personality styles of the DISC model can help us tackle these questions. People tend to identify with one style or a combination of two. I represent the DISC styles with birds to make them stick:

  • Eagles are Dominant, results-oriented, decisive, assertive and competitive. They take charge, relish independence and focus on the big picture. They thrive in jobs with rapid change and innovation. Eagles are common in sales, law, real estate, management and business ownership.
  • Parrots are Interactive, group-oriented, motivational, social and enthusiastic. They need to interact with others and enjoy working in fast-paced environments. They excel in marketing, public relations, sales, training, teaching and other social roles.
  • Doves are Supportive, relationship-oriented, patient, helpful and harmonious. They seek environments in which people work together peacefully, and they enjoy serving others. Doves often work in human resources, teaching, nursing, counseling and customer service.
  • Owls are Conscientious, detail-oriented, logical, systematic and inquisitive. They like analytical roles in which they can solve complex problems and improve processes. Owls excel when they have the time to produce quality results. They frequently work in finance, accounting, engineering, IT, quality control, and risk management.

At some point in your career or education, you probably experienced what it’s like to do a job that clashes with your personality. Owls, for example, often dislike networking. They’d rather spend 30 minutes in one interesting conversation versus three minutes in 10 different conversations. Parrots, on the other hand, feed on the excitement of meeting tons of people. Conversely, making a Parrot write code all day in solitude would be torture, but an Owl might appreciate the complexity and lack of drama.

Similarly, imagine two doctors: one Eagle and one Dove. The Eagle thrives in the emergency room with a hectic pace, constant action, and quick decisions. The Dove feels much happier as an internist who spends long sessions with patients and listens empathetically to their concerns.

When people match their personality to their career, they have the potential to thrive. But even in the right role, people can overuse their personality strengths and thereby undermine their success. In excess, our strengths become weaknesses.

Overuse emerges under stress. Every tax season, for example, Owl accountants can quickly go into overuse mode. It’s easy to identify overuse in others but extremely tough to see it in yourself. Each personality shows telltale signs, though.

An Eagle becomes what I call “The Commander,” a domineering, aggressive and insensitive character. The Commander operates on a hair trigger and inspires fear in coworkers. Picture the scenes in Steve Jobs where Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) clashes with former Apple (AAPL) CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). That’s classic Eagle overuse. When Apple’s success feels threatened, out comes the Commander.

Extreme Parrots become self-centered, disorganized and impulsive. In “The Promoter” mode, a Parrot tends to hijack conversations and steal attention. Just picture Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Carrey is naturally a Parrot and often plays one in overdrive—that’s his shtick. We enjoy seeing Ace annoy everyone around him. But if we had to work with Ace Ventura, he’d drive us crazy!

In overuse mode, Doves become “The Martyr,” a passive, dependent and resentful personality who can’t say “no.” The overburdened Dove becomes passive aggressive and feels unappreciated. An extreme but memorable example is Milton from the comedy Office Space. Milton can’t say no to his boss, Bill Lumbergh, who repeatedly moves Milton’s desk and eventually steals his red stapler. Milton quietly threatens to burn down the building. Rather than stand up to Lumbergh, Milton internalizes his frustration and lashes out inappropriately.

An Owl in overdrive becomes “The Critic,” a pessimistic, rigid and judgmental character. Think of Professor Snape from the Harry Potter books and movies. As a teacher, Snape only tries to find the shortcomings in young wizards. He’s dissatisfied, and hypercritical, no matter what his students accomplish.

Personality overuse is dangerous because we don’t necessarily realize we’re doing it. Our success comes at the expense of coworkers, friends and family members. Sometimes we recognize our maladaptive response to stress. More often, someone else has to point it out. Ironically, the times that we need to be our best are often the times we are at our worst.

When success is draining—when you feel the imaginary bowling ball—pause. Ask yourself: Does this role fit my personality? Have I responded to stress by overplaying my strengths? When you’re in the right position and utilize the strengths of your personality in moderation, your gifts will shine through, and success will energize you.

Merrick Rosenberg is the author of The Chameleon

Are You Successful Because of Your Personality or in Spite of It?