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Career starters beware: Jobs shape personality

You're just starting out in the world of work and trying to feel your way to a great career path. Maybe you're considering the financial aspects and focusing on building a career that will provide you with a decent salary and high standard of living. Maybe you're more intent on developing work that will remain interesting and challenge you intellectually. But there's one aspect you're probably not thinking much about: What sort of person your job will turn you into.

Maybe you should be, suggests Stanford management professor Bob Sutton on his always thought-provoking blog recently. We usually think of our personalities as fairly fixed, formed by a mixture of genetics and early experiences and staying relatively stable in our adult lives (barring, of course, drastic shocks through life events). But Sutton reminds us that what we believe in and value is far more malleable than we often admit.

To illustrate the point, he begins with an anecdote about a recent meeting in which old friends he once saw eye to eye with had changed beyond recognition. To explain this unpleasant metamorphosis, Sutton looks to a classic psychological experiment:

"I was reminded of a very old study called 'The Effects of Changes in Roles on the Attitudes of Role Occupants,' which was published by Seymour Lieberman in Human Relations in 1956. The study was fascinating in that Lieberman was able to gather data during a "naturally occurring experiment" where people who worked in a manufacturing company switched roles -- in some cases moving from a worker to foreman and in other cases, moving from a worker to a union steward. The numbers were not large, only some 58 people changed roles. But the magnitude of the effects were quite large, especially among the new foremen. They changed their attitudes markedly, turning pro-management, pro-company, and anti-union within 6 months of taking their new jobs. For example, 70 percent of the new foremen reported seeing the company as a better place to work than the did when they were workers, while only 26 percent had no change in opinion. 74 percent believed that the union should have less say in setting standards than they did when they were workers. And on and on."

When an economic downturn reversed the fortunes of the company, eight of the 23 new foremen were returned to working in the rank and file where they "soon developed pretty much the same anti-management and pro-union sentiments as their fellow workers," according to Sutton.

So what's the takeaway? Sutton concludes that, "we all need to be very careful of the roles we take and realize that they will probably change us more than we change them." It's an often overlooked insight (who doesn't like to think of themselves as an unbendable pillar or personal conviction?) and one that's particularly important for younger folks who are just starting to dream themselves a career path.

If you're trying to sort out where to apply, what to learn or where to devote your passions, it's important to consider not just practicalities but also culture. Do you want to become like the people in this industry or company? Do they pass the airport test, i.e. could you spend a whole day stuck in an airport with them and not consider homicide? Picture yourself physically working side by side with these people in their work environment -- is it a happy thought? If not, you may not like what you become if you go down that path no matter how forceful you feel your personality is.

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