Be Careful What You Change: The Law of Unintended Consequences

Forrest ChristianCareers, Change, Coaching Leave a Comment

In your personality, tweaking one thing will change several others.

Did you ever think that you could learn something about your career and personal development from chicken breeding? ‘Tis true! Read on, true believer:

[Chicken] Breeders working over several decades chose the most productive birds to reproduce, resulting in white leghorns that each year can lay 300 to 320 of the large bright-white eggs most popular with Americans. [Purdue University research William] Muir said that approach unintentionally produced birds that also have a heightened self-preservation instinct and desire to literally be at the top of the pecking order. [Associated Press article by Rick Callahan]

It’s amazing that so much of what we have done that has helped increase natural production so dramatically has had so many other side-effects. Years ago the banana industry was devastated because they had standardized on a single type of banana plant, which had suddenly gotten a deadly disease. Europe standardized its forests to single tree types, meaning that during major storms an entire mountainside would be completely destroyed, laying on the ground.

You can even see it in fur production. According to reports, a Russian scientist working with a fox fur “ranch” bred for tame to reduce the dangers to staff from bites. He ended up with a black and white spotted canine with a dragging tail. Turns out that if you want select for tame you will get a dog.

We all have seen this happen in other areas: someone who has the best of intentions gets a new regulation passed and then, years later, it causes an even worse problem because there were problems that were unforeseen. Science has shown pretty clearly that in a complex system (like “reality”) it’s not just that you can’t see what’s going to happen but that you can’t: the complexity horizon of the system exceeds knowing.

What does this have to do with your career?

Hidden High Potentials are often told that their personality is flawed and that they need to change this or that part of themselves. But here’s the problem: changing that will also change something else about you, and it may be a strength that you can succeed with.

There is no real fault, it turns out. “The flipside of every fault is a strength”, or so the Gallup organization tells us in First Break All the Rules and Next, Find Your Strengths. Talk too much? That works great when meeting new people. Most “bad behaviour” in business is a result of a trait that is simply ill-used or in the wrong place.

Changing yourself is often just stupid. Partly that’s because you will kill the strength that is the flip of the fault; and partly it’s because actually changing yourself is very, very hard. Psychologists estimate that identify formation or change takes 18 months of full emersion into the new social scheme. It is rarely worth it to do this unless you exhibit truly socially unacceptable behaviour (you beat your wife, you steal, etc.). I know several people who are completely narcissistic and that is worth getting changed. That’s different from someone who always wants to run the show.

Most of you don’t have these problems: you’re just considered a pain in the ass to your boss and coworkers. They accuse your personality because that gets them out of seeing the truth: that you are simply in the wrong place.

Yes, all of us need to learn how to fit in. But changing your core personality to do that is usually self-defeating. Far better to find somewhere better to be where who you are fits.

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