07. November 2022

First risk-prone, then self-confident

A team of researchers has investigated how the personality of executives changes before and after being promoted

Eva Asselmann © E. Asselmann
Psychologist Eva Asselmann knows how we grow © Eva Asselmann

People with executive tasks typically exhibit certain distinctive characteristics – this has been shown in several studies. As yet, it hasn’t been traced how executives change in the years before and after being promoted. This knowledge gap has now been filled by Eva Asselmann of the Health and Medical University in Potsdam (HMU), Jule Specht of Humboldt-University Berlin, and Elke Holst of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). Their conclusion: There are significant personality changes even before promotion.

How does the personality develop five years before and five years after climbing the ladder? “To find out, we analysed data from the Socio-Economic Panel – a German long-term study that surveys between 20,000 and 30,000 people every year on their income, employment status, personality, well-being, and other things,” says Eva Asselmann. Before she became a professor of differential and personality psychology at HMU in 2021, she designed the study and evaluated the data as a research associate in Adlershof. “We compared roughly 34,000 people who had never been in a management position while taking part in the survey with 2,700 people who had risen to an executive position during the time of the study. We wanted to find out whether there were differences between these groups and how the personalities of prospective bosses had changed.”

What were the key results? Indeed, there are differences – and the personality of future executives began to change already during the years before the promotion. They became more vocally and strongly convinced that they were in control over their lives among other things.” The researchers could also show a significant increase in extraversion and risk proneness. “If I am extroverted and risk-prone, I am typically quite good at selling myself and find it easy to lead a team and break new ground. This increases the likeliness of me being willing to take on an executive position or that I am hired for such a position.” Men, in particular, become increasingly extroverted when climbing the ladder. “Being socially dominant and talkative is more likely to be rated positively in men than in women,” says Eva Asselmann. “It is, therefore, possible that women must score more points with other things to make it to the management floor – for example, professional expertise and performance.” Regardless of gender, almost all the characteristics that had seen increases in the years before the promotion decreased after the promotion. Only self-confidence increased after jumping to the executive level.

Eva Asselmann recently prepared these and other study results for laypersons in her non-fiction book “Woran wir wachsen” (“How we grow”). The psychologist, who also works as a coach and a change manager, gives suggestions on how to increase one’s resilience in addition to giving insights into personality changes through incisive life events. What advice does she have for people striving for an executive role? “Plan your career strategically early on: Where do I want to go and what do I need to get there?” Research findings make it abundantly clear how important it is to build a professional network. “People will have to take the plunge and talk to others. This will give me a clearer picture of my desired position and what is required by it. I can then work towards this in a very targeted way,” says the researcher.

Nora Lessing for Adlershof Journal


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