You don’t need a personality transplant to be a good leader.

You don't need a personality transplant to lead by Cathy Jacob at

What to do when your boss tells you, you need to change.

Have you ever gotten this kind of feedback?

“You’re too sensitive, you need to grow tougher skin.”

“You’re too blunt, you need to be more diplomatic.”

“You’re too soft. You need to be harder on your people.”

Or my personal favorite, “You’re too vocal or disagreeable, you should speak less.”

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is that their organization expects them to change who they are to succeed.

Why this kind of feedback is seriously flawed.

Feedback on personal qualities is one of the most common forms of feedback I hear about people. It shows up in performance reviews, is peppered through 360 evaluations, and comes up in one-on-one discussions. “You need to be more this; or less that.”

At best, this kind of feedback is unhelpful or betrays ingrained biases. At worst, it’s deeply hurtful and sometimes, just dead wrong.

I call it ‘personality transplant’ feedback. And it can be a barrier to meaningful insight and change.

Telling someone they need to change aspects of their personality to succeed is not feedback, it’s an attempt to fix or diagnose.

Here’s why personality transplant feedback is so unhelpful.

  • Even when well-intentioned, the message feels personal and hurtful.
  • It triggers your internal defenses and sets up a defensive response.
  • It can heighten some of the insecurities and anxieties fueling the unwanted behavior in the first place.
  • It’s not actionable. You can’t just delete aspects of who you are from your personal hard drive.
  • It’s an attempt to fix something and the suggested fix may be wrong. For example, a person who is perceived as ‘too soft’ may be uncomfortable with conflict but may otherwise be very skillful in managing relationships. Suggesting they show less empathy, and more toughness is asking them to suppress key strengths when they actually need to work on their conflict management skills. 

So, what do you do if your boss is telling you some version of “you need a personality transplant to succeed?”

It’s possible that this feedback is unfair and malicious. It’s possible that it reveals unconscious bias.

What’s more likely, is that this is a well-intentioned, unskilled way of giving you valuable information about your impact.

I often ask clients who are still stinging from feedback like this to consider this question. What’s the 2 percent truth in what you are hearing? Chances are, if you are hearing feedback like this, it’s because you’re having an unintended and unwanted impact. Chances are that there is at least a nugget of truth here somewhere.

So, the first step is to assume good intentions and get curious.

Assuming that this is an unskillful but genuine attempt to be helpful can help you to get over the sting of it and get to the real issue.

There is one thing that another person can speak to with absolutely authority – that is the impact your behavior is having on them.

They should stick to giving you information about that. More useful feedback sounds something like – “when you did this, it made me feel…” Or “When you said that I had this reaction.” That gets at behavior (something you may be able to change) and what the behavior is creating (information that may give you insight).

So, ask questions.

“Can you share a specific example of what you are talking about?” or “When you feel I’m too blunt, what exactly are you observing and assuming about my intent? What’s the impact on you?”

Sometimes, the feedback you are getting is not about you.

While it’s always good to start by assuming the feedback you are getting is pointing to something you need to address; it’s just as important not to ‘over-own’ the feedback or use it to beat yourself up. It’s simply information and if you’re lucky, it’s usable information. Sometimes, however, it’s not about you. 

Sometimes, it is someone’s flawed notion about how a ‘good leader’ should be or behave.

I once attended a meeting where a leader announced that one of the team members was leaving the firm. As she made the announcement, she began to choke up as she shared what the person meant to the team.

As she spoke, you could hear a pin drop. Several people were wiping away tears. The departing team member was moved. When she finished speaking, people spontaneously applauded.

A few minutes later, the leader’s boss, who had dropped in for the announcement, pulled her into an adjacent office and berated her for being too emotional and unprofessional.

This feedback wasn’t about her; it was about her boss and his discomfort with vulnerability and emotion in the workplace. She was mature and confident enough to understand this, so while it was hurtful, she didn’t take it as a reflection on her or a signal that she needed to change.

Sometimes the feedback is about the culture and what it values.

I once worked for a company that valued confident, social, extraverted men with an aggressive sales approach. The more confident and assertive they seemed, the more highly the organization valued and paid them. 

That was not my style. I was introverted. I rarely made cold calls. I was uncomfortable in classic business networking situations. In a performance review, my boss told me I needed to be more outgoing and social and more aggressive in developing business.

But here’s the interesting thing. My results were better than most of my more outgoing peers. My sales numbers and billable hours were among the highest in the company. I attracted more client referrals. I developed more lucrative consulting opportunities that provided more interesting and challenging work for employees.

When I pointed this out to my boss (a little defensively, I admit) he laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t really understand that.”

The fact was the company did need people with strong sales skills, who thrived out in the world meeting potential clients and building large networks. It also needed people with strong one-on-one relationship skills who could build deep and trusting business relationships and deliver innovative solutions and impeccable service. These deeper relationship and analytical skills played to my strengths.

My boss wasn’t entirely wrong. There were some useful sales skills that I was missing. But I needed to become more skilled, not more extraverted. 

Sometimes, it’s a question of fit. If your gifts are not a good match for what your organization’s culture values, that’s a problem with the culture, not a problem with you. If your efforts to demonstrate your value are not working, sometimes the best thing for you to do is to find an organization that will value what you bring to the table.

You don’t need to change your personality to be effective.

If you are getting this kind of feedback, it may be that you are expressing aspects of your personality in unskilled ways. It’s not a signal that you need to change who you are; but it may be a signal that you need to grow.

Development does not change who you are; it expands how and what you see, and how you make meaning and sense of your world. It builds your self-awareness and awareness of your impact. As a result, it gives you greater capability to close the gap between the impact you want and the impact you are having.

As you develop, you begin to express your unique personality in more mature and skillful ways. For example, blunt grows into candor and transparency; controlling grows into empowerment and accountability; people-pleasing grows into genuine compassion; and passive aggressiveness grows into courageous authenticity.

Evolution, growth, and change? Yes. Turning you into someone you are not? No.

Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.


  1. Suzanne on November 27, 2022 at 10:47 am

    Loved this.

    • Cathy Jacob on November 28, 2022 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks Suzanne!

Leave a Comment