What Are You If You Are Not Who You Think You Are?

American Management Association (AMA) has for decades had an offering, Operation Enterprise (OE), that introduces modern American management practices to college-aged young people.

As you can imagine, it was quite a treat to participate in such a program when I was 19, along with a score of other young people.

As you can imagine, I was pretty clueless when I was 19.  (Actually, I was probably more clueless than you imagine.)

Operation Enterprise was the first time I heard about the Johari Window.  I have written about this model before and about how it is used in T-group.  Back at OE, the exercise was the one mentioned on Wikipedia:  From a list, you choose a number of adjectives that describe you, and then you have a handful of somebody else choose how they experience you as well.  The bigger the overlap, the more others also see the person you think you are.

My biggest takeaway at the time was that you shouldn’t give this exercise to unsuspecting college students.  As previously stated, I was pretty clueless; I don’t remember the correlation – but it was not much better than random.

For somebody less clueless than me, the rational question would have been “WT# happened there?”

I, however, attributed the result to that a handful of young people with whom you have spent less than a week are probably not the best judges of your character.  After all, I knew how much confidence I had felt about answering for a handful of other participants: not very much.

In retrospect, does it matter how sure you are that somebody really is able, accepting, adaptable, bold, brave, calm, caring, cheerful, clever, … (56 of these words) if you respond based on your own impression of that person?

Enough about that face plant.  Fast forward a couple of decades.

After some acquisitions, the company I worked for had expanded its workforce and our CFO, my direct manager, felt that his leadership team didn’t work together well enough.  You would find nobody in the team disagreeing.

Consequently, we booked a couple of days away from the office and one of our colleagues from HR showed up in advance to administrate – yes, you guessed it – an assessment of how well we knew each other.

This time, though, it was not the Johari list but the good old Big 5.  On a scale from 1 to 5 how do you and your colleagues score on these concepts that summed up to the five traits: Openness to change, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

And then we went away, and spent many hours together discussing not only what we had answered but, even more importantly, which data points we had used for answering as we did.

Much to my relief, the CFO and I were very close in how we respectively thought we were and viewed one another.  At most, we diverged one point.  We were known to each other.  But other answers were all across the board.

Ex. one of my colleagues thought I was super introverted.  The data point was that I had an office with an often-closed door.  Like just the week before I had not come out and said good morning even once.

OK, we apparently had some communication issues as, the week before, I had not even been in the office but was visiting sales managers across the country.  The activity had been registered – but this colleague didn’t know that the named activity meant I was not around.

An excellent exercise for checking assumptions; I can only recommend it.  Within a couple of days, we had changed to organization, removed many sources of friction in our processes, and upon returning we had the support of the other employees – who breathed a sigh of relief that we returned with productive results.

The only hiccup I had from this exercise was that as much as I had argued well for the change in the organization and believed fully in it, had gotten a promotion, and had more respect from the new colleagues to whom I apparently had been quite opaque previously, I didn’t like my new role.  It was the right role for our organization.  I was just not the right person for that role.

It had taken me over 20 years to figure out that the story I told myself about what my career should look like was based on other people’s expectations and not on what made me excited to get up and go to work.

I solved the problem the radical way: I moved to another country.  Not because of this; but it helped facilitate the rather large decision that I didn’t yearn to stay in my job.

What do you do when you discover you are not who you think you are?


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. It can take decades if at all to discover your true self. It also takes time to unlearn your conditioning. When I was young and in Catholic school my only career choice was to be a nun or a teacher. That decision was not far off except in actuality. I do consider myself a teacher, however, not as it was first presented to me. As I moved forward in life, I did what I had to do to survive and hopefully thrive. I even took one of many tests that said I would be a surgeon. I had many jobs that were not the right cut for me, yet I learned and was hungry to do so. I am here to contribute, no matter what job..hate that word!!.. I have taken. And I also say, screw society. Who are these people that attempt to judge you or me? Onward.

    • Thank you, Joanne Vicoria. It sounds like you live up to your name.
      Yes, it can take time – and once we have untangled some of the old business, we can start considering of what we thought “they” meant might just have been what we picked up but was not their intention at all.

  2. Charlotte, no wonder that many people do not know themselves well. The greater the gap between who you really are and what you are the more unproductive life you have.

    You hear statements such as “this job was not the right cut for me”. I wonder if it was before or not. But facing your reality is living a life that has no such gap between what you do and who you are. Better to be yourself and do what suits you the best.

    • While I agree with you, Ali, it is a hard learning that what you have been indoctrinated with your whole life – and society still sees as the one and only broadly respected measurement of success – doesn’t fit with who you are.