As we discussed in a previous email, most of our personality is the “below the waterline” part of the iceberg and not readily available or visible to others. Behavior, on the other hand, is “above the waterline” and, therefore, always available to others. Not only that, but this part of us is also a choice in a way the stuff below the waterline is not. In other words, we can, and often do, situationally, intentionally, and temporarily modify our behavior. However, we do not, and cannot, do the same with our personality. Although our personality can be intentionally changed, it doesn’t shift situationally and temporarily, like behavior. Furthermore, an intentional transformation in personality typically takes a significant amount of time, whereas behavior can be altered instantly.

To illustrate this, imagine you work on a small team that provides service to clients on-site. You’ve worked together with these team members for a couple years and have become friends, occasionally getting together for social events, which you just did over the weekend. Now it’s Monday afternoon and you’re in a meeting room together, sharing a memory about something funny that happened that weekend. You’re all relaxed and laughing. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a client you provided service to the week before is brought into the room by a coworker. Everyone is startled to see this client, who is known for being challenging to work with, and it quickly becomes apparent they are very upset about something that happened recently. My guess is you would immediately stop laughing, become much more serious, and give the client your entire attention. In other words, your behavior would very quickly shift.

The entire personality, or who you are, wouldn’t change, but the smaller part that is “above the waterline” would adjust. This adjustment may be unconscious, but it’s still a choice. Changes of behavior like this are appropriate and demonstrate emotional intelligence, which can be defined as demonstrating the appropriate behavior at the appropriate time to meet the appropriate needs of the situation. 

Imagine what would happen if you continued to be casual, relaxed, and jovial with the upset client? My guess is it would not go over well. One metaphorical way to think of these changes of behavior is as a slight “rotation of your iceberg,” where you changed what you did but not who you are. In other words, you shifted from your more social, informal pattern of behavior and put a more serious, task-focused pattern of behavior above the waterline. This isn’t about not being authentically who you are, it’s about demonstrating the appropriate behavior at the appropriate time.