Are you a Chameleon or a Mule?
We all have an ‘outward’ self, the one we project, the one that other people experience. Our outward self is made up of our ‘true’ self in varying degrees. We can adapt our outward self if we so choose, perhaps to ‘fit in’ to an environment/setting or to other people’s expectations and norms. Some people are quite easily able to adapt their outward persona, while others either find it more difficult or have made a conscious decision not to do so, a more ‘take me as you find me’ approach. We can refer to those who adapt easily and willingly as ‘Chameleons’ and to those who adapt less easily and less willingly as ‘Mules’. Somehow these two opposing groups of people navigate their way around social and/or professional situations all of the time. So how does this work in reality, whereby most interactions/encounters pass off smoothly? The praise, I believe, is all for the Chameleons.
Chameleons are like the oil in a car engine. They are the social lubricators whose contributions effortlessly glide their way around those of the more rigid Mules, so that both parties can continue to go about their daily business. Some may believe that the Chameleons are at risk of an identity crisis, and may find themselves thinking that Chameleons are shallow, weak, or lily livered. But actually it can take a lot of skill to negotiate an interaction where one or more of those present is a Mule. Not only does the Chameleon acknowledge the validity of everyone’s contributions, but by doing so the interaction is far more likely to have a positive outcome. Left to their own devices the Mules would get nowhere fast. The unwaivering clash of stances and opinions would have no constructive outcome and no doubt voices and tempers would rise. They will become known as the ones who need to be ‘managed’, separated like two school pupils who are the equivalent of matches to gun powder.
The Mules in our workplaces can’t afford to be flippant when it comes to Chameleons….understimate one at your peril! Not only do Chameleons have the social dexterity to manage Mules, but they know that in time an opportunity will arise to be victorious fairly and squarely, and without the need for foot stamping. To be able to manage social complexities and different personalities requires a higher level of emotional intelligence, therefore it is likely that in time the Chameleon will have their day. Chameleons, I wager, are probably somewhat passive aggressive. They will to appear to tolerate a Mule’s stubborn character but only because they know that they have marked the Mule’s cards for some future retribution!
It is probably appropriate at this point to say something positive about Mules. Whilst they may lack some of the social airs and graces of Chameleons, there is a place in society for people who are rigid and unwaivering. Those who cannot be ‘reasoned with’ are more likely to achieve change because they won’t acknowledge another’s viewpoint. They are probably more likely to passionately defend their position rather than risk compromising it for the sake of social niceties – the Suffragettes come immediately to mind. However, we are not discussing policy making here, more everyday interactions. ‘Extreme’ Mules have the potential to really test the integrity of a workplace or organisation and the Chameleons within them. It can be hard work to always find some positive aspect to an individual’s contribution, and what if the contributions are plain obnoxious or discriminatory in some way? Extreme Mules must not be humoured or allowed to remain unchallenged. To do so will leave those that witnessed the behaviour feeling violated and compromised. Interventional coaching is essential for all concerned.
It is probably also appropriate to highlight the limitations of Chameleons, or rather ‘extreme’ Chameleons. Some Chameleons don’t just take on a slightly different hue, some may turn fluorescent and become so far removed from their true self that even they stop recognising themselves. These extreme Chameleons actually suffer from low self esteem, and find it almost impossible to say what it is that they truly believe or feel, other than to those closest to them. In fact, those closest to them may well inadvertently be on the receiving end of ‘blow ups’ which seemingly come from nowhere, but actually come from the burden of not being able to express themselves honestly. This inevitably will lead to the extreme Chameleon feeling compromised, put on or manipulated. Once a pattern of behaviour or work ‘persona’ has been established, it is difficult to change. Interventional coaching is a very useful tool for anyone wishing to be more confident in asserting themselves.
As with most things in life, people only broadly fit in to categories. Most of us are probably a combination of both Chameleon and Mule depending upon the subject matter and our individual perceived competence in that subject area. However, where workplaces rely on a social forum such as a staff meeting to discuss people’s opinions, preferences and ideas then Chameleons will be vital to that organisation. Without them chaos and anarchy would prevail!