Why personality is more important than we think

The debate about the role of personality in the workplace was closed two decades ago by scientists who showed that five personality traits could predict job performance significantly. These traits are usually referred to as the Big Five dimensions (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability), and many scientists consider them to constitute a comprehensive perspective on human personality.

Openness refers to the extent to which people are creative, unconventional and intellectual. Conscientiousness distinguishes people who are organized, purposeful and have a strong work ethic from people who are more spontaneous and lackadaisical. Extraversion refers to the extent to which people enjoy the stimulation and being surrounded by people (in comparison to people who are more reserved and prefer to spend time alone or with a few people). Agreeableness describes the extent to which people are easygoing and caring instead of stubborn and competitive. Finally, emotional stability is about the degree to which people are calm and control their emotions effectively. It is considered that every person has a different standing on these five traits.

For instance, someone can score in the average range in three traits but could have a high score in extraversion and a low score in conscientiousness. (On a side note, it is relevant to mention that this model is one of the few models who has shown to be reliable and able to predict lots of real-life outcomes.) Despite its scientific rigour and practical applications, the Big Five is still underused by organizations in comparison to well-known tests such as the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or the DiSC, which are more expensive and for which there is almost no proof of their ability to predict success in the workplace.

Across many occupations, conscientiousness is the trait that predicts job performance with the greatest accuracy. Employees who are conscientious tend to perform better than less conscientious employees in a large variety of jobs. Emotional stability is also linked to job performance across many job categories, but extraversion, openness, and agreeableness are only associated with employee performance in certain occupations. In addition to their capacity to predict job performance, these five traits predict training success, turnover, employee satisfaction, and deviant behaviours in the workplace. Despite the ability of these five traits to predict these outcomes, the size of these correlations are rather low (which means that one cannot rely only on personality questionnaires to make selection decisions). Recent research suggests, however, that we may have underestimated the ability of personality to predict performance at work.

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Here are six reasons why personality is more important that one may think:

1. The wrong measurement approach

Personality is usually measured through questionnaires, in which a series of questions are asked about the respondents’ behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. This approach has been criticized for two reasons. First, it requires respondents have good introspection and have an accurate picture of who they are. Second, if these questionnaires are used in selection contexts, some (most?) of the candidates could try to portray a desirable image of themselves to be hired. Studies conducted in high-stakes contexts, such as hiring, still show linkages between personality and performance. This demonstrates that self-reports are still relevant but certainly undermines its validity.

Recent studies have shown that peer ratings of personality predict far better job performance than self-reports. In other words, the impression that our friends, parents, spouses or colleagues have of ourselves predicts better our success than our impression of ourselves. It also seems that other types of tests called forced-choice tests predict better employee suitability for certain positions. In such tests, candidates are not asked to which extent they agree (or disagree) with certain statements (as it is done with questions using Likert scales) but they have to pick, among a set of characteristics, the one that best applies better to them. As all the options are desirable, it is more difficult for candidates to fake their answers to the questions

2. The assumption that more is better than less

Not all the psychologists and scientists agree on this issue, but some of them consider that there exists maybe a curvilinear relationship between personality traits and job performance. In other words, they suspect that a trait could be beneficial for performance up to a certain point and then could lead to negative consequences. For instance, Adam Grant has shown that highly extraverted salespeople do not represent the best employees. He has shown in a sample of 340 employees than ambiverts (the ones who score in the average range in extraversion) are the ones who generated the biggest profits for the company. It is possible that the low correlations observed between personality traits and job performance in other studies could be explained by the fact that scoring very high on a given trait is not necessarily beneficial and that scoring in the average range or slightly above the average is better than scoring very high in certain situations.

3. The absence of consideration for the context 

Studies have shown the pervasiveness of conscientiousness and emotional stability as traits that predict performance across various industries and occupations. We should, however, never forget that different jobs need different requirements. For instance, people who are extraverted tend to become more effective leaders. In customer service jobs, employees who score high in agreeableness tend to perform better. Finally, studies have shown that the importance of conscientiousness varies according to the degree of autonomy employees possess at work. The more autonomous employees are, the more they will be effective if they are conscientious. However, if they have little to no autonomy, conscientiousness is weakly related to performance. These results point to the idea that it is essential to analyze the personality requirements of a position to be able to predict who might be a good fit for a position.

4. The incompleteness of the five traits 

It would be a folly to consider that one might predict a person’s future performance with only five traits. There is a new influential model called the HEXACO model of personality which considers the trait of Honesty-Humility in addition to the five traits. This trait describes the extent to which people are humble, genuine, sincere and honest. Recent evidence has shown that this trait predicts job performance and deviant behaviours at work beyond what the big five can already predict. Other scholars consider that the big five model does not capture negative aspects of one’s personality such as narcissism, psychopathy or Machiavellianism. Recent studies have also shown that these three traits might be complementary to the big five to predict job performance and deviant workplace behaviours

5. The assumption that traits operate in an isolated manner 

The low relationship observed between personality and job performance might arise due to the complex interactions between traits. For instance, it has been shown that employees who are conscientious do not perform better in team settings than the employees scoring low on this trait if they also score low on agreeableness. It means that the best performing employees are the ones who are high both on agreeableness and conscientiousness and that scoring high only on one of these traits is not necessarily associated with higher performance than scoring low on the two traits. It is then necessary to consider all the personality traits of the candidates before hiring them.

6. The lack of precision of personality traits 

A final problem I would like to highlight in this article is that the big five traits are very broad. For instance, conscientiousness is a mix of different characteristics (called personality facets) such as order, dutifulness, perfectionism, deliberateness, self-discipline or self-efficacy. As the facets are more precise than the big five, they tend to predict performance better (but not always). This is the reason why it is necessary that practitioners look beyond the five traits to analyze more precisely the profile of the candidates on all the personality facets measured by a questionnaire. For instance, it is possible that self-efficacy is necessary for hoteliers, but that deliberateness or order has no impact on their performance.

After reviewing six reasons explaining why the influence of employees’ personality could be more important than what most people think, it seems even more important that hoteliers and managers in any field reconsider the use of personality inventories. The more they pay attention to the type of test they use (because not all the tests are of the same quality) and the more correctly they use it, the more likely they will be able to hire people that will be happy in the workplace, stay for a long time and will be successful. In large hotel chains and groups, I also would suggest that the top management puts in place a study to evaluate how the personality inventory they use or might consider using, predicts their employees’ effectiveness.

About the author

Dr. Sébastien Fernandez (Ph.D. in Differential Psychology) is currently Assistant Professor of Human Behavior and Performance at the École hôtelière de Lausanne. He is also teaching executive education programs in talent assessment. He performs research about selection practices in hospitality and about human factors that predict effectiveness in the workplace. He spent a few years conducting selection interviews and psychometric testing to recruit officers in the Swiss army.

Tags: hiring, personality, talent management


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