When we speak informally about an individual’s personality, we may be referring to any number of qualities, from their temperament to their sense of humor, even the kind of media they like. However, in the social sciences, the study of personality focuses on enduring, reliable traits about a person that can be measured, and which are useful in predicting behavior (Saucier & Srivastra, 2015). The leading perspective on personality within the social sciences is the Five Factor Model, or the “Big Five”, which describes individuals in terms of their openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeability, extroversion, and neuroticism.
When used well, a personality measure can help a manager determine employee placement, and help identify the conditions under which an employee will thrive. When used poorly, a personality measure can be an entertaining distraction, or unfairly label individuals and stigmatize them within the workplace (Weber & Dwoskin, 2014). A great deal of research reveals that personality traits can predict job performance and employee motivation, and can even be used to identify signs that a leader may become destructive or toxic.
This blog post will review some of the basic principles of developing and utilizing a personality test measure, outline the five personality traits that are most commonly used to form management decisions, and will introduce some of the essential research findings regarding personality and its relationship to performance and success.
Personality can be measured
Personality tests are abundant online, and are used to evaluate prospective or current employees in many workplaces. The idea that a short survey can reveal deep truths about a person’s character and their work ethic is seductive – and for many people, taking a personality test is fun, and inspires meaningful introspection. However, the majority of published personality tests, even those developed by trained psychologists, do not predict behavior in a meaningful way.
Personality tests need to meet certain quality criteria
In order for a personality test to bring value to an organization, it must first describe an individual’s traits in a distinctive, accurate way. If a test cannot distinguish between individuals, and consistently provide the same results for the same individual, it is unlikely to be useful. If a personality test has been shown to be reliable and capable of distinguishing people, it must then be tested for predictive validity – the test’s ability to forecast how an individual will behave.
A person’s behavior is influenced by the situation and environment
This last requirement – predicting behavior – is incredibly difficult for the average short personality test to meet. The reason for this is simple: in most cases, a person’s behavior is more strongly influenced by the situation they are in, and the people around them, than by their internal traits. Put another way, someone who is outgoing, cheerful, and productive in one workplace may be somber, pessimistic, and unproductive in another workplace. Humans, being social animals, are sensitive to their circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances have more influence on how a person acts than their internal personality characteristics do.
Even with these major caveats, there are some personality traits that are useful in describing individuals and anticipating their actions. These dimensions, and the research supporting their use, are described below.
The Five Factor Model (FFM) consists of five personality traits
Since psychology’s inception, researchers have attempted to develop a measure of personality that could describe all the essential features of who a person is. A variety of theories have been tested in the ensuing century; personality has been tested with inkblots (Meyer, 2017), by having the participant draw a house, a tree, and a person (Groth-Marnat & Roberts, 1998), and even by examining whether a child can wait fifteen minutes to consume a marshmallow (Mischel, 2014). However, across multiple lines of research, spanning decades, five essential personality traits have emerged as valuable, again and again. These are often called the “Big Five”, the “Five Factors” or "OCEAN" which refers to Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism:
Openness to Experience
People who are high in the trait “openness to experience” are typically adventurous, curious, motivated, and comfortable with unknowns (George & Zhou, 2001). This personality trait predicts experimental, creative behavior, and high adaptability. People who are high in openness also tend to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, making them adept at resolving conflicts and exploring new ideas both in and outside the workplace. People low in openness are more conventional and cognitively rigid, but also need less stimulation and variety in work tasks.
Conscientious employees are usually meticulous, organized, and systematic in their work (Brown, Lent, Telander, & Tramayne, 2011). People very high in “conscientiousness” may be seen by co-workers as highly particular, to a fault. If a job requires organizing information or physical spaces, adhering to specific, high standards of performance, and meeting deadlines consistently without fail, a person high in conscientiousness is likely to be a good fit. People low in conscientiousness, in contrast, are flexible, relaxed, and less adept at keeping projects organized and work spaces clean.
Perhaps the best-known personality dimension, introversion-extraversion can be best explained in terms of where individuals get their energy: Introverts “recharge” in solitude, and require breaks from stimulation, whereas extraverts get energy from being around people, and require social stimulation in order to thrive. Extraverts are often well-suited to jobs involving frequent contact with a variety of people, particularly involving sales and negotiation (Steward, 1996). Introverts function well independently, but are also adept at social situations that are structured and in their control; introverts frequently make excellent teachers and team leaders, though they may not be adept at interacting on an even playing field with a large, ever-changing group.
Agreeable employees have a mild temperament, and can adapt to a variety of situations and work well with a variety of types of people (Colbert et al, 2004). People high in agreeableness are unlikely to cause interpersonal problems or to refuse work tasks; they are adept at taking the perspective of another person, so they can help moderate differences of opinion very well. However, people high in agreeableness are not skilled at raising concerns, providing critical comments, pointing out flaws with a strategy, or doing anything that might “rock the boat”. If you need a critical, discerning perspective, seek an employee low in agreeableness.
Broadly speaking, “neuroticism” refers to a person’s tendency to experience negative emotions (Kamdar & Van Dyne, 2007). People high in neuroticism may experience anxiety, anger, depression more readily than average, or may have sensitive moods in general. Neurotic employees may sometimes be unfairly judged, or seen as less productive than they actually are, because they are open with less pleasant emotions. While people who are high in neuroticism are typically emotionally intelligent and sensitive to others’ suffering, they are typically not inspiring to be around. For a transformational leader or an inspiring, cheerful team member, seek someone low in neuroticism. For someone with a dynamic approach, who can openly air concerns and be frank about negative experiences in the workplace or downsides to a strategy, seek someone high in this trait.
Personality predicts work-related outcomes
There is no single “ideal personality” that a manager should seek to hire or to cultivate in their employees. Instead, it is essential that individuals’ traits match with their job responsibilities in a complimentary way. The more an individuals’ responsibilities line up with their unique combination of traits, the more likely they are to be productive and satisfied on the job. There are several generalizations, rooted in the research that may be of use:
People high in openness perform well and are motivated in creative, varied environments.
Conscientious employees are self-motivated and organized, and require little supervision.
Extroverted employees will perform well in social, stimulating tasks.
Neurotic and agreeable employees work best with team support, and are motivated by approval, social support, and external incentives.
Personality is connected to destructive leadership
Destructive leaders are abusive, neglectful, bullying, or incompetent to a degree that causes employee distress (Ferris et al, 2007). Typically, destructive leadership behavior can be predicted by examining a leader’s past workplace behavior, and by monitoring for worrisome traits: a combination of low openness, extremely high conscientiousness, and high neuroticism can be a “toxic mix”, predisposing leaders to destructive behavior. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a specific example of such a toxic mix of negative personality traits that have the potential to undermine organizational effectiveness.
Effective leaders must have some tolerance for the unfamiliar, a degree of adaptability, and an understanding that employees will not all be perfect. If an individual’s personality impedes their ability to be flexible, tolerant, considerate, and empathic, they may be a poor prospect for leadership responsibilities (Goldman, 2006).
There is more than the Big Five personality model
In addition to the “Big Five” personality traits outlined above, there are several other personality traits that are subject to a great deal of research, and which appear to be relevant to numerous hiring, job placement, and management decisions. These traits include grit, resilience, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. As more research is conducted, this list of traits will no doubt expand. When reviewing the science of personality, keep in mind a few key questions:
Does this trait explain how one person is different from the next?
Is this trait consistent across a person’s lifetime, and across a variety of situations?
How might this trait be exhibited in a person’s behavior?
If a researcher can demonstrate meaningful answers to these questions, the personality trait is likely to be useful for you to consider.
One specific example of a personality trait that has started to draw attention from the scientific and practitioner community is humility. In our CQ Dossier The benefits of humility in business and leadership we have a detailled look at the personality trait humility and its relevance in the workplace and beyond.
References and further reading
Brown, S. D., Lent, R. W., Telander, K., & Tramayne, S. (2011). Social cognitive career theory, conscientiousness, and work performance: A meta-analytic path analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79(1), 81-90.
Colbert, A. E., Mount, M. K., Harter, J. K., Witt, L. A., & Barrick, M. R. (2004). Interactive effects of personality and perceptions of the work situation on workplace deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(4), 599.
Ferris, G. R., Zinko, R., Brouer, R. L., Buckley, M. R., & Harvey, M. G. (2007). Strategic bullying as a supplementary, balanced perspective on destructive leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 195-206.
George, J. M., & Zhou, J. (2001). When openness to experience and conscientiousness are related to creative behavior: an interactional approach. Journal of applied psychology, 86(3), 513.
Goldman, A. (2006). High toxicity leadership: Borderline personality disorder and the dysfunctional organization. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(8), 733-746.
Groth‐Marnat, G., & Roberts, L. (1998). Human figure drawings and house tree person drawings as indicators of self‐esteem: A quantitative approach. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54(2), 219-222.
Kamdar, D., & Van Dyne, L. (2007). The joint effects of personality and workplace social exchange relationships in predicting task performance and citizenship performance. Journal of applied psychology, 92(5), 1286.
Meyer, G. J. (2017). What Rorschach performance can add to assessing and understanding personality. International Journal of Personality Psychology, 3(1), 36-49.
Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. Random House.
Saucier, G., & Srivastava, S. (2015). What makes a good structural model of personality? Evaluating the Big Five and alternatives. Handbook of personality and social psychology, 3, 283-305.
Stewart, G. L. (1996). Reward structure as a moderator of the relationship between extraversion and sales performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(6), 619.
Weber, L., & Dwoskin, E. (2014). Are workplace personality tests fair? Wall Street Journal.
Erika Price is a social psychologist, writer, and statistical and methodological consultant based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Erika's research has focused on the psychology of political tolerance and open-mindedness. In addition to conducting experimental and survey-based research on these topics, Erika helps clients use methodological and data analytic tools to answer pressing questions that challenge their organization.