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date: 05 March 2021

Individual Differences at Workfree

  • Adrian FurnhamAdrian FurnhamDepartment of Psychology, University College London

Summary

There is a great deal of research on whether personality, ability, and motivation correlate with behavior in the workplace. This is of great importance to all managers who know the benefits of able, engaged, and motivated staff compared to staff who are alienated and disenchanted.

The research is an area of applied psychology that is at the interface of work, personality, and social psychology. Predominantly, the research aims to identify measurable characteristics (i.e., personality traits) of an individual that are systematically related to work output and to explain the mechanism and process involved.

Research on the relationship among personality and organizational level, promotion level, and salary, all of which are related, is difficult because in order to validate the findings, it is important to get representative and comprehensive measures of work output, which few organizations can provide. The results suggest that personality plays an important part in all the outcomes and that three traits are consistently implicated. The higher people score on trait Conscientiousness and Extraversion and the lower they score on trait Neuroticism, the better they do at work. Similarly, intelligence plays an important role, particularly in more complex jobs.

Recent literature has looked at management derailment and failure, with the idea that studying failure can illuminate success, as well as prevent a number of systematic selection errors. This approach is based on “dark-side” traits and the paradoxical finding that some subclinical personality disorders correlate with management success.

Introduction

Every manager knows that, in the workplace, some people are more engaged, happy, and productive than others. Some go absent a lot and others very rarely. Some work happily in teams, others not. It has been argued and demonstrated that the most productive workers achieve roughly two and a half times the output of the least productive.

The cost of hiring someone who is unproductive and destructive is considerable. Equally, knowing what to look for in those who turn out to be happy and productive is very important. The central questions are what to look for and how to measure it.

People differ on several different factors relevant in the workplace:

Ability: Ability refers to the extent to which a person can efficiently carry out multiple processes. Ability may refer to psychomotor and co-ordination skills or other very specific abilities associated with particular jobs.

Creativity: Creativity has, and no doubt will continue to be, variously defined. At the heart of most definitions, however, is the concept that creativity leads to, or is manifest in, the production of ideas and/or products that are both novel and useful. That is, an idea might be new, but not at all useful, or practical but not new. The essence of the idea is that real, genuine creativity is marked by new thinking that has real applications. Some individuals clearly have the aptitude to be creative in the arts, sciences, or business.

Demographic factors: Demographic factors include sex, age, social class, education, and ethnicity. There are considerable, but highly sensitive and disputed, data that link these factors to success at work. In some places it is illegal to base selection decisions on some of these factors (e.g., ethnicity or religion) and policies differ from country to country.

Intelligence: Intelligence is the individual’s capacity for abstract and critical thinking. Few doubt the effect of general intelligence on performance at work. The more complex and sophisticated the job, the more a person needs high intelligence to perform at it well.

Motivation: Like intelligence, motivation is a multidimensional abstract concept that refers to the drive to engage in some actions. It is notoriously difficult to measure, partly because people cannot or will not talk about the things that motivate them. Motivation is often measured by values, such as how much people want recognition or power, or the opportunity to be altruistic at work.

Personality: Personality is all the fundamental traits or characteristics of the person (or of people generally) that endure over time and that account for consistent patterns of responses to everyday situations. Personality traits supposedly account for the what, why, and how of human functioning.

Style: The concept of style in psychology can be traced back a century. It seems that the concept of cognitive style preceded others, like learning style. The concept of style is particularly attractive to many people, more so than trait, at least in popular and applied rather than academic circles, partly because it implies ease of change. One adopts a style that is easy to modify. Applied psychologists in educational, clinical, and work settings have embraced the concept of style and this has led in turn to a profusion of styles (coping style, thinking style) and measures.

Strength: The original conceptualization of strengths meant psychological processes or mechanisms that define virtues. They are not the opposite of a desirable trait (a counterexample is steadfast and flexible, which are opposites but are both commonly seen as desirable); Strengths are however seen to be trait-like in that they are habitual patterns that are relatively stable over time). Some strengths are absent in some individuals. They tend to be nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

A Note on Cultural Differences

The majority of the research reported here has been published in English (the de facto language of science) and is based on Western data. This always raises the question whether the findings can be replicated across different national and corporate cultures. Certainly, there is a very considerable literature on the measurement and structure of personality, which is assessed in up to 50 different languages. The results show surprisingly few differences.

However, it is quite possible that work is arranged in very different ways in different cultures depending on technology, teamwork, and how outcomes are measured and rewarded. This could mean that individual differences impact differently from culture to culture. We know that many Western cultures are highly individualistic, while many Eastern cultures are more collectivistic. Thus, individual differences relating to teamwork could well play a much more important role in work outcomes in collectivistic cultures.

Analyzing Multiple Variables

In this area, different concepts are related, and when looking at the effect of personality and work outcomes, it is essential that one consider several factors and how they interact. More important is longitudinal analysis. For example, Furnham and Cheng (2017) measured parental social status (at birth), childhood intelligence and self-esteem (at age 10), locus of control (at age 16), psychological distress (age 30), educational qualifications (age 34), current occupation, weekly net income, house ownership status, and number of rooms in the home (all measured at age 38). Furnham and Cheng showed that childhood intelligence, locus of control, education, and occupation were all independent predictors of adult financial status for both men and women. Financial status is a good outcome variable. Parental social status and psychological distress were also significant predictors of the outcome variable for men, but not for women.

It is well known that many factors contribute to a person’s happiness and success at work. While ability, motivation, and personality play a part, several other factors are also implicated. The best research involves looking at these salient factors, over time, with solid outcome measures of work behavior. The challenge for the researcher lies not so much in analyzing and modeling the data, but in finding it in the first place.

Intelligence at Work

Intelligence is a good predictor of success in complex work (Furnham, 2008). By definition, those who are most able to deal with complexity and are most efficient at information storage and processing are in the best position to succeed in “high-powered” jobs.

Perhaps the best summary of the role of intelligence at work was by Goddfredson (1994), in collaboration with 50 of the world’s experts on intelligence:

IQ is strongly related, probably more so than any other single measurable human trait, to many important educational, occupational, economic, and social outcomes. Its relation to the welfare and performance of individuals is very strong in some arenas in life (education, military training), moderate but robust in others (social competence), and modest but consistent in others (law-abidingness). Whatever IQ tests measure, it is of great practical and social importance.

A high IQ is an advantage in life because virtually all activities require some reasoning and decision-making. Conversely, a low IQ is often a disadvantage, especially in disorganized environments. Of course, a high IQ no more guarantees success than a low IQ guarantees failure in life. There are many exceptions, but the odds for success in our society greatly favor individuals with higher IQs.

The practical advantages of having a higher IQ increase as life settings become more complex (novel, ambiguous, changing, unpredictable, or multifaceted). For example, a high IQ is generally necessary to perform well in highly complex or fluid jobs (the professions, management), it is a considerable advantage in moderately complex jobs (crafts, clerical and police work), but it provides less advantage in settings that require only routine decision-making or simple problem-solving (unskilled work).

Differences in intelligence certainly are not the only factor affecting performance in education, training, and highly complex jobs (no one claims they are), but intelligence is often the most important. When individuals have already been selected for high (or low) intelligence and so do not differ as much in IQ, as in graduate school (or special education), other influences on performance loom larger in comparison.

Certain personality traits, special talents, aptitudes, physical capabilities, experience, and the like are important (sometimes essential) for successful performance in many jobs, but they have narrower (or unknown) applicability or “transferability” across tasks and settings compared with general intelligence. Some scholars choose to refer to these other human traits as other “intelligences.”

There have been a number of important meta-analyses of studies on the relationship between intelligence and work outcomes (Schmitt & Hunter, 1998, 2004). In the past quarter-century, a large and compelling literature has shown that intelligence is a good predictor of both job performance and training proficiency at work (Dragow, 2003). Extensive meta-analytic reviews have shown that intelligence was a good predictor of job performance, but particularly in complex jobs. Although debated, researchers suggest the correlation between intelligence and job performance is around r = 0.50 (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998, 2004). The central question is what other factors, such as personality or social/emotional intelligence (sometimes called “social skills”), account for the rest of the variance. But referring to g or general intelligence, Dragow (2003) was forced to conclude, “For understanding performance in the workplace, and especially task performance and training performance, g is the key. . . . g accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the explained variance when predicting training and job performance” (p. 126).

The Taxonomy of Personality

Personality dimensions are behavioral dispositions in the sense that they correlate with determination and drive, to affect social behavior.

Personality dimensions are relatively stable over time and manifest consistently and coherently over varying social situations. To understand personality’s functions, the personality of a person can, and must, be decomposed into its specific and fundamental parts, elements, and building blocks, as well as be combined into an organized whole system.

Though there remain some disputes among trait psychologists, it is perhaps fair to say that most personality psychologists accept the five-factor (Big Five) model.

Figure 1 depicts some current personality models. While there are many other theories and models, some well-established and commercially well-used, like the Myers-Brigg Type Inventory (MBTI), the academic literature has been dominated by the Big Five model and various relatively similar tests of varying length to measure the traits (Furnham, 2008). Suffice it to say, the Big Five model has dominated personality research for the last 20 years.

Figure 1. The one-, two-, and five-factor descriptions of personality.

The Big Five dimensions are set out in Table 1.

Table 1. The Big Five Traits: Characteristics of High, Average, and Low Levels

High

Average

Low

1. Neuroticism Sensitive, emotional, and prone to experience feelings that are upsetting.

Generally calm and able to deal with stress, but sometimes experiences feelings of guilt, anger, or sadness.

Secure, hardy, and generally relaxed, even under stressful conditions.

2. Extraversion Extraverted, outgoing, active, and high-spirited. Prefers to be around people most of the time.

Moderate in activity and enthusiasm. Enjoys the company of others but also values privacy.

Introverted, reserved, and serious. Prefers to be alone or with a few close friends.

3. Openness to experience

Open to new experiences. Has broad interests and is very imaginative.

Practical but willing to consider new ways of doing things. Seeks a balance between the old and the new.

Down-to-earth, practical, traditional, and pretty much set in their ways.

4. Agreeableness Compassionate, good-natured, and eager to cooperate and avoid conflict.

Generally warm, trusting, and agreeable, but can sometimes be stubborn and competitive.

Hardheaded, skeptical, proud, and competitive. Tends to express anger directly.

5. Conscientiousness Conscientious and well organized. Has high standards and always strives to achieve goals.

Dependable and moderately well organized. Generally has clear goals but is able to set work aside.

Easygoing, not very well organized, and sometimes careless. Prefers not to make plans.

Table 2 sets out the five factors of personality, using adjectives, Q-sort items, positive benefits, and negative costs that define each personality trait. Others have considered personality from an evolutionary perspective. Nettle (2006) noted that his “trade-off” evolutionary account of traits may be useful partly because it is hypothesis-generating: for example, Neuroticism may facilitate performance on particular perceptual motor tasks, highly Open people may be either particularly culturally embraced or marginalized, Conscientious people are slow to respond to affordances in the local environment, or Agreeable people often may be regarded as “suckers” or victims of exploitative individuals.

Table 2. Positive and Negative Consequences of Each Big-Five Trait

There have been as many speculations as studies that have investigated the relationship between the Big Five dimensions and different work outcomes (Judge & Locke, 1992; Judge, Martocchio, & Thoresen, 1997; Judge, Higgins, Thoresen, & Barrick, 1999). The work goes back to World War I and the requirement for the military to fit people to the job. Because of the multitude of tests used and the unreliability of the outcome variable, it is difficult to interpret these early studies. However, over the past 30 years, agreement about what to measure, the development of better tests, and the use of multivariate analysis have resulted in several good studies that allow for some conclusions to be drawn.

Table 3 presents some of these hypotheses (Furnham, 2018a). This is not a meta-analysis, although ideally in time one will be done. Three points about the table are noteworthy. First, the strongest and most consistent personality correlate of work-related behavior is Conscientiousness. The second most consistent predictor is Neuroticism (low Adjustment). Third, Extraversion seems to be related to both positive and negative work outcomes.

Table 3. Possible Relationships Between Personality Traits and Work Outcomes

Notes: N = Neuroticism; E = Extraversion; O = Openness; A = Agreeableness; C = Conscientiousness.

To understand the mechanisms and processes by which the traits have an impact on work outcomes, it is important to examine each trait.

Extraversion

Extraversion is a dimension that ranges from very high (extraverts) to very low (introverts), although most of us are ambiverts. Extraverts are seen as more likeable, interesting, and popular; introverts are more honest, stable, and reliable. Extraverts are attracted to “people jobs,” such as sales and the service industry, and they do well.

Extraverts are less distracted than introverts. Their world is ever more busy, noisy, and distracting. Introverts are only distracted by people, noise, or stimulants of any kind and are less comfortable, less efficient, and less helpful in the noisy world of work.

Introverts take longer to retrieve information, longer to marshal their ideas and thoughts, and longer to respond to the demands of the world around them.

Extraverts respond better to carrots and care less about sticks, while introverts are less motivated by rewards and more sensitive to, and inhibited by, threats of punishments. Perhaps, therefore, extraverts are easier to manage. They are certainly easier to read.

There have always been serious known disadvantages of being a (strong) extravert. The first is accidents. Extraverts are risk takers. They drive fast and choose risky recreational activities. They trade off accuracy for speed. They are prone to all sorts of gaffes, preferring to speak before they think. The second disadvantage of extraversion is criminality. Extraverts are social and impulsive. They are excitement-seekers interested in novel experiences, which often leads them to be poorer learners than introverts at many tasks, including the acquisition of general social rules. They are difficult to train, naughty, and rebellious. They are more likely than introverts to become delinquents or criminals, though it does depend on the nature of the criminal activity. Finally, extraverts have some difficulty with learning. Extraverts do well at primary school but less well at university. The idea of sitting in a quiet room for hours learning complicated, abstract ideas just does not suit the extravert.

Thus, it is clear that:

Reward enhances the performance of extraverts more than introverts, whereas punishment impairs the performance of introverts more than extraverts.

Introverts are more susceptible than extraverts to distraction.

Introverts are more affected than extraverts by response competition.

Introverts take longer than extraverts to retrieve information from long-term or permanent memory storage, especially nondominant information.

Introverts have higher response criteria than extraverts.

Extraverts show better retention-test performance than introverts at short retention intervals, but the opposite holds at long retention intervals.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is also called “negative affectivity” or “poor emotional adjustment.” It is based on activation thresholds in the sympathetic nervous system or visceral brain (fight-or-flight response)

Neurotic persons have a low activation threshold. When confronted with stressors or anxiety, they experience negative emotions. The manifestations can range from physiological changes in heart rate, increased blood pressure, cold hands, sweating, and muscular tension to feelings of apprehension and nervousness, to the full effects of fear and anxiety.

In contrast, emotionally stable peers have a much higher activation threshold, and they experience negative affect only when confronted by major stressors. Such individuals tend to be calm even in situations that could be described as anxiety-inducing or pressure-laden. They are stable, not moody; robust, not vulnerable; hardy, not overly sensitive.

Neuroticism is most clearly described in three disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias. Specific disorders detailed to overlap with Neuroticism include agoraphobia, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many higher-order theories of personality describe and measure Neuroticism at the domain level, but also at the facet level, although there is very little agreement in the description of the facets. For instance, the Eysenck Personality Profiler (EPP) labels seven N (neuroticism) facets: inferiority, unhappiness, anxiety, dependence, hypochondria, and obsessiveness; the HEXACO model labels four facets: fearfulness, anxiety, dependence, and sentimentality; and the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) labels three facets: stress reaction, alienation, and aggression.

Even the name of the domain changes: for the EPP it is Neuroticism, in the HEXACO it is Emotionality, and for the MPQ it is Negative Emotional Temperament. This indicates subtle but important differences in the conceptualization of Neuroticism.

People who score high on Neuroticism are prone to anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic illness and hence higher levels of stress at work. However, they are very vigilant and are able to pick up the emotional tones around them better than stable individuals. Those who score very high on Neuroticism tend to be problematic at work. They tend to have higher rates of absenteeism and to be gloomier and more negative (Furnham, 2008).

Agreeableness

Agreeableness is associated with being altruistic, appreciative, compliant, trusting, and tender-minded. Agreeable individuals are generous, kind, sympathetic, and warm. Agreeableness facets include easy to live with, sensitive, caring, likes people, and no hostility. Others suggested facets for Agreeableness have been labeled forgiveness, gentleness, flexibility, patience, and altruism vs. antagonism.

To some extent, Agreeableness seems less related to many education, health, and work outcomes. Also, doubt has been expressed about whether Agreeableness is a trait (as opposed to a social desirability or social-relational concept). Furthermore, it is often seen to be a disadvantage to be high in Agreeableness, as managers have to be “tough with poor performers.”

A review by Tobin and Gadke (2015) provided a short section on theoretical accounts of Agreeableness that suggested it can be seen in terms of “the regulatory process of effortful control,” which can easily be identified in children and which is highly predictive. The authors summarized their findings.

Friendship: Agreeable people are more likely to be identified as friends, to be less victimized, and overall to have fewer risk factors as identified by friends.

Cooperativeness and competitiveness: Agreeable people across all age groups are more cooperative.

Helping: Agreeable people are more likely to help others whom they know, even to the point of potentially risking their lives.

Conflict resolution: Agreeable people are more likely to use constructive conflict-resolution tactics and are less likely to use destructive tactics.

Aggression: Agreeableness is inversely related to both aggressive thoughts and aggressive behaviors.

Prejudice: Agreeableness is linked to more positive reactions to others, including when the others are considered targets of prejudice.

Studies on Agreeableness in children have demonstrated that it predicts academic performance and social competence. Agreeableness is often highly valued in the workplace. People like to work with others who are helpful, kind, and empathetic. Agreeable people tend to be liked and valued. However, the workplace is often a competitive environment with a “win–lose” philosophy, where those who are more disagreeable, egocentric, and tough-minded do best.

Openness to Experience

Openness to Experience is often shown as the strongest correlate of ability, particularly creativity and intelligence. Openness is associated with having a vivid imagination and an active fantasy life, with a deep appreciation for art and beauty, with a receptivity to one’s own and other’s emotions, with a willingness to try new experiences, with intellectual curiosity, and with a readiness to examine political, social and religious values. People high in Openness have been shown to be unconventional, questioning, and emotionally literate. Other personality theories and systems have described Openness as Intellect or Culture and had different ideas about the facets of the super-factor or domain. The facets include aesthetic appreciation, inquisitiveness, creativity, and unconventionality. While there is confusion and disagreement about the facets of Openness, there seems to be agreement that it is a stable trait that reflects intellectual curiosity, imaginativeness, and inquisitiveness.

Those interested in personality correlates of educational, health, and occupational outcomes have tended to show that, of the Big Five traits, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness account for most of the variance, with Openness being related to very specific issues like aesthetic preferences or leisure pursuits. In most individual difference studies, personality traits are the predictor variables and some salient beliefs or behaviors the criterion variables. One relevant theory is Cattell’s (1987) investment theory, which suggests personality and fluid intelligence contribute to the development of crystallized intelligence. One research question is: What are the early determinants, including intelligence, of Openness in adulthood? Few studies have examined this because of the difficulty of obtaining longitudinal data, although there are some recent exceptions (Furnham & Cheng, 2015).

There is an extensive literature on Openness. Many studies are concerned with the extent to which Openness is related to cognitive ability. Studies have used different measures of both Openness and intelligence, but they have tended to show a significant positive correlation (Chamorro-Premuzic, Moutafi, & Furnham, 2005; DeYoung, Quilty, Peterson, & Gray, 2014).

Gow, Whiteman, Pattie, and Deary (2005) found that intelligence measured in childhood and late adulthood was significantly correlated with Intellect (Openness), but that when the association in old age was controlled for childhood intelligence, it fell to almost zero. Their conclusion was that intelligence and Openness in adulthood are related through the lifelong stable trait of intelligence.

Studies on the relationship between Openness and work outcomes suggest it correlates most with creative and complex work. Further, as with all the traits, those extremely high or low in Openness can be very problematic.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is associated with being efficient, organized, reliable, and responsible. Conscientious individuals are achievement oriented, competent, dependable, and productive. Employers value the trait and attempt to shape and encourage it because it is associated with being organized, reliable, and hard-working.

Students who are more Conscientious earn university grades higher than their intelligence scores would predict.

Consistent findings from correlational studies show a very small, but significant, positive association between Conscientiousness and educational achievement and occupational prestige. There is also some evidence to suggest sex differences in Conscientiousness, which have been used to explain why females outperform males in school grades despite the evidence of very small differences in intelligence between the sexes (Furnham, 2008).

The taxonomists of Conscientiousness argue that it has eight distinguishable but related parts:

1.

Industriousness: This is about working hard, always putting in an effort, and frequently exceeding expectations. Industrious people push themselves (and others) very hard to succeed.

2.

Perfectionism: This is aiming for high quality, no mistakes, and no rejected work. It is about being detail-oriented and striving always to be the best.

3.

Tidiness: This is a strong preference for order, regularity, and an everything-in-its-place philosophy. Conscientious people have a strong aversion to disorder and mess. They like things correctly filed and tasks completed.

4.

Procrastination Refrainment: Truly conscientious people are not easily distracted and do not have difficulty getting started. They don’t put off unpleasant tasks, starting only the easy ones. They go to work at once: they prioritize and spend their time and effort wisely.

5.

Control Preference: This should not be confused with being a control freak. Control preference is about being purposeful, thoughtful, and decisive. It is also about understanding the role of authority. The opposite is rushed, rash, impulsive behavior.

6.

Caution: The Conscientious person is careful to avoid mistakes, to get their facts right, and to think ahead. They think before they speak, and they choose their words carefully.

7.

Task Planning: The Conscientious person is deliberate. They carefully devise a plan, a schedule, and a considered path. They stick to the plan and require others to do so, too. They like to work out efficient routines and to stick to them.

8.

Perseverance: The Conscientious individual deals well with frustrations and setbacks. They don’t give up easily, they don’t avoid responsibility, and they don’t lose interest. They are calm under pressure.

Of all the traits, Consciousness is most closely associated with success at work.

Change Over Time

There is considerable debate about the stability of personality over time. The debate about continuity vs. change revolves around a number of issues: the reliability and validity of personality tests (to account in part for measurement error), the moderator variables considered (i.e., sex, education, and ethnicity), the age at which people are measured (i.e., adolescence, adulthood, old age), the time span that shows most change and stability, how change is measured (such as, mean level change, rank order, ipsative change), the stability of the environment, and what, if anything, leads to change.

There is evidence of both stability and change. Personality seems most stable between the ages of 30 and 60 years. There are modest increases in emotional stability and Agreeableness over this period, with Extraversion and Neuroticism showing least change (both with a slight decline) and Conscientiousness showing most change (an increase).

There is also a debate about whether intelligence can change. People holding an entity theory of intelligence believe that intelligence levels remain constant over a person’s lifetime regardless of their education, effort, and experience gained. They argue that anybody can learn new things (skills, knowledge), but their underlying intelligence level essentially never changes. They are fixed-mindset people.

By contrast, incremental theorists believe that intelligence can be increased and cultivated over a lifetime through hard work and continued learning. Fixed-mindset theorists tend not increase their level of effort in educational and work environments because they do not believe they can improve their performance. Incremental theorists, however, tend to acknowledge the importance of effort when approaching a learning task.

In personality theory, there has been debate between those who argue that people do change (considerably and significantly over time) and those who suggest they do not. The debate centered on the plaster hypothesis versus the plastic hypothesis, with the former’s advocates suggesting that personality traits change very little over time, and the latter’s proponents arguing that significant, systematic, and explicable changes can and do occur.

Over the years, the plaster hypothesis (of little or no change) has been replaced by the plasticity hypothesis (of possible change). Many trait theorists recognize that traits can and do change over time, although there remains debate about which traits change least and most, why, and by how much.

A related topic of considerable academic debate has some proponents arguing that people can sustainably increase their intelligence, and others arguing that people cannot. Thus, Kuszewski (2011) concluded: “Fluid intelligence is trainable. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent, meaning, the more your train, the more you gain. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don’t resemble the test questions” (p. 2).

It is obvious that, over time, certain aspects of individuals change as they age. We know that fluid intelligence scores start declining in the 20s, and they show steep declines after age 40 years because the speed of processing information declines. On the other hand, crystalized intelligence (knowledge accumulation) increases until the late 70s. Thus, an airline pilot might have to retire at 55, while lawyers can keep working successfully into their late 70s.

Personality and Work Success: Organizational Level, Promotion History, and Salary

There is a great deal of piecemeal research on personality and work success going back over 80 years. Yet, studies have shown that being high on Conscientiousness and low on Neuroticism are the two best predictors of success at work.

A central question is how to measure success at work, which is the dependent variable in these studies. Essentially, success at work can be measured either objectively or subjectively.

Subjective measurement refers to self-assessment, which takes two approaches. The first is a personal overall rating or a specific personal rating of success at work. The second approach is subjective reporting, such as reporting one’s salary, promotion speed, etc. The issue here is the reliability and accuracy of the reports, which could be distorted for a number of reasons, such as poor memory or social desirability. Furthermore, issues of hubris and humility mean that some people deliberately over- or underreport their general success at work.

Objective measurement uses various criteria that are markers of occupational success, such as salary, rank, job title, speed of promotion, and supervisor ratings. These data can be obtained from company records or manager reports. Considerations include what markers are available and which markers to choose, because they may be only modestly correlated.

There are essentially three problems associated with these variables. The first problem is the difficulty of making comparisons across jobs, organizations, or sectors, which means study results might not replicate.

The second problem is differences between countries and time periods. For example, the salary of a highly successful person from a developing country may be a third of the salary of somebody with identical criteria (even working in the same organization) in a developed country. While there may be ways of correcting for this, again the issue is comparability and replication.

The third problem is that, in times of growth (which may be specific to a sector, or region, or product), people are likely to be paid more than in times of stagnation. Thus, there may be Bull and Bear market results.

There is no doubt that researchers would prefer a range of work-related outcome variables. Inevitably, it is better to have a range of objective and subjective variables that may be combined into meaningful scores, such as “speed of progress,” reward packages, and 360 ratings by others.

The literature in this area has addressed a number of issues (Furnham, 2017, 2018a), and three of them are discussed here.

First, are people at different levels of an organization different in their personality profile? Several studies have compared people at different organizational levels, from supervisor level, through management and senior management, to chief executive. The assumption is that differences between the levels are associated with being at that level. Thus, if there is a linear relationship between intelligence or trait Conscientiousness at the various levels, it is because this trait was a major factor in why people were promoted. The questions are whether, when, and how the person’s profile is, in some way, responsible for their level. For example, because Conscientious people are more reliable, responsible, and productive, and less Neurotic people are less stress prone, these traits lead to greater productivity, which is rewarded by promotion or appointment to senior levels. On the other hand, it is possible that personality and motivation may change as a person moves up the levels in an organization and learns to become better organized and less stressed. While the studies in the area inevitably give equivocal results, it seems that more senior people tend to be more Extraverted and Conscientious and less Agreeable and Neurotic. They also appear to be brighter and more intrinsically motivated.

Second, is there evidence that personality profile is related to both the speed and number of promotions at work? It is possible to conduct either a retrospective or a prospective study to determine how long it takes people to get promoted to middle or senior management within any organization as well as between organizations in the same sector. Of course, many factors are related to promotion, but they can be taken into account. Studies have looked at the speed of climbing “the greasy pole” of the corporate ladder (Furnham, Crump, & Ritchie, 2013)

Third, is personality linked to salary? Many factors dictate a person’s salary. These include the type of job they do (bankers tend to get paid more than bar staff; doctors more than dustmen) as well as their seniority and age. However, it is possible to take many confounding factors into account and to demonstrate that indeed personality is related to personal wealth as a function of salary.

The central question for the researcher is to describe and explain the mechanism and process whereby personality traits are related to various aspects of work success. For most researchers, personality is related to various specific behaviors that directly impact on work productivity:

Personality and lifestyle addresses diet and personal habits, including exercise. Thus, traits influence mental and physical health, which affect such things as efficiency and absenteeism, which affect productivity at work.

Personality and risk-taking includes things outside work, such as driving habits and hobbies, but also risk-taking in the workplace.

Personality and stress includes the extent to which people cause and experience personal stress, which can have many consequences.

Personality and social support includes a person’s ability to establish personal bonds and support networks and to succeed on teams.

However, there are other factors like job motivation, intelligence, and demographic factors that need to be examined. In an example of this research, Furnham and Cheng (2017) tested 4,537 British adults where they had data on parental social class (at birth), cognitive ability (at age 11), educational qualifications (at age 33), and personality traits (at age 50), as well as current marital status, occupational prestige, and salary/wage earning level (all measured at age 54). The investigators showed that parental social class, childhood cognitive ability, personality traits (Extraversion, emotional stability, Conscientiousness, and Openness), being married positively, being divorced or separated negatively, education, and occupation, as well as gender, were all significantly associated with adult earning ability. They noted that effect size for the relationship between intelligence and income was moderate. Overall, they showed that childhood cognitive ability, the personality traits Conscientiousness and Openness, educational qualifications, and occupational prestige were significant and independent predictors of adult earning ability, accounting for 30% of the total variance. There was also a gender effect on the outcome variable.

Multivariate, longitudinal research with a valid measure of work success will yield the best understanding of the consequences of individual differences in the workplace.

High-Flyers

There is a great deal of interest in identifying talented “high-flyers” who will be particularly successful at work. Many organizations are very committed to finding and recruiting these people, for obvious benefit to both the individual and the company as a whole.

There have been many attempts over the years to develop models and measures of high- flyers or talented people who succeed in organizations. The idea is to identify the abilities, motives, and traits that are, in most organizations, clearly linked to occupational success (Silzer & Church, 2009; Spreitzer, McCall, & Mahoney, 1997).

MacRae and Furnham (2014) developed the High Potential Traits Indicator (HPTI), a measure of personality traits directly relevant to workplace behaviors as well as thoughts and perceptions of the self and others at work. The HPTI can be used to investigate which personality traits in the workplace might predict career success and thus predict high potential.

Six scientifically validated personality traits are measured by the HPTI:

Conscientiousness—planning, organization, strong work ethic, achievement drive.

Openness/Curiosity—openness to new information, adopting new approaches.

Approach to Risk—willingness to confront difficult situations as well as ability to thrive during adversity, to solve difficult problems, and to have difficult conversations.

Stress Reactivity—resilience to the impact of stressors, not overly worried about others’ judgment.

Tolerance of Ambiguity—ability to tolerate ambiguous situations and information, to make use of mixed information, and to cope (and thrive) with ambivalence.

Competitiveness—need to achieve, drive to exceed one’s own or another’s performance, desire for control.

Teodorescu, Furnham, and Macrae (2017) used the HPTI to investigate associations between personality traits and measures of career success, in a sample of 383 employed individuals. Results indicated HPTI personality traits relate to subjective and objective measures of success, with Conscientiousness being the strongest predictor.

Personality Disorders at Work

Over the past 15 to 20 years, there has been great interest in the relationship between dark-side traits (personality disorders) and work failure. Psychiatrists and psychologists share some simple assumptions with respect to personality. Both argue for the stability of personality. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) addresses stability with phrases like “enduring pattern,” “inflexible and pervasive,” and “stable and of long duration.” DSM also specifies that the pattern of behavior is not a function of drug usage or some other medical condition. Furthermore, the personality pattern is not a manifestation or consequence of another mental disorder. The DSM is careful to point out that some personality disorders look like other disorders (e.g., anxiety disorder, mood disorder, psychosis, substance-related disorder, etc.), but personality disorders have unique features.

One of the most important ways to differentiate personal style from personality disorder is flexibility. There are lots of difficult people at work, but there are relatively few whose rigid, maladaptive behaviors mean they continually have disruptive, troubled lives. It is their inflexible, repetitive, and poor stress-coping responses that are marks of disorder.

Personality disorders influence the sense of self—the way people think and feel about themselves and how other people see them. The disorders often powerfully influence interpersonal relations at work. The antisocial, obsessive-compulsive, passive-aggressive, and dependent types are particularly problematic in the workplace. People with personality disorders have difficulty expressing and understanding emotions. It is the intensity with which they express them and their variability that makes them odd. More importantly, they often have serious problems with self-control.

The greatest progress in this area occurred when the Hogans developed the Hogan Development Survey (HDS; Hogan & Hogan, 1997). Their idea was to use the categories of the personality disorders but to conceive of “dark-side” tendencies rather than disorders. (For comparison of HDS and DSM-IV categories, see Table 4.)

The dysfunctional dispositions reflect distorted beliefs about others that emerge when people encounter stress or stop considering how their actions affect others. Over time, the dispositions may become associated with a person’s reputation and can impede job performance and career success.

Table 4. The DSM-IV Personality Disorders and the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) Compared

PROFILE

HDS

DSM Label

Theme

Scale

Theme

Scale

Theme

Borderline

Inappropriate anger; unstable and intense relationships alternating between idealization and devaluation

Unstable relationships

Flighty; inconsistent; forms intense, albeit sudden, enthusiasms and disenchantments for people or projects

Excitable

Moody and hard to please; intense but short-lived enthusiasm for people, projects, or things

Paranoid

Distrustful and suspicious of others; others’ motives are interpreted as malevolent

Argumentative

Suspicious of others; sensitive to criticism; expects to be mistreated

Skeptical

Cynical, distrustful, and doubts other’s true intentions

Avoidant

Social inhibition; feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to criticism or rejection

Fear of failure

Dread of being criticized or rejected; tends to be excessively cautious; unable to make decisions

Cautious

Reluctant to take risks for fear of being rejected or negatively evaluated

Schizoid

Emotionally cold and detached from social relationships; indifferent to praise and criticism

Interpersonal insensitivity

Aloof; cold; imperceptive; ignores social feedback

Reserved

Aloof, detached, and uncommunicative; lacks interest in, or awareness of, the feelings of others

Passive-Aggressive

Passive resistance to adequate social and occupational performance; irritated when asked to do something he/she does not want to

Passive-aggressive

Sociable, but resists others through procrastination and stubbornness

Leisurely

Independent; ignores people’s requests and becomes irritated or argumentative if they persist

Narcissistic

Arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes; grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement

Arrogance

Self-absorbed; typically loyal only to himself/herself and his/her own best interests

Bold

Unusually self-confident; feelings of grandiosity and entitlement; overvaluation of his/her capabilities

Antisocial

Disregard for the truth; impulsivity and failure to plan; failure to conform with social norms

Untrustworthiness

Impulsive; dishonest; selfish; motivated by pleasure; ignores the rights of others

Mischievous

Enjoys risk-taking and testing limits; needs excitement; manipulative, deceitful, cunning, and exploitative

Histrionic

Excessive emotionality and attention-seeking; self-dramatizing, theatrical, and exaggerated emotional expression

Attention-seeking

Motivated by a need for attention and a desire to be in the spotlight

Colorful

Expressive, animated, and dramatic; wants to be noticed and needs to be the center of attention

Schizotypal

Odd beliefs or magical thinking; behavior or speech that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar

No common sense

Unusual or eccentric attitudes; exhibits poor judgment relative to education and intelligence

Imaginative

Acting and thinking in creative and sometimes odd or unusual ways

Obsessive- Compulsive

Preoccupations with orderliness, rules, perfectionism, and control; overly conscientious and inflexible

Perfectionism

Methodical; meticulous; attends so closely to details that he/she may have trouble with priorities

Diligent

Meticulous, precise, and perfectionistic; inflexible about rules and procedures; critical of others’ performance

Dependent

Difficulty making everyday decisions without excessive advice and reassurance; difficulty expressing disagreement out of fear of loss of support or approval

Dependency

Demand for constant reassurance, support, and encouragement from others

Dutiful

Eager to please and reliant on others for support and guidance; reluctant to take independent action or go against popular opinion

The personality disorders make a good “select out” checklist: that is, things to look for at assessment that you do not want. The tremendous interest in the Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) has seen an explosion of studies on the dark-side factors in the workplace (Paulhus & Williams, 2002)

Research in this area has revealed three consistent findings (Furnham, 2010, 2014).

The first is that, paradoxically, some of the dark-side traits are implicated in (temporary and specific) management success. Thus, the “naughtiness” of the antisocial mischievous type, the boldness and self-confidence of the arrogant narcissist, the colorful emotionality of the histrionic type, and the quirky imaginativeness of the schizotypal type may in fact help them ascend in the organization.

The second finding refers to the curvilinearity or optimality of the traits. That is, at high levels these traits are nearly always “dangerous” and are associated with derailment and failure, but at moderate levels they may even be beneficial.

Third, some dark-side traits are nearly always associated with lack of success at work. Thus Cautious/Avoidant and Reserved/Schizoid people rarely do very well at work except in highly technical jobs where they work on their own. Their low social skills and inability to charm and persuade others mean that they very rarely occupy positions of power and influence.

Conclusion

Does it matter who you are at work? The answer is, “Profoundly yes, and a great deal.” In the workplace, personality traits are proactive, reactive, and evocative. They determine the jobs we seek and how we react to them. Further, every individual evokes in others a whole range of responses, which may be highly positive or negative, thus affecting the whole work environment.

On the basis of our ability, traits, and values, we are attracted to different jobs in different organizations (Furnham & Palaiou, 2017). Our personality plays a big part in how we react to situations at work. Thus, the identical situation may be regarded as fun by some people, as challenging by others, and as stressful by many. In addition, personality, styles, and values have an evocative function: they determine how people react to us. Extraverts are more sociable at work and neurotics are more stressed; coworkers may be attracted to the outgoing and optimistic extravert while shunning the anxious and depressed neurotic.

However, three important caveats need to be considered. The first is that personality traits are only one factor determining behavior at work. Other important factors, such as ability and motivation, are equally and sometimes more important at determining work outcomes than traits. Second, while nearly all researchers in this area have looked at the relative power of different traits, traits tend to interact, which is more difficult to describe and explain. It is the total personality profile that needs to be taken into account to properly understand how personality factors work. Third, workplaces are dynamic and complex and there are many different facets to a work outcome. Thus, some personality traits might more strongly relate to some work behaviors rather than to others.

Furthermore, it should never be forgotten that most people work in teams and are neither dependent nor independent at work but are interdependent. Work outcomes are a function of group interaction and dynamics, which are a product of the individual differences of all the members.

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