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Personality and Job Performance

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Over the past couple of decades, personality has taken a larger role in applied research and employee selection.  This optimism is mostly due to the creation of a unified model of personality- the Big Five (or Five Factor Model).  The Big Five model is an empirical and comprehensive model of personality.  It consists of five broad dimensions (each containing a few sub-dimensions) that captures almost the entire range of human personality:

  • Openness to Experience: appreciation for art, adventure, ideas, and variety
  • Conscientiousness: need for achievement, self-discipline, and planned behavior
  • Extraversion:  energy, positive emotions, and the tendency to seek out social stimulation
  • Agreeableness:  the tendency to be cooperative and compassionate
  • Neuroticism (or Emotional Stability):  Neuroticism is the tendency to easily experience anger, anxiety, and other negative emotions, while Emotional Stability is the opposite (note- the first letters of the Big-Five spell out the handy acronyms “OCEAN” or “CANOE”… take your pick!)

One of the larger-scale research projects done in this topic investigated the relationship between the Big Five personality dimensions and job performance in a modern setting and across a variety of occupations.  They found strong evidence to support the use of personality in employee selection in the following job categories:

Sales:  Conscientiousness is the best predictor of future performance, followed by extraversion and emotional stability.

Customer Service:  Again, conscientiousness is the best predictor.  Emotional stability, extraversion, and openness to experience have low but significant predictive power as well.  This unusual mix indicates a complex pattern of personality for jobs that involve complex/demanding interpersonal interactions.

Managerial:  Conscientiousness is the best predictor of performance for managers.  It is followed by extraversion and emotional stability, both of which have lower but significant abilities to predict performance.

Skilled and Semi-Skilled:  Conscientiousness was once again the strongest predictor.  This is followed by agreeableness, which is lower but significant.  The other three (openness, extraversion, and emotional stability) were not significantly related to performance.

In terms of performance, conscientiousness is above and beyond the strongest predictor across all job types.  This makes sense because conscientious individuals are more driven, have a higher need for job achievement and are more detail oriented.  The second strongest overall predictor is emotional stability.  However, looking at the differences between job categories also tells us something.  For jobs with a stronger interpersonal component (such as sales, customer service, and managerial), emotional stability and extraversion were relatively desirable for predicting performance.  This was not the case for skilled and semi-skilled workers.  The important things to take away from this research are:

  • Personality does in fact predict performance, although only at a moderate level (it is because of this that most psychologists recommend using personality tests as a supplement to other selection tools such as structured interviews and reference checks)
  • Conscientiousness in particular is the strongest predictor of performance out of the Big Five
  • Different combinations of personality traits are needed for jobs that have unique demands, such as customer service and managerial work (note- even different skill sets and personality traits are needed even as one moves up from supervisor to mid-level to executive leader)



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