Over the past couple of decades, personality has become a focal point in organizational research, leadership development and derailment, and particularly employee selection. This optimism is largely the result of the development of a unified model of personality called the Big Five, or Five Factor Model of Personality. The Big Five model is an empirical and comprehensive model of personality, and the purpose of this article is to define the five factors, explore how they relate to performance in various types of jobs, and identify how performance “stacks up” to other individual differences in predicting job performance.
The Big Five dimensions of personality
The Big Five consists of five broad dimensions that capture the entire range of human personality. These include:
- 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!)
Personality and job performance
Large-scale research using data from tens of thousands of employees (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991) on the relationship between Big Five personality traits and job performance has found that certain personality traits significantly predict job performance. Such findings provide evidence that supports the use of personality in employee selection in the following job categories:
Sales. In sales positions, conscientiousness is the best predictor of future performance, followed by extraversion (Hurtz & Donovan, 2000).
Customer Service. Again, conscientiousness is the best predictor. Agreeableness and openness to experience are also correlated with customer service job performance (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Hurtz & Donovan, 2000). When looking specifically at Call Center Employees, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness are significantly related to productivity (Skyrme, Wilkinson, Abraham, & Morrison, 2005). This unusual mix indicates a complex pattern of personality for jobs that involve complicated/demanding interpersonal interactions.
Skilled and Semi-Skilled. Conscientiousness was once again the strongest predictor. This is followed by emotional stability, which is lower but significant (Ones, Dilchert, Viswesvaran, & Judge, 2007).
Professional. Regarding professional occupations, conscientiousness is the only Big-Five trait that significantly predicts performance (Ones et al., 2007).
Leadership. Leadership can be thought of in two ways, (a) how employees “emerge” as leaders (we all have to start somewhere!), and (b) how they perform once they are in managerial roles. Conscientiousness and extraversion are strongly associated with leadership emergence, and significantly but less strongly associated with leadership effectiveness and managerial performance (Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002). In other words, these traits may help you get noticed as a leader but they are less important once you’re in a leadership position – this is likely because of the complex and context-specific nature of leadership roles (different skill sets and personality traits are needed even as one moves up from supervisor to mid-level to executive leader!).
Personality vs. other predictors
Sometimes when organizations get overenthusiastic about the idea that they can populate their staff with certain personalities and other “fit” factors, they forget that personality represents only one piece of a much bigger picture. If overall job performance was a cherry pie, it could be cut into several pieces that represent individual differences that contribute to job performance (e.g., cognitive ability, motivation, emotional intelligence, past experience, and various other skills and abilities). Below is a more complete list of these pieces, ordered from high to low by their contribution to job performance (Judge, Jackson, Shaw, Scott, & Rich, 2007; Dalal, Baysinger, Brummel, & LeBreton, 2012). Keep in mind that each may become more/less important when looking at different types of jobs and contexts.
- General Mental Ability (strongest individual predictor of performance!)
- Job experience and job knowledge
- Personality – conscientiousness
- Core self-evaluation (i.e., a positive view of one’s ability and sense of control)
- Trait affectivity (i.e., consistent positive or negative mood)
- Personality – emotional stability
Also, because each job can be seen as a different pie, the best selection process is always one that uses rigorous job analysis to identify the best set of predictors (which pieces are relevant for this job?) and their relative importance (how much weight do we assign each piece?), then creates a solution that evaluates applicants using multiple (>2) valid tools and techniques (e.g., reference check + cognitive ability test + personality assessment + structured interview). To learn more about the most effective selection tools, read this article.
Conclusion and recommendations
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 personality predictor is emotional stability. However, looking at the differences between job categories also tells us something important. For jobs with a stronger interpersonal component (such as sales, customer service, and managerial), extraversion, agreeableness, and openness become more desirable for predicting performance. This was not the case for skilled and semi-skilled workers. New research is examining how specific combinations of traits and facets (i.e., sub-traits for each of the Big-Five) can add even more predictive validity for specific job types. The important things to take away from this research are:
- Personality does contribute to performance but 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 is the only Big-Five trait that predicts performance across all job-types and job-levels
- Different combinations of personality traits are needed for jobs that have unique demands (such as customer service and managerial work)
- Use personality and cognitive ability tests for employee selection (combined they are very highly predictive of performance)
- Personality and Extra-Role Performance
- The History of Personality at the Workplace
- The Most Effective Employee Selection Methods