Which Traits Predict Job Performance?

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Psychologists explore how personality affects ability to perform well on the job. Mom always said that personality and smarts go farther than good looks. And now even psychologists are on her side.


For years psychologists turned to cognitive ability as a predictor of job performance: Smarter people were considered more likely to succeed on the job. But intelligence alone is only part of the story, say researchers. Creativity, leadership, integrity, attendance, and cooperation also play major roles in a person’s job suitability and productivity. Personality, rather than intelligence, predicts these qualities, said psychologist Joyce Hogan, PhD, of the University of Tulsa.


Armed with this belief, psychologists are trying to tease out personality’s impact on overall job performance. Although they haven’t unraveled the details, most agree that personality is as important as intelligence, and maybe more so, for some aspects of performance.


Most psychologists base personality research on the “Big Five” classification of personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. The classification isn’t perfect, but it provides a good foundation for studying broad effects of personality, researchers say. Some researchers contend that, like intelligence researchers who claim to have a general measure of intelligence, they have found the universal personality trait that predicts job success. Others argue that the relationship between personality and job success is much more complicated and shouldn’t be condensed into a have and have not scenario.


The ‘G’ of Personality 
One research camp argues that conscientiousness—being responsible, dependable, organized and persistent—is generic to success. “It seems to predict job performance for any job you can think of,” said Michael Mount, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Iowa. Mount and his colleagues analyzed more than 117 studies of personality and job performance. Conscientiousness consistently predicted performance for all jobs from managerial and sales positions to skilled and semiskilled work. Conscientiousness is the only personality trait fundamental to all jobs and job related criteria, said Mount. Other traits are valid predictors for only some criteria or occupations. The researchers are testing their hypothesis on practical personnel problems. For example, to determine which truck drivers would stay on the job longest, researchers tested them on the Big Five. Drivers who were more conscientious performed better and remained on the job longer than less conscientious drivers.


Matching People to Jobs 
But using conscientiousness as a standard of job performance won’t work for all jobs, said Hogan. “Conscientiousness has a bright side and a dark side,” she said. Her research shows that for some jobs—particularly creative ones—conscientiousness may be a liability, rather than an asset. In a sample of musicians from the Tulsa, Okla., music community, Hogan found that the best musicians, as rated by their peers, had the lowest scores on conscientiousness. She wants researchers to think about matching people to jobs by crossing the Big Five personality dimensions with the occupations taxonomy developed by Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Holland, PhD, in the early 1970s. Holland separated occupations into six themes including realistic jobs—mechanics, fire fighters, construction workers; conventional jobs—bank tellers and statisticians; and artistic jobs—musicians, artists, and writers.

While conscientiousness predicts performance in realistic and conventional jobs, it impedes success in investigative, artistic, and social jobs that require innovation, creativity and spontaneity, said Hogan. “There are jobs where you have to have creativity and innovation,” said Hogan. “If you select employees based on conscientiousness, you won’t come close to getting creative or imaginative workers.” Rather, such workers should measure high on openness to experiences and low on conscientiousness, she said. Mount agrees that artistic people require creativity and innovation, but he’s not convinced they can be successful if devoid of conscientiousness. His studies have even found a moderate correlation between conscientiousness and creativity, he said. The key may lie in timing, according to data collected over fifty years by graduates of Mills College. For them, ambition, which is related to extraversion, predicted whether a woman entered the work force and how well she did. Highly conscientious women tended to not enter the work force and didn’t do as well when they did, said Brent Roberts, PhD, of the University of Tulsa. But these women had to swim against the current to enter the workforce when they did, said Roberts. Furthermore, successful, ambitious women, low on conscientiousness, became more conscientious the longer they worked. This implies that ambition gets the job and working promotes conscientiousness, which helps keep the job, said Roberts.


Add Social Skills 
Interpersonal skills have recently caught Hogan’s attention as predictors of job performance.


“They are the icing on the personality cake,” she said. “Interpersonal skills can energize or inhibit natural personality tendencies.” For example, a naturally introverted person with good interpersonal skills can muster enough extraversion to make a public speech, she said. Likewise, a naturally hostile and aggressive person can appear sweet and charming, she added.


As the workplace moves toward teamwork and service oriented jobs, evaluating interpersonal skills becomes increasingly important, said Hogan. But it’s difficult to study these skills because no classification system exists. She is working on a model classification system that would include sensitivity to others, trust and confidence, responsibility, accountability, leadership, and consistency.


The traditional one-dimensional definition of job performance as equal to task performance overshadows the importance of personality and interpersonal skills and accentuates the importance of intelligence, according to psychologist Stephan Motowidlo, PhD, of the University of Florida at Gainesville. He prefers to separate job performance into two parts: task performance and contextual performance. Task performance is the traditional notion of ability: how well workers perform and complete a specific task—a fire extinguished, a student taught, a story written, for example.


Contextual performance measures aspects of performance unrelated to specific tasks—volunteering, putting in extra effort, cooperating, following rules and procedures, and endorsing the goals of the organization—that are equally important to job performance. His research shows that task performance and contextual performance contribute independently to overall job performance. Furthermore, job experience predicted task performance better than it predicted contextual performance. In contrast, personality predicted contextual performance better than it predicted task performance.


Contextual performance can be further separated into two facets: job dedication—working hard, volunteering, committing to the organization—and interpersonal facilitation—cooperating, helping others. Personality affects the two facets differently. Conscientiousness predicts job dedication, while extraversion and agreeableness predict interpersonal facilitation. Interestingly, job dedication appears to affect both task performance and interpersonal facilitation. But the model also indicates the importance of extraversion, agreeableness and interpersonal skills.

Today’s emphasis on teams, service jobs and treating colleagues as customers promotes the importance of looking at the softer side of job performance, said Motowidlo. And although people disagree on exactly how personality fits in, they’re all heading in the same direction.

Originally published on Not Just the Kitchen

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