Undue diligence

In 1965 a leading American psychologist decided to review all the available research on how accurate personality assessments were at predicting people’s performance at work

After searching through the major scientific and professional journals of the day, he reluctantly concluded that there simply wasn’t enough data to make his task worthwhile.

This might seem amazing to anyone who’s familiar with the huge body of research on the subject that’s now available. The past decade has seen a huge growth in personality assessments at work, and in the number of instruments designed to do them. Most HR professionals will be well aware of the insights that such testing can offer – when used properly. But it’s debatable whether they have enough information on the subject to make properly informed judgments.

This new wave of studies into personality assessment started in 1990 when the “big five” personality factors – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (see below) – were identified and agreed by the scientific community.

The big five provided a standard set of factors that could be used to rationalise different sets of research findings. Before this, there were almost as many personality factors as there were personality psychologists, so it was virtually impossible to summarise and make sense of all the results.

Another key factor in the emergence of personality testing was the invention of the statistical technique of meta-analysis. This helped researchers to compare the findings of different studies in a meaningful way.

Throughout the 1990s academics used meta-analysis to bring together results from all the major selection techniques, including personality assessments. The findings from these studies showed that conscientiousness and neuroticism – or rather, the lack of it – were the only two personality factors consistently linked with better performance across all occupations. Conscientiousness was found to be stronger and more consistent as a universal predictor of work performance than emotional stability.

These findings are now widely accepted, and they are of considerable scientific interest. Unfortunately, though, their practical implications are not as straightforward as they might at first seem. In fact, I have seen and heard interpretations of these results that are positively misleading. The most important misconception surrounds conscientiousness. Some people think it’s the only personality factor you can use as a reliable performance predictor. This conclusion is wrong and could lead to a serious misapplication of the research.

Before the results can be interpreted properly, there are three main points to take into account. First, even though meta-analysis has identified two factors that are useful across all jobs, this doesn’t mean that the other three factors are irrelevant. In fact, any of the big five could be extremely important in certain occupations. The meta-analysis results merely show that these three factors aren’t universally important.

Second, the correlation between the personality factors and job performance is not very strong. In other words, although conscientiousness and emotional stability are of some value in measuring performance in all jobs, most variations in performance are not a result of these factors alone.

Third, the results come from correlating the big five with measures of overall job performance. These are quite crude measures, since they have been obtained by asking individuals’ managers to agree or disagree with statements such as: “This person is good at his/her job.”

Most managers are now more interested in describing good performance in terms of what a person brings to their role – for instance, interpersonal skills and high motivation. In many jobs, a key factor is the willingness to be flexible and to contribute in ways that are not part of the individual’s formal job description – helping colleagues, for example. Researchers refer to this willingness to be flexible as organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), and there is an increasing body of evidence to show that personality may be particularly strongly associated with OCB.

A recent research study illustrates several of these points well. In this work, my colleagues and I wanted to show that conscientiousness, although important in all jobs, is not a crucial factor in managerial work. We obtained personality scores, overall performance scores, “promotability” ratings and competency ratings for a large sample of managers across several organisations.

Our results again showed a small positive correlation between conscientiousness and overall performance. But the data revealed other important findings: conscientiousness was negatively associated with promotability (that is, low, not high, conscientiousness was linked to high promotability scores); some specific competencies (for example, organisational skills) were particularly strongly linked to conscientiousness; and some specific competencies (for example, innovation) showed no link at all with conscientiousness.

It’s important to realise that the results from this study do not clash with those from the meta-analysis research. What these and other findings provide is a better insight into how personality and performance are linked. The most compelling conclusion we can draw is that although certain factors – particularly conscientiousness and emotional stability – are important in all jobs, they aren’t necessarily more important than other factors.

The big five

  • Openness – intellectually curious, imaginative, novelty-seeking.
  • Conscientiousness – dependable, prudent, methodical, striving.
  • Extraversion – sociable, talkative, excitement-seeking, warm.
  • Agreeableness – sympathetic, co-operative, trusting.
  • Neuroticism – emotionally unstable, anxious, irritable, impulsive.

Further reading

  1. M Barrick, M Mount and T Judge, “Personality and performance at the beginning of the new millennium: what do we know and where do we go next?”, International Journal of Selection and Assessment, Vol 9, 2001. This provides a comprehensive review and summary of all of the meta-analysis studies.
  2. H Baron, P Gibbons, R MacIver, G Nyfield and I Robertson, “Conscientiousness and managerial performance”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol 73, 2000.

Further information

Ivan Robertson is professor of work and organisational psychology at Umist and a director of Robertson Cooper, which will be running a series of seminars throughout next year. The first event, to be held in London at the end of January, will cover personality testing