It would seem that there’s a job perfectly suited to match the personality of each of us. However, despite various tests and metrics introduced to discover what role best suits certain individuals, Ian McGarry reveals it’s not quite that simple.
The words ‘know thy self’ were reported to have been inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Attributed to the Greek philosopher Thales, this proclamation urged the ancient to develop a greater level of self reflection and insight. Despite our obvious similarities as humans we are temperamentally very dissimilar from each other.
Understanding why we are so different has, over the centuries, vexed the minds of philosophers, doctors and psychologists alike. One of the earliest attempts to account for behavioural differences dates back over two thousand years. Galen, a Roman physician, distinguished four temperaments; melancholic (sombre, unhappy), choleric (irritable and easily angered), phlegmatic (apathetic, sluggish) and sanguine (cheerful, optimistic) which he thought, incorrectly, provided an insight into how individuals should be treated medically. His theories still survive in various forms to this day, though thankfully not so much in medicine!
The temperamental differences that obsessed Galen are the basis of what we have come to term our ‘personalities’. Over time, there have been numerous attempts to theorise, define and measure these qualities. It is only in the last hundred years or so that we have developed the psychological and statistical tools to move beyond speculation and metaphysics into more scientifically quantifiable concepts.
What is personality?
Personality refers to those enduring characteristics and traits that enable a person to be recognised as a distinct individual. Although not the whole picture, psychologists generally agree that personality plays an important role in how people behave. Many would urge caution however in assuming that personality underscores all behaviour, and this is especially true concerning our ability to perform and achieve success.
Though we may broadly agree what personality means there are still plenty of differing approaches taken to both quantifying and measuring its specific facets. A cursory glance at all of the models available to psychologists and organisations reveals a plethora of different personality tests all claiming to highlight the most revealing components of who we are.
More often, psychologists and researchers rely on a five-factor model developed by Costa and McCrae. Often referred to as ‘the big five’, this is available as an assessment tool (NEO-PI-R). This evidence-based model maintains that all the various structures of personality can be represented across the following five dimensions:
In short, your personality can be successfully represented as a measure of the combination of, and the level at, which you score against each dimension. But, whilst interesting, does it actually tell us anything about our potential for success in life?
Personality at work
It may be easy to accept that certain personality types may fair better at jobs more than others. We even tend to stereotype some professions by personality attributes, for example, introverted accountants or extroverted sales people. Understanding personality in order to predict behaviour is an attractive idea for those interested in personality research. As you may imagine, ascertaining someone’s potential performance in a job is an extremely attractive proposition for employers who want to match the best people to their vacancies, or promote those they believe have the greatest potential for success.
There are numerous personality profile tools on the market and many of us will have some experience of these in our working lives. It would be rare to meet someone in the pharmaceutical industry for example who hadn’t undertaken a personality test at an assessment centre, as part of a job application, or a personal development program. The associated costs of employing the right people for a job can be potentially massive leading some firms to try a variety of measures, some unfounded – such as handwriting analysis – to sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘cha ’.
If used wisely, robust personality profiles may contribute to an overall view of a candidate where other assessment methods have also been implemented. Personality measures are unlikely, however, to provide a definitive picture or an accurate prediction of a person’s potential performance.
Personality and performance
Whilst personality traits are useful ways of describing external behaviour, they are problematic if we are referring to stable internal causes of behaviour. Suggesting that a person is angry about something because they have low levels of agreeableness – an angry personality – is similar to proclaiming the sea is wet because it has the quality of wetness.
You may have experienced this misuse of personality concepts yourself if you have met someone excusing their own behaviour on the grounds they are a particular ‘social style’. Unfortunately, whilst this may seem a reasonable justification on the surface, it is a bit nonsensical. In a similar fashion to the example above, it is akin to proclaiming that their radiator is hot because it has the quality of heat.
With the exception of the trait ‘conscientiousness’, there seems to be no universal personality factors that can be used to predict with any accuracy measures of a person’s success at work.
In order to successfully link a personality trait to work performance we have to understand what performance actually means; this in its self is a difficult undertaking. While we can accurately say good performance in sales is about selling more products, it is much harder to delineate the component factors of good sales ability.
A list of sales competences may fail to take into account a host of additional factors that contribute to performance, for example:
- Differing sales context
- Differing demographic cultures
- Personal issues
- Motivational factors
- Company culture
These can be just some of the significant variables influencing performance outcomes. Perhaps in the future ‘job performance’ will be better understood, enabling a clearer link to emerge with personality traits. But until then, assessing personality as a criterion for any prospective job performance will be more an art than a science.
A clear understanding
Despite the above caveats, learning about the diversity of personality types can be very useful for the development of teams and cross-functional groups. Learning to understand interpersonal differences encourages people to widen their appraisals of other’s behaviour and what it may mean. This may potentially expand a group’s behavioural norms. For example, a manager I worked with described her team as an “up for it, go getting team…except Dave, who is quiet and thoughtful …but that’s ok, we realise he prefers to reflect and someone needs to….!”
Without this level of insight it is an easy step for a group unaware of their own dynamics to ostracise and exclude people whose personality style is even slightly at odds with the group norm. To avoid communication breakdown people need to be flexible to other’s ‘styles’.
This can ensure that people like ‘Dave’ have the necessary psychological space to contribute and grow in teams that may be composed of more extroverts. As well as helping us understand other’s diverse approaches to life, personality tools help us understand our own behaviour. “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us. To see oursel’s as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion,” Robert Burns.
As individuals we are often blind to certain aspects of our own style and the impact it can have on others. Using personality metrics to understand our own personality can be revealing and very helpful as we seek to follow the still relevant advice ‘know thy self’. Gauging the affect you have on others from a different position can, as the poet Robbie Burns suggests in his oft quoted poem, save us from many a blunder.
Useful personality metrics
Whilst the amount of personality tests and systems available are far too numerous to cover in this article, most fall into one of two categories:
- Normative tests: These involve measuring your relative score on separate traits and contrasting these against group norms, such as either the general population or specific group, for example NEO-PI-R.
- Ipsative tests: These prompt you to make choices between different options on a questionnaire. They are mutually exclusive so that choosing one option prevents you choosing an alternative. When calculated a profile will emerge that places you into a predefined specific category and various social style systems which confer labels and types to people. When people complain or rejoice at being ‘pigeon holed’ it is often the Ipsative type test they have experienced.
Which tests work?
Well, that depends on what you want to do with the results. There are a lot to choose from. Profiles available through the British Psychological Society (BPS) registered psychometricians are likely to be evidence-based and robust enough to confer some useful insight. As mentioned earlier, there is a growing consensus amongst researchers that the big five as represented by the NEO-PI-R test capture real functional differences in personality in a relatively straight forward way.
Additionally, some new developments in the realms of ‘emotional intelligence’, although controversial with some psychologists, can provide a different take on behaviour and these can prove useful, especially when considering team dynamics and interpersonal skills training. Emotional Behaviours at Work (EBW) is one example of this type of test.
In the end
It seems common sense that certain personality types are good at certain jobs. While there may be some broad truth to the idea that certain temperaments gravitate towards certain job types, in the main, personality tests are not currently reliable indicators of individual career performance or success. There are too many possible variables at play, both in the types of personality assessment used and the how we might define performance in any given context. Personality tests can be an excellent way to develop insight into your own behavioural tendencies and those of others. Thus helping foster better/more tolerant relationships and strengthen teamwork. So, if getting on with others is important to you and your work, knowing who you are does matter.
Ian McGarry is an international business psychologist. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org