Outside of practical skills and learned knowledge, there are two major psychological constructs which underpin a person’s performance at work. Firstly, we have cognitive abilities, including verbal, numerical, and inductive reasoning, which collectively influence how well individuals learn and solve problems. Secondly, we have personality traits and types, which explain a person’s character, temperament, and behavioural styles, influencing a person’s approach to work. Both are integral to performance in the workplace, but in different and unique ways.
Cognitive abilities are simpler to understand, as greater cognitive ability is ubiquitously associated with performance in the workplace. However, personality traits are more nuanced, as only certain personality traits will be predictive of performance in any given role. For example, extraversion may be important in sales roles, but perhaps less so in software development roles. Similarly, emotional intelligence may be important in caring roles, but not in data science etc. In this article, I will outline the three personality traits which are predictive of performance in almost any role, and explain why their predictive power is so universal.
Conscientiousness is a constituent of the Big Five personality traits, and relates to a person’s propensity to be organised, careful, diligent, and structured. Highly conscientious people tend to display a consistently high work ethic, preferring to take on tasks autonomously and see them through to completion. They are also more organised, preferring structure and careful adherence to instructions or set processes. Lastly, they are likely to prefer traditional approaches to problem solving, favouring the status quo and respecting the word of authority figures.
Research shows that highly conscientious individuals display greater levels of performance in the workplace than lower scorers. This is likely due to the volume of work completed, as highly conscientious individuals are likely to put in more hours at work, and are less likely to become distracted. They are also less likely to make careless errors or silly mistakes in their work, as they will opt for a more careful and considered approach to their daily tasks.
Resilience relates to an individual’s ability to manage stress, cope with difficult situations, and return to a pre-crisis level of affect. Highly resilient individuals are less likely to suffer the ill effects of stress related illness and burnout, acting as a buffer against stress more generally. Those who score low on resilience are more likely to suffer during times of adversity, taking everything to heart and experiencing significant negative affect as a result.
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Resilience is also directly related to performance in the workplace, as highly resilient staff are simply less likely to give up during difficult times, ensuring that their tasks are completed all the same. Those who score low on resilience, however, tend to struggle during trying times, inevitably impacting the quality and quantity of their work. More importantly, however, they will suffer from the negative effects of stress-related illness, giving organizations a moral duty to hire highly resilient staff for high-pressure roles.
Integrity relates to a person’s propensity to follow ethical, moral, and legal principles in the workplace. Those who score highly on integrity are more likely to display higher levels of contextual performance and organizational citizenship behaviors, contributing significantly to the well-being of the organization. Those who score low however, are likely to display counterproductive work behaviors, which could include stealing, loafing, and petty corruption, harming the organization.
Integrity is universally predictive of performance in the workplace, as no workplace is immune to the harmful actions of unscrupulous employees. When individuals show low levels of integrity, they are unlikely to prioritise the needs of their employing organization or their colleagues, and will simply act without regard for other people. Identifying such people and removing them from short-lists is therefore an essential task, decreasing the probability of hiring morally inscrutable individuals into the organisation.
Human personality is incredibly complex and multifaceted, comprising a wide range of dimensions, not all of which will be immediately relevant to all forms of work. Although many personality traits will be predictive of performance in certain roles, based on the specific behavioural requirements of those roles, some a more broadly applicable. The three personality traits listed here, conscientiousness, resilience, and integrity, are likely to be predictive of performance in virtually all fields of work, having more broad applicability than any other traits. However, the degree of predictive validity can be expected to vary between roles, based on their specific requirements. Therefore, we always advice implementing a battery of psychometric tests, conducting a thorough job analysis and / or validity study before introducing personality questionnaires, even those type-based test like the Enneagram or MBTI into the recruitment process.