How the Big Five Personality Traits Can Predict Performance at Work

Tanya Pinto
How the Big Five Personality Traits Can Predict Performance at Work

What’s the best way to hire talented and productive employees?

If you are of the opinion that the best way to spot talent is through challenging numerical and knowledge competency tests, you may be mistaken. Intelligent and academically competent individuals are not necessarily the best employees. If you are wondering why, we have an interesting answer.

In 1961, two US Air Force researchers Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal formulated an idea which could have transformed how prospective employees are are evaluated. Unfortunately, their brilliant concept did not receive popular attention until three decades later in the 1990’s. Known as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, the researchers underlined five human personality traits, which explained the driving factors behind how people behaved at home or the workplace.

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Before looking at how the big five personality traits apply in the workplace, let’s have a look at each of their definitions. The researchers broadly identified five dimensions which are used to describe a person’s personality:

Openness to experience: this signifies seeking unique or challenging experiences; anything that is different to the daily monotony. Examples are living abroad; travelling; readiness to take up challenging tasks at work – basically anything which has the potential to offer a new experience. Depending on a person’s openness to experience, he or she can be classified as curious or the opposite – cautious.

Conscientiousness: highlights qualities of being organized, dependable, self-disciplined and the perseverance to aim for achievement. People with high and low conscientiousness are categorized as efficient or easy-going respectively.

Extroversion: characterised by positive energy, sociability and assertiveness. People with low extraversion are more socially reserved.

Agreeableness: being compassionate and cooperative towards coworkers, instead of being suspicious and doubtful.

Neuroticism: easily experiencing unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and anger.

Conscientiousness and agreeableness make efficient employees

When hiring employees, the Big Five are strong predictors of future performance. In 2014, research by Sackett and Walmsley emphasised that of all traits, conscientiousness and agreeableness make the most efficient employees. However, ‘conscientiousness’ does not necessarily mean an employee who sits at her office desk till midnight, working her waking hours away. It refers to a self-motivated individual who sets and achieves her own ambitious work goals and always completes the tasks assigned. This can also be done through flexible and remote working, which many forward-thinking organisations encourage today. Along with this, an employee should also be encouraged to have a flexible, tolerant and accommodating attitude. This includes the willingness to adapt and work with team members from diverse backgrounds or cultures. Additionally, senior executives and organisation leaders should actively interact with and mentor junior employees, which helps to strengthen the team.

How to make the most of the big five personality traits when hiring

Hiring a promising individual is only one half of the task. In order for this employee to truly perform well, the following strategies should be adopted at the workplace:

Encourage employees to form productive teams: The importance of teamwork cannot be stressed enough. Microsoft has already recognised how indispensable this is. Microsoft ex-CEO Steve Ballmer believes that the best way to redirect the company to success would be  to “drive a cross-company team for success.” Teamwork often trumps over individual brilliance.

Change any working processes which instigate negative emotions: Old-school power hierarchies at the workplace can discourage employees from presenting their ideas, leading to feelings of being voiceless or powerless. Also, narrow evaluation systems which heavily depend on quantitative metrics – such as stack ranking – to judge performance can pressurize employees to become self-centred or encourage unhealthy competition. As these emotions can reduce tolerance and hamper productivity, it is important to change any conventional systems that cause them.

Make sure employees have a meaningful perception of the organisation: Having an inspiring perception of the company’s vision and purpose encourages employees to use their potential to the fullest. A company’s vision is also important to attract the right talent to the company, sifting away those who are not compatible with the company’s purpose.

Improve overall transparency of the organisation: This can be done through better and more open communication platforms, like in-office messaging apps which allows access to all members of the team, even possibly the CEO! Popular organisations like Buffer also hail the benefits of an open salary policy – which greatly increases employee trust and reduces the scope of discontent with peers salaries.

Key takeaways

Look for what really matters in an employee – dependability, accountability and the passion to achieve ambitious goals. Instead of focusing on raw intellect and experience, the big five personality traits allow you to look at how well someone fits with your organisation. This should be coupled with a healthy co-working attitude and positive team spirit. To reduce negative interactions between teams and employees, you should do whatever you can to improve processes and increase transparency.

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