University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

How Personality and Occupation Interact

Office Meeting in Conference Room: Specialist with Short Pink Hair Talks about Firm Strategy with Diverse Team of Professional Businesspeople.
November 29, 2022  |  By Mitchell Simpson, Michael Wilmot

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Skills and experience clearly relate to occupational performance. But researchers have also noted that our personality traits are key assets at work. Researchers use the Big Five trait model– Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN) – when they measure personality traits because it has been empirically developed and measurements tend to be stable over a person’s adulthood. 
The Big Five traits are fairly descriptive in what they measure: openness measures a person’s willingness to engage with novel ideas and experiences; conscientiousness measures goal setting and completion; extraversion means what you think it means, though it captures both dominance and sociability; agreeableness measures a person’s inclination towards cooperation; and high scores in neuroticism reflect a person’s propensity for negative emotions. The components of the Big Five  have been developed over decades of empirical studies, and they are still undergoing refinement, especially as psychologists adjust their models to encompass more than white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) subjects.  
In his recent meta-analysis, Michael Wilmot, assistant professor of management at the University of Arkansas, uncovers conclusions about personality and occupational performance through industrial psychology’s body of research. Wilmot and his coauthor, Deniz Ones, found that prior research supports the conclusion that worker personality traits predict performance in their profession.  
Wilmot and Ones had professional career analysts rate which Big Five personality traits would best predict job performance. They then compared these responses to the work styles and job complexity defined by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*Net), a governmental database that collects information on occupations and their requirements. Their findings demonstrate that conscientiousness supports success in most occupations and second order traits tend to help specialize that success to the needs of the career.  
 Pairing Personality Traits and Jobs 
Researchers have measured the effect of personality traits on job performance, in general, but there isn’t a good comparison across different occupations. Wilmot and Ones collected the findings of the body of existing research on relations of personality and performance in nine different occupations, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC).  Ultimately, their analysis drew on data from nearly 90,000 workers across 539 studies, which makes their study the largest of its kind. 
After they compiled their database, the researchers found that conscientiousness had the strongest mean relation to job performance, across all occupations, whereas agreeableness and openness had the weakest. However, the more interesting findings had to do with which traits predicted better/worse in different occupations.  
Generally, the traits that career analysts rate as relevant for career fields (e.g., noting that extroversion is important for sales, etc.) agree with the empirical findings of industrial psychology research. Notably, however, experts identified agreeableness as the most critical trait for healthcare workers to possess, emotional stability as being crucial for military and police work, and extraversion for managerial careers. Wilmot and Ones note that in each case those traits are in fact relevant for the work, but they were not the primary trait that predicted job performance. Rather, they were secondary or complementary. Conscientiousness predicted performance more strongly.  
The researchers argue that experts tend to base their ratings on more externally visible traits for a career. For example, in healthcare, they overemphasize the role agreeableness – relating directly to patient interaction – plays in job performance. As the researchers say, every job has tasks that need to be completed, and conscientious workers are more likely to accomplish their tasks successfully.  
The most interesting finding from Wilmot and Ones’s meta-analysis is that personality traits correlate most strongly with performance at moderate levels of complexity. Complexity generally refers to the cognitive demands associated with the job. The researchers categorized occupations using a measure of complexity based on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which notes each profession’s complexity numerically. Skilled and semiskilled labor professions are measurably less complex than, say, healthcare and customer service occupations, which are in turn less complex than professional and managerial occupations. 
Wilmot and Ones call this middle range of complexity a possible ‘goldilocks’ zone’ of performance prediction. That is, the research suggests we could better predict a teacher’s job performance with their personality than we might predict a superintendent’s (highly complex) or a tutor’s (less complex). Wilmot and Ones, however, call for further study and replication of this relationship between job complexity and predicting performance using personality.  
This study confirms earlier research by the pair, which concluded that the goal-directed nature of conscientiousness meshes well with the expectations of most careers. Conscientiousness and its goal orientation’s stronger correlation with occupation success reflects similar research Angela Duckworth conducted on grit, which is the capacity to persevere in order to achieve goals. The reason is that grit is a lower-order traits, or component, of the broader conscientiousness trait.  
Duckworth found that grit was a better predictor of whether cadets would drop out of West Point’s orientation-cum-basic training than any other metric, largely because cadets are a highly self-selecting bunch. That is, workers already do some of the sorting between career fields. People-oriented folks are going to tend towards caring professions, for example, so it is not their agreeableness that sets them apart from their colleagues. 
The other four traits predicted performance when they were closely aligned with the goals of the occupation. Agreeableness correlated to job performance in healthcare. Emotional stability predicted performance in skilled/semiskilled, military, and law enforcement jobs. Performance in managerial and sales occupations was related to workers’ extraversion. And openness predicted job performance in the problem-solving environment of professional occupations.  
The other traits of the Big Five are important contributors to prediction, but they represent a profile of the kind of workers that would fit best in a particular occupation – a disagreeable person is probably not going to become a nurse, and someone who lacks openness will probably not be attracted to the professorate. The researchers therefore suggest the best way then to predict job performance is to pair conscientiousness with the secondary trait that correlates most strongly with performance in that occupational group.  
Wilmot and Ones recommend that O*Net could expand their work styles to better incorporate extraversion in their occupational typing. While O*Net’s work styles provided sufficient data for the researchers to compare against, their analysis highlights the poor representation of extraversion in O*Net’s work styles, although features typically associated with extraverted people are often desirable in certain work environments.  
Wilmot and Ones’s research is motived by the observation that society benefits when people perform their jobs well. Their meta-analysis is the largest collation of occupational performance and worker personality, suggesting that the two metrics are closely related especially at moderate levels of complexity. Their findings suggest that vocational counselors should provide individuals with their own profile of personality traits, and compare it with the profile that best predicts performance in each occupation, which could help clarify vocational choice and career satisfaction.

Post Researcher/Author:

Mitchell SimpsonMitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn't buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.