Personality and work success – what does the research tell us?

By Prof Hew Gill, Associate Provost, Sunway University

What makes each of us an individual is our personality, but when was the last time you thought about your personality? Over the last 25 years, psychologists have come to a broad consensus that there are five big factors that make up the traits of human personality: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness-to-experience. There has been lots of research to examine how these personality traits are associated with various life outcomes, so what do the studies tell us about personality and job success?

In the very broadest terms, job success tends to be associated with higher than average levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. That means people who are ambitious, friendly, diligent and patient. The imagination, curiosity and liking for new things that are the hallmarks of high openness-to-experience appear to be less important in most careers but can be the key to a great future in the media and other creative industries.

The personality trait that is most associated with success across most job types is conscientiousness. Conscientious people tend to be very disciplined, organized and efficient, and they place a high value on getting things correct and doing things on time. These are characteristics that make for success in most situations, whether it’s work, school or even leisure activities and because conscientious people deliver what they promise other people generally trust them with more responsibility and authority.  

The two socially related traits of extraversion and agreeableness are associated with career success in ways that can be seen as complementary. Extraverted people tend to be ambitious, talkative, assertive, which means that they like to ‘get ahead’ so they want to be promoted into bigger job roles with more status and that is why they often become leaders and managers. However, too much extraversion can make people impulsive, pushy and too  dominant, so the most successful people also have some agreeableness to balance their extraverted drive to succeed. Agreeableness is what we might think of as the sociable trait, the part of personality that makes people cooperative, group- focused, and keen to get along with others. Agreeable individuals fit easily into a team and have empathy – the ability to relate to other people and understand how others feel. This is why the right mix of extraversion and agreeableness can be a very powerful combination because it makes for a person who is motivated, fluent, friendly and caring.  

High levels of emotional stability are also associated with career success.  Contrary to popular belief there is no such thing as ‘good’ stress and pressure at work can quickly reduce people’s effectiveness. The resilience to cope with pressure is an important characteristic for maintaining high task performance in tough times, but it also has another benefit in terms of interpersonal relationships. The most stressful elements of most jobs usually involve other people and individuals who are emotionally stable tend to be patient and slow to anger. This means that emotionally stable people tend to be calm in a crisis so these individuals become trusted to deal with problems and they are also able to maintain positive social relationships when under pressure. It’s a winning combination that makes longer-term work success more likely.   

So, the evidence shows that agreeable extraverts who are emotionally stable and conscientious tend to succeed in most jobs, and they also tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives. Hopefully you recognise some aspects of your personality in these brief descriptions, but you may also identify some areas where you would like to be more like the people described. Well, the good news is that you can choose to increase your agreeableness, extraversion, emotional stability, conscientiousness and even your openness, if that’s what you want to do.  

Until fairly recently it was widely assumed that by around the age of 30 most people’s personality was static and unchanging, but we now realise that personality can change a lot at any time during life. Most people have stable personalities because they have stable lives, but the latest neuroscience research has revealed that that you can choose to adapt your personality to achieve success and happiness in your job or any other aspect of your life. The key is to understand yourself and then to make changes in your thoughts, your feelings or your behaviours because even small variations can lead to changes in your personality that will even rewire your brain. The most interesting study in life is the study of yourself and the real way to success is doing the personal work to become the person you want to be. Maybe in a future column we’ll look at how you can make some of these changes, but the first step is to know who you are, so isn’t it time you spent a little time thinking about your personality?

Professor Hew Gill is the Associate Provost of Sunway University and joined the University after a successful multi-track career as an entrepreneur, UK politician and public servant, banker, senior business leader, and media pundit. He has served as a chair, governor, trustee and lay member of various educational, charitable and professional institutions and organisations in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia.  He is an alumnus of several world-class universities including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, Leeds University Business School, and the Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. He is a frequent broadcaster and sought-after public speaker on a range of educational, business, and psychological subjects. 

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