“Big Five” Personality Traits

Although personality traits, long term predispositions for behaviour, have been generally downplayed and even totally discounted, in recent years there is gaining support for a five factor trait-based theory of personality. Many years ago no less than 18,000 words were found to describe personality. Even after combining words with similar meanings, there still remained 171 personality traits. Obviously, such a huge number of personality traits is practically unusable, so further reduction analysis found five core personality traits. Called the Five factor Model (FFM), or in the field of organizational behaviour and human resource management, the “Big Five” these traits have held up as accounting for personality in many analyses over the years and even cross cultures.

Importantly, not only is there now considerable agreement on what is the core personality trait predispositions, but there is also accumulated research that these five best predict performance in the workplace. Recently, the Big Five have been extended through meta-analytic studies to also demonstrate a positive relationship with performance motivation and job satisfaction. Although the five traits are largely independent factors of a personality like primary colours, they can be mixed in countless proportions and with other characteristics to yield a unique personality whole. However, also like colours, one may dominate in describing an individual’s personality.

The real value of the Big Five to organizational behaviour is that it does bring back the importance of pre-dispositional traits, and these traits have been clearly shown to relate to job performance. Importantly, it should also be noted that these five traits are quite stable. Although there is not total agreement most personality theorists would tend to agree that after about 30 years of age, the individual’s personality profile will change little over time.

There is general agreement that conscientiousness has the strongest positive correlation with job performance. From this level of correlation of the performance in the studies is accounted for by conscientiousness. Yet, it should also be noted that this is still significant and conscientious employees may provide a major competitive advantage. Individuals who are dependable, persistent, goal directed and organized tend to be higher performers on virtually any job; viewed negatively, those who are careless, irresponsible, low achievement striving and impulsive tend to be lower performers on virtually any job.

Put in relation to other organizational behaviour areas as a personality trait per se, conscientious employees set higher goals for themselves have  higher performance expectations, and respond well to job enrichment (take on more responsibility) and empowerment strategies of human resource management. As would be expected, research indicates that those who are conscientious are less likely to be absent from work, and a study found in international human resource behaviour management that conscientiousness of expatriates related positively to the rating of their foreign assignment performance. Yet, there are also recent studies with non-supporting and mixed results pointing to the complexity of this personality trait. For example, in a recent study conscientiousness was found not to be influential in determining managerial performance and in another study of Middle Eastern expatriate managers, conscientiousness was related  to home country ratings of the expats’ performance but not the host country ratings of the same expats. In addition, studies had indicated that the individual’s ability moderates the relationship between conscientiousness and performance. Another study found the relationship of conscientiousness to job performance was strong when job satisfaction was low, nut was relatively weak when satisfaction was high.

Applied to peer evaluations, as hypothesized a study found the raters’ conscientiousness was negatively related with the level of the rating. In other words, conscientious raters did not give inflated evaluations, but those with low conscientiousness did. Such multiplicative relationships with variables such as culture, ability and job satisfaction indicate, like other psychological variables, that conscientiousness is complex and is certainly not the only answer for job performance. This has led to a recent research stream that support the hypothesized interactive effects between conscientiousness and extraversion and agreeableness on performance and the interaction of conscientiousness and openness to experience and creative behaviour. The same is true of research on the mediating and moderating effects of conscientiousness when influenced by various organizational behaviour dynamics. In other words, without getting to the depth of these analyses, it can simply be said that there is considerable complexity involved with the impact of the personality trait of conscientiousness on various work related variables.  However, this is one area of personality where there is enough research evidence to conclude that conscientiousness should be given attention in understanding the impact that personality traits can have on job performance, job satisfaction and work motivation and pragmatically for personnel selection for most jobs.