Business owners gain an edge when they recognize and manage workers’ personalities – making smart hires, putting the right people in the right jobs, and even setting up creative clashes in groups to foster new ideas and sharpen thinking.
Just don’t try to change personality, says J. Michael Crant, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who has studied personality at work for two decades.
Crant, who wrote the “Personality and Careers” entry for last year’s Encyclopedia of Career Development, says traits such as conscientiousness and emotional stability are important for all jobs while traits such as shyness and extroversion matter for particular work.
Crant’s oft-cited research on proactive personalities, published in 1993, provided a way to measure the trait that often identifies such people as leaders because they don’t passively adapt to circumstances.
“We showed that you can measure proactivity using a simple 10-item scale,” he says.
The importance of personality in business came to the fore 10 to 15 years ago when experts working on personality psychology began to identify which dimensions were most meaningful at work.
Since then, many companies have paid more attention to personality in the interview process, and some have invested in tools such as multiple-choice tests to help identify personality traits before hiring.
“A lot of companies today are actually doing formal personality testing,” Crant says. “There are tons of consulting firms. Now more than ever, companies are spending money to hire effectively. If you hire a better person, you make more money,” just as a well-chosen equipment purchase brings a higher return.
Interviewers can often gauge personality without the formal tools.
“I think you can ask intelligent interview questions that will get at this as well,” he says. “There’s lots of Web sites and books that are full of interview questions.”
Ask about when the applicant faced adversity and how they responded; ask about their interests to see how intrinsically motivated they are; ask about their frustrations to detect emotional stability; ask about a time they failed, he says: “Did they learn from the failure?”
Prospective employees should be alert to the focus on personality.
“If people are looking for jobs, they could think about how to present themselves,” Crant says. “You have to be careful how people perceive you. You have to portray yourself as conscientious and emotionally stable. They are interpreting your actions.
“They’re thinking ‘Is this person just in it for the money or do they truly care?’ People resent
folks who are just in it for the money.”
Conscientious and emotionally stable are the top two universal traits, he says.
Conscientious people are those who act because they care, not because they are motivated
by reward or punishment.
“That is a huge predictor of job performance,” Crant says. “You care about doing good work
independent of the money,” although you can be conscientious and expect fair treatment and pay. “These are the types of people you don’t have to worry about. You don’t have to threaten and cajole them.
Emotionally stable people tend to be high performers and happy with their jobs, he says. “That’s somebody who’s calm. They can control their emotions. They’re not paranoid.”
Employers should understand the importance of personality while also understanding that it’s one of many factors affecting performance, Crant says.
“The definition of personality is pretty simple – it’s consistent pattern of behavior,” he says. “We’re not talking about things that change. You behave pretty similarly at age 10, 30 and 70.
“It’s those things that make us unique, things like our thoughts, emotions, interests, habits.”
Personality comes from genetics and, possibly, early life experience.
“It’s definitely nature,” he says. “It’s not nurture. Psychologists like myself don’t think even personality is the only thing that affects behavior. It is an important part. It influences the choices we make and how we act. It ultimately affects behavior.”
Personality is not even the most important factor for some jobs.
“For professional jobs where you have to think – knowledge work – the biggest predictor is intelligence – IQ,” Crant says. “That’s not personality. But personality is right behind that.”
Some personalities can help managers match people with jobs, he says. For example, a person with a shy personality is not likely to be happy in customer service, and an outgoing person is not likely to be happy sitting with no human contact.
“An outgoing person would be miserable in a situation where they couldn’t get out all day,” Crant says, in contrast to a shy person: “They’re much happier in jobs where they’re in the basement looking at a computer. That’s just one component of many things.”
Personality is not determinative – researchers are beginning to focus on “self-concept” that helps, for example, shy people tap into resources that improve their confidence – but personality is an important factor to consider.
“You cannot change somebody’s personality,” Crant says. “The answer is changing the situation. Every human behavior is a function of the personality and the situation. Just because you can’t change personality doesn’t mean you can’t change behavior.
“Even someone who is painfully shy can choose to act counter to that. I don’t believe we’re prisoners of our personality. We can choose to act differently. The research suggests you’re much better matching somebody to a job that fits them rather than trying to get them to change their behavior.”
Sometimes the best fit is a sort of personality clash that opens everyone on a team to new ideas.
“You actually want, in team settings, a little bit of clashing,” Crant says. “When you have a bunch of people who are similar to each other and like each other, they make lousy decisions. You don’t get challenge. You don’t get new ideas. You don’t get synergy.
“You want to stir the pot a little bit. You actually want to encourage conflict. Think carefully about who is on a team and make sure you have diversity. I think it’s an art. You want to be on the alert for group processes that are too smooth. The fighting improves the clarity of the thinking.”
Companies should consider personality high among the factors they consider for hiring and management, he says.
“Pay attention to this as part of the many things you look at as far as hiring and promoting and developing people,” Crant says. “Personality is an important part of who we are. Manage it by hiring people with the right personality traits.”