Personality and Individual Behavior

Let’s now begin to focus more specifically on the role and importance of an individual’s personality as it relates to both work outcomes and the various forms of it.  Personality  is the relatively stable set of psychological attributes that distinguish one person from another. A longstanding debate among psychologists—often expressed as “nature versus nurture”—concerns the extent to which personality attributes are inherited from our parents (the “nature” argument) or shaped by our environment (the “nurture” argument). In reality, both biological and environmental factors play important roles in determining our personalities. Although the details of this debate are beyond the scope of our discussion here, managers should strive to understand basic personality attributes and how they can affect people’s behavior and fit in organizational situations, not to mention their perceptions of and attitudes toward the organization.

The “Big Five” Framework

Psychologists have identified literally thousands of personality traits and dimensions that differentiate one person from another. But in recent years, researchers have identified five fundamental personality traits that are especially relevant to organizations. These traits, illustrated in Figure 3.1, are now commonly called the  “Big Five” personality traits . As suggested by the figure, the personality of any given person can fall anywhere along each of these five traits.

Figure 3.1“Big Five” personality traits

The “big five” personality framework is currently very popular among researchers and managers. These five dimensions represent fundamental personality traits presumed to be important in determining the behaviors of individuals in organizations. In general, experts agree that personality traits closer to the left end of each dimension are more positive in organizational settings, whereas traits closer to the right are less positive.

Agreeableness  refers to a person’s ability to get along with others. Agreeableness causes some people to be gentle, cooperative, forgiving, understanding, and good-natured in their dealings with others. Lack of it results in others’ being irritable, short-tempered, uncooperative, and generally antagonistic toward other people. Researchers have not yet fully investigated the effects of agreeableness, but it seems likely that highly agreeable people are better at developing good working relationships with coworkers, subordinates, and higher-level managers, whereas less agreeable people are not likely to have particularly good working relationships. The same pattern might extend to relationships with customers, suppliers, and other key organizational constituents.

Conscientiousness refers to the extent to which a person can be counted on to get things done. Some people, for example, are organized, detail-oriented, responsible, dependable, and plan carefully to order to meet deadlines. These individuals can be characterized as being strong on conscientiousness. Less conscientious people may be prone to missing deadlines, overlooking various tasks, being unorganized, and being generally less dependable. In general, research suggests that being strong on conscientiousness is often a good predictor of job performance for many jobs.

Conscientiousness refers to the extent that a person can be counted on to get things done. This group is acknowledging the work of one of their colleagues and his efforts to help them complete a project on time. He most likely has a high level of conscientiousness. Further, given how his colleagues seem to genuinely like him he most likely also has a high degree of agreeableness.

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The third of the Big Five personality dimensions is  neuroticism . People who are relatively more neurotic tend to experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and feelings of vulnerability more often than do people who are relatively less neurotic. People who are less neurotic are relatively poised, calm, resilient, and secure; people who are more neurotic are more excitable, insecure, reactive, and subject to extreme mood swings. People with less neuroticism might be expected to better handle job stress, pressure, and tension. Their stability might also lead them to be seen as being more reliable than their less stable counterparts.

Extraversion  reflects a person’s comfort level with relationships. Extroverts are sociable, talkative, assertive, and open to establishing new relationships. Introverts are much less sociable, talkative, and assertive, and more reluctant to begin new relationships. Research suggests that extroverts tend to be higher overall job performers than introverts and that they are more likely to be attracted to jobs based on personal relationships, such as sales and marketing positions. For this particular trait, the opposite version is also given a name— introversion . An introvert tends to be less comfortable in social situations.

Finally,  openness  reflects a person’s rigidity of beliefs and range of interests. People with high levels of openness are willing to listen to new ideas and to change their own ideas, beliefs, and attitudes in response to new information. They also tend to have broad interests and to be curious, imaginative, and creative. On the other hand, people with low levels of openness tend to be less receptive to new ideas and less willing to change their minds. Further, they tend to have fewer and narrower interests and to be less curious and creative. People with more openness might be expected to be better performers due to their flexibility and the likelihood that they will be better accepted by others in the organization. Openness may also encompass a person’s willingness to accept change; people with high levels of openness may be more receptive to change, whereas people with little openness may resist change.

The Big Five framework continues to attract the attention of both researchers and managers. The potential value of this framework is that it encompasses an integrated set of traits that appear to be valid predictors of certain behaviors in certain situations. Thus, managers who can both understand the framework and assess these traits in their employees are in a good position to understand how and why they behave as they do. On the other hand, managers must be careful to not overestimate their ability to assess the Big Five traits in others. Even assessment using the most rigorous and valid measures is likely to be somewhat imprecise. There are also times when using more specific personality traits to predict outcomes such as turnover or performance are more useful than the more general Big Five traits because the more specific trait more directly influences the intended outcome. For example, if you are trying to hire a strong team player for a diverse creative team, individual differences including a preference for teamwork and other group orientation (a preference for working with diverse others) may outperform any of the Big Five traits in predicting performance. Another limitation of the Big Five framework is that it is primarily based on research conducted in the United States. Thus, generalizing it to other cultures presents unanswered questions. Even within the United States, a variety of other factors and traits are also likely to affect behavior in organizations.

The Myers-Briggs Framework

The Myers-Briggs framework is also a popular framework that some people use to characterize personality. Many people know of this framework through a widely-used questionnaire called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. More than 2 million people worldwide take the self-assessment inventory every year. It is based upon Carl Jung’s work on psychological types. Psychologist Carl Jung was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and a leading exponent of Gestalt personality theory. The MBTI was first developed by Isabel Briggs Myers (1897–1979) and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, to help people understand themselves and each other so that they could find work that matches their personality. They put Jung’s concepts into everyday language. Isabel Myers’s 1980 book Gifts Differing, and her philosophy of celebrating individual differences, encouraged the workplace diversity movement. The MBTI uses four scales with opposite poles to assess four sets of preferences. The four scales are:

1. Extroversion (E)/Introversion (I): Extroverts are energized by things and people. They are interactors and “on the fly” thinkers whose motto is, “ready, fire, aim.” Introverts find energy in ideas, concepts, and abstractions. They can be social, but also need quiet time to recharge their batteries. They are reflective thinkers whose motto is, “ready, aim, aim.” Do you like to focus on the outer world (extroversion) or on your own inner world (introversion)?

2. Sensing (S)/Intuition (N): Sensing people are detail oriented. They want and trust facts. Intuitive people seek out patterns and relationships among the facts they have learned. They trust their intuition and look for the “big picture.” Do you prefer to focus on the information you take in (sensing) or do you like to interpret and add meaning (intuition)?

3. Thinking (T)/Feeling (F): Thinkers value fairness, and decide things impersonally based on objective criteria and logic. Feelers value harmony, and focus on human values and needs as they make decisions or judgments. When you make decisions, do you like to first look at logic and consistency (thinking) or at the people and special circumstances involved (feeling)?

4. Judging (J)/Perceiving (P): Judging people are decisive and tend to plan. They focus on completing tasks, take action quickly, and want to know the essentials. They develop plans and follow them, adhering to deadlines. Perceptive people are adaptable, spontaneous, and curious. They start many tasks, and often find it difficult to complete them. Deadlines are meant to be stretched. In dealing with the world, do you like to get things decided quickly (judging) or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options (perceiving)?

The possible combinations of these preferences result in sixteen personality types, which are identified by the four letters that represent one’s tendencies on the four scales. For example, ENTJ reflects extraversion, intuition, thinking, and judging. You can complete a brief Myers-Briggs type self-assessment online at

Although the framework and Myers-Briggs instrument were not developed or intended to be used to identify personality profiles and label people, too often this is what is done with the results. This is problematic as it can lead to discrimination and poor career counseling. Employers should not hire, fire, or assign employees by personality type, because the MBTI is not even reliable at identifying a person’s type. When retested, even after intervals as short as five weeks, as many as 50 percent of people are classified into a different type. There is little support for the claim that the MBTI can justify job discrimination or be a reliable aid to someone seeking career guidance. Jung never intended for his work to be applied to a personality inventory. He noted, “My scheme of typology is only a scheme of orientation. There is such a factor as introversion, there is such a factor as extraversion. The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist to explain, for instance, the husband to a wife or vice versa.” Nonetheless, the MBTI has become so popular that it is likely that you will encounter it during your career. It can be a fun team-building tool for illustrating some of the ways that people differ, but it should not be used in making organizational decisions including hiring and promotions.

Other Important Personality Traits

Besides these complex models of personality, several other specific personality traits are also likely to influence behavior in organizations. Among the most important are locus of control, self-efficacy, self-esteem, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, tolerance for risk and ambiguity, Type A and Type B traits, and tendencies to bully. The role of the situation is also important.

Locus of Control

Locus of control  is the extent to which people believe that their behavior has a real effect on what happens to them. Some people, for example, believe that if they work hard they will succeed. They may also believe that people who fail do so because they lack ability or motivation. People who believe that individuals are in control of their lives are said to have an internal locus of control. Other people think that fate, chance, luck, or other people’s behavior determines what happens to them. For example, an employee who fails to get a promotion may attribute that failure to a politically motivated boss or just bad luck, rather than to her or his own lack of skills or poor performance record. People who think that forces beyond their control dictate what happens to them are said to have an external locus of control. Table 3.2 summarizes the effects of locus of control on important organizational factors. This chapter’s Understand Yourself feature gives you the opportunity to evaluate your locus of control when it comes to work.

Table 3.2

Effects of Locus of Control on Organizational Outcomes

Organizational Outcome Internal versus External Locus of Control
Job satisfaction Internals are generally more satisfied with their job, pay, supervisor, and coworkers.
Commitment Internals are more committed and have lower absenteeism.
Job motivation Internals have greater task motivation, job involvement, and self-confidence than do externals.
Job performance Internals tend to have higher job performance than externals.
Career success Internals tend to earn a higher salary than do externals.
Conflict and stress Internals report lower role conflict, work-family conflict, burnout, and stress than do externals.
Social integration Internals tend to be more socially integrated at work and report more favorable relationships with their supervisors.

Source: See Ng, T.W.H., Sorensen, K.L., & Eby, L.T. (2006). Locus of Control at Work: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 1057–1087.

Understand Yourself

Work Locus of Control

Using the scale below, write the number from 1 to 7 that reflects your agreement or disagreement with the statements below. When you are finished, follow the scoring instructions at the bottom to interpret your score.

1. A job is what you make of it.

2. On most jobs, people can pretty much accomplish whatever they set out to accomplish.

3. If you know what you want out of a job, you can find a job that gives it to you.

4. If employees are unhappy with a decision made by their boss, they should do something about it.

5. Getting the job you want is mostly a matter of luck.

6. Making money is primarily a matter of good fortune.

7. Most people are capable of doing their jobs well if they make the effort.

8. In order to get a really good job, you need to have family members or friends in high places.

9. Promotions are usually a matter of good fortune.

10. When it comes to landing a really good job, who you know is more important than what you know.

11. Promotions are given to employees who perform well on the job.

12. To make a lot of money you have to know the right people.

13. It takes a lot of luck to be an outstanding employee on most jobs.

14. People who perform their jobs well generally get rewarded for it.

15. Most employees have more influence on their supervisors than they think they do.

16. The main difference between people who make a lot of money and people who make a little money is luck.

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