The Personality-Productivity Connection

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Todd Harris

If you agree with the old adage “the people make the place," then you’ll understand why the use of personality assessments in business and industry continues to grow in popularity. Personality assessments tap into each individual’s unique “operating system,"  yielding key insights into people’s individual drives, temperaments and motivations (e.g., why I might enjoy poring over P&L statements for hours on end, while you’d prefer to be out building relationships with customers). There is an explicit connection between how well a person fits his or her job, his or her productivity and, ultimately, a company’s bottom line.

Personality on the Rise

The topic of personality is a hot one right now within the management and HR communities for a number of reasons:

  • Personality traits have a direct and substantial impact on job performance. Research suggests that between 20% and 25% of an individual employee’s effectiveness on the job is attributable to his or her personality. A recent research study by the consulting firm PI Worldwide found that retail sales managers with higher degrees of assertiveness achieved an average of 35% more year-over-year sales growth than did their less assertive counterparts. Personality plays a key role in effectiveness at the team and organizational levels as well.

    For example, we’ve all had co-workers who are excellent “team players," those who consistently go out of their way to be conscientious, supportive and flexible, helping to keep a project going smoothly. Additionally, the effect of a leader’s personality on companywide performance is well documented. More effective leaders generally have more ambition, likeability and openness to new experiences than their less effective counterparts. In short, whether we realize it or not, personality underpins all aspects of organizational behavior and effectiveness.
  • Well-developed personality assessments predict job performance effectively, and just as importantly, do so in a nondiscriminatory way. Personality assessments that are constructed properly tend not to be significantly impacted by an employee’s age, race or gender, a concern that afflicts other assessments such as those of cognitive ability. This particular advantage of personality assessments is likely to take on even added significance as the U.S. workforce becomes more diverse.
  • The nature of work is changing. In today’s increasingly customer-focused, service-based and team-oriented business environment, companies are discovering that their “store” of personality attributes can be key competitive differentiators. In our own experience, how many times have we not returned to a particular restaurant because of a surly waitperson? Similar stories of the importance of the “human” side of business interactions abound.

New Applications

There are many “milestones” across the employee life-cycle, and personality assessments can play a useful role at each one. Many leading companies are using these familiar instruments in new and innovative ways, maximizing their return on the investment. For example:

  • Recruiting: Personality assessments can be used to define some of the key characteristics required for a job and to craft targeted recruiting strategies (e.g., Where do you recruit? What messages do you want to send to potential candidates?) to attract key talent.
  • Onboarding: With the insights yielded by personality assessments, new employees can be brought up to speed more quickly and comfortably. For example, some employees may need a little more training and support up-front, while others are more comfortable going it alone.
  • Culture Change: Perhaps your company is moving into a new phase or market, experiencing a cultural shift that now places a premium on speed and risk taking. Personality assessments can be a great aid in finding and developing talent that will thrive in the new environment.
  • Coaching: Managers can use the data yielded by personality assessments to tailor their coaching strategies for their direct reports. For example, some employees may benefit from performance improvement strategies that emphasize support and practice, with a premium placed on specific and detailed feedback. Other employees may be much more comfortable trying out new skills autonomously and “on the fly.”
  • Leadership Development: Personality assessments are increasingly being incorporated into leadership development programs at all organizational levels, from front-line supervisors to middle management to the executive suite. These assessments can give leaders valuable data on where their natural behavioral strengths lie and how to leverage them to drive business results.

A Shopping List

So if you are in the market for a personality assessment, what types of questions should you ask of potential vendors? While the 1978 Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, published by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), remains the “gold standard” of workplace assessment development and usage, the following eight questions are a good guide:

  1. What is the assessment designed to measure and accomplish, and how will that benefit the organization?
  2. Does the assessment come with an accompanying job analysis tool that allows for the thorough identification of a job’s requirements?
  3. Is the assessment free of bias with respect to the respondent’s age, gender or ethnic group?
  4. Is the assessment reliable? That is, are people’s scores on it consistent and repeatable over time?
  5. Is the assessment valid? That is, does it effectively predict important workplace behaviors that drive metrics such as sales, customer satisfaction and turnover?
  6. Is documentation supporting questions 3, 4 and 5 readily available in the form of a technical manual or equivalent document that is consistent with EEOC guidelines?
  7. Is research on questions 3, 4 and 5 ongoing?
  8. What are the key “implementation issues” such as cost, time it takes to complete the assessment, data security, scalability across the organization (note that some personality assessments are only appropriate to be used with specific jobs or at certain hierarchical levels), ongoing support from the vendor (especially the degree to which the vendor understands your business challenges) and degree of client self-sufficiency/knowledge transfer?

About the Author(s)

Dr. Todd Harris is the Director of Research for PI Worldwide, an international management consulting organization based in Wellesley Hills, MA, that helps companies align individual performance with their specific business goals. Dr. Harris also serves as an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has published work in the areas of performance appraisal, team building, organizational behavior and technology.