Why Personality Matters At Work

office employees

While some employees enjoy teamwork, others may be more autonomous.

What are the factors that motivate employees to do the best job possible? For some, it’s the prospect of higher pay and advancement up the chain of command. For others, it’s a feeling of accomplishment or the ability to work autonomously. According to research co-authored by a Texas A&M University professor, these factors are derived from the individual’s personality characteristics, and if bosses can tailor job duties in accordance with employees’ natural leanings, they could see meaningful increases in company success.

“Once managers know what is motivating employees, they can focus on redesigning work in a way that is more efficient,” says Murray Barrick, a professor of management at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School and co-author of the study “The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior: The Role of Personality, Job Characteristics And Experienced Meaningfulness,” published this year by the Academy of Management Review.

The theory proposes that there are two fundamental determinants of work motivation: the individual’s personality and the characteristics of the job and social environment. “What our data shows is that the integration of the two leads to enhanced prediction and understanding of how work motivates people,” notes Barrick, who specializes in employee motivation. “What this theory recognizes is that to optimally motivate people at work, we must first understand what motivational strivings are driving the person’s behavior.”

The researchers examined the Five-factor Model of personality which declares that behavior is influenced by five dimensions of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. They contend that these traits give rise to one or more of the four fundamental motivational strivings: communion, status, autonomy and achievement. When the characteristics of a person’s job (skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback) are in line with these motivational strivings, that person will experience a “psychological state of experienced meaningfulness,” according to the study.

Murray Barrick

Murray Barrick

And that feeling of meaningfulness influences the employees’ work performance, says Barrick, whose co-authors include Ning Li, Texas A&M graduate student, and Michael Mount, University of Iowa.

“We measured employee engagement − how passionate employees are about the work, how absorbed they get at work, and how energetic and enthusiastic they are to do the work,” Barrick explains. “Higher engagement leads to higher performance and greater retention.”

For example, he notes, some people are more agreeable and are motivated by communion. This type of person may be more likely to succeed in a work environment that relies on collaboration and cooperation. “So a manager would recognize this and provide an environment where the employee enjoys social support, interdependence and teamwork, and as a result, may see that employee become more engaged and productive.”

On the other hand, some employees prefer autonomy, and will perform better accomplishing tasks on their own. Such an employee may be motivated by achievement rather than communion. “Once you realize employees’ goals, give them tasks that go along with their characteristics,” Barrick emphasizes. “When you give people tasks they want to do, they will perform better.”

Once an employer has gauged an employee’s personality traits, the job can be enriched to better suit the employee’s characteristics and goals. Job enrichment can include providing employees with tasks of varying difficulties, providing encouragement and feedback, and giving employees more control over their own work to promote the desire to succeed.

Barrick notes this management approach will become even more important in the future, as more and more routine jobs are being taken over by robots and computers. “The jobs that will be left will be jobs that require knowledge, creativity and interpersonal skills,” he concludes. “Even modest gains in employee engagement can have meaningful increases in firm success. If you look at firms in the financial sector, for example, where managers have enriched work, we find those companies realize about a 5 percent greater return on assets.”


Top photo: Shutterstock.com

About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents total annual expenditures of more than $776 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

Media contact: Lesley Henton, Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University; 979-845-5591, lshenton@tamu.edu

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