The big five personality dimensions

Bill Collins. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

17 September 2003

The author offers five main character traits for employers to measure when recruiting workers.

Whenever we ask managers what their greatest challenges are, topping the list is usually “finding good workers.” Managers are concerned about the lack of readily available talented personnel. Nonetheless, most of the time these challenges are considered a problem of recruiting and retaining workers. Logically, if I want talented employees, I need to choose from the people applying for jobs in my company, then treat them and pay them in such a way that I gain (or buy) their continuance in the company (recruitment). However, this line of thinking, despite heading in the right direction, does not take into account how to obtain quality candidates and how to pick those who will produce the best results.

The fundamental step in the personnel selection process is, in fact, choosing individuals who are both talented and motivated. The literature in this field focuses on the need to ensure that selection tests and interviews be simpler, better and clearer. Frequently, this involves determining what kind of personal characteristics will best indicate the candidate with the most promising performance. While nobody yet claims to have found the way to pinpoint the perfect employee, there is evidence to show that some personality measurements can assist employers in choosing candidates with high performance levels.

Personality traits are characteristics that are permanent and practically inalterable in an individual. Clear examples are introverts and extroverts. An introverted person can learn to be more sociable; but even with the passing of time, it is not very likely this person could become an extrovert – or someone who loves being the center of attention. Given the stability of personality traits, choosing the right person at the very start is of the utmost importance. In fact, many employers do not pick candidates who have certain skills or experience, because they know these skills can be acquired later. Instead, they focus on choosing the right kind of person for the job, then train the worker in the skills required.

There are literally hundreds of different labels for personality traits. Researchers have adopted a framework in which all personality traits can be included within one of the “Big Five.” These five personality dimensions are: Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Extroversion, Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness.

Those with a high score in Conscientiousness are characteristically hardworking, persevering and success-orientated. They are workers to whom a manager can entrust a project, then rest safe in the knowledge that it will be finished, because these meticulous employees work hard and tenaciously, even in the face of difficulties. Those with Emotional Stability are not likely to become angry, or suffer anxiety or worry, under adverse conditions. They are people who keep cool, despite the problems they confront. Agreeableness describes those who are basically considered polite and good-natured. Extroversion is the degree to which individuals are outgoing and seek situations where they can interrelate with others. They are also referred to as sociable or assertive. Finally, those with a high degree of Openness to Experience enjoy new experiences such as art, culture or adventure trips. They are likely to welcome changes and seek different ways of doing their work.

Conscientiousness is key

Research has shown that, of these five dimensions, the one most closely and reliably related to work performance is conscientiousness. It appears to be an important factor when obtaining results in many kinds – and at many levels – of work. One recent research review revealed how, to a large extent, conscientiousness determines performance in work involving sales, customer service and qualified or semi-qualified administrative duties. Apart from conscientiousness, recruiting friendly, sociable individuals facilitates posterior training and learning processes.

Recent research, carried out at Instituto de Empresa into Spanish employees from a high-technology firm, investigated whether personality had any relation to knowledge management. The researchers wondered if personality determined whether individuals share and seek information. They conclusively showed that individuals with a high degree of openness to experience were the most willing to share and seek information from the experiences of other employees. Curiously, conscientiousness – linked, as we have seen, to performance – is not significantly related to patterns of sharing or seeking knowledge. These discoveries are interesting, as they could be an indicator to consider when selecting employees in the new economy, where knowledge management is fundamental.

Finding, selecting and retaining talented employees remains the greatest challenge for many firms. According to recent studies, incorporating tests measuring The Big Five Personality Dimensions into the selection processes can increase the probability of recruiting better employees. Moreover, as the importance of workers’ knowledge increases, it is more likely that those employers who find and recruit workers with the correct combination of personality traits can increase the value and success of their – frequently – costly knowledge of management initiatives.


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