What are We Doing When We Measure Personality at Work?

Author(s): Megan Snodgrass, M.S.

Originally posted: March 5, 2015

This guide is intended to help you understand the following:

  • Why we measure personality for work

  • What it means when we do that

  • Why those who really understand the science of personality typically use The Big 5 and never use the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory

  • What your own scores on The Big 5 are and what do they tell you

Why Do We Measure Personality for Work?

Generally, most employers care about your personality at work for one main reason, money. To determine if you're financially a good investment they...

  1. Want to know if you’ll be worth hiring. So they test you to see if you'll (1) perform well in the job (thus they test when they’re selecting someone for a job) and often want to know if you (2) have a tendency towards dishonesty or theft, etc. (they want to hire the best people they can and avoid those who may cost them money)

  2. Want to know where or how you best fit in their organization (this may be tested pre-hire and/or as part of training and development programs), what roles they should develop you for (talent management), etc. so they can put you in a job you will stay in and excel at (hiring new people is expensive, they want to keep you if they hire you).

For employers the bottom line is - will you perform well for them? And one thing psychology has taught the world is that we can predict a person’s behavioral tendencies based on their personality traits. Thus, measuring your personality traits can help organizations make better decisions about who to hire, how to develop employees, and many other things.

There are some really important words in that bolded sentence up there too. What it’s NOT saying is that we can tell you what you will do in a very specific scenario on a given day, but what it IS saying is that over time you are more likely to act in certain ways based on your personality.

More on why we measure personality for work:

What does it mean when we measure Personality (at work)?

We’re mostly interested in personality to determine how someone will perform at work. For our purposes, personality can be boiled down to your traits. As the exciting bolded sentence in the previous paragraph notes - personality traits can be used to predict someone’s behavioral tendencies.

A very incomplete explanation of Personality Traits

Traits are a function of your genes + your environment (you can explore the nature-nurture debate, situational theories, and personality stability and change over at NOBA). I-O Psychologists like using traits to study personality because they tend to remain stable across most of a person’s adult life.

Another way to explain traits is that they are ‘recurring trends in people’s responses to their environment’ (p. 272, Colquitt, LePine, & Wesson, 2010). Multiple personality traits combine to make up your personality, and your personality is that which determines your general usual response to the world.

Some of the most universal (across cultures) and stable (across adulthood) traits have been boiled down into The Big 5 Model of Personality (originally identified by Costa and McCrae): Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism/Emotional Stability. We will discuss these more further down.

More on what it means when we measure personality:

The MBTI Problem

Many of you are thinking, well, why not use the Myers-Briggs personality test to determine your personality? It’s tried and true, isn’t it? WRONG. One of the many problems of the MBTI is that every time you take it, you can come out with a completely different score from before. Since personality is based on traits, which remain relatively stable in adulthood, your score should also be stable. The research term we use for this is called “test-retest reliability”, and the MBTI doesn't have that reliability.

This lack of reliability is caused by the main issue with the MBTI - that it measures personality by polarizing traits and using them as types. The test says you are either introverted or extroverted, but never both, while in reality many people are somewhere in between. TYPES are what we call things when you can put different people in different boxes and have that accurately describe them - like you can with hand dominance (right, left, or ambidextrous). But TRAITS can only be described on a scale or a continuum, and when you treat them differently, you're being inaccurate and you're going to ruin the reliability of your test. 2020 Update: This is also why most trained psychologists dislike ALL the tests out there that 'type' people. That doesn't mean they're bad if they help you understand yourself, or relate to yourself and to others better, just remember the boxes are too neat and not entirely real. Traits are real and can predict behavioral TENDENCIES, types are oversimplifying things (you can still personally find them useful, we find oversimplified explanations of lots of things useful - we just need to remember we're ignoring the depth of reality). - Dr. B

Introversion/Extroversion Example

So for example - when you take the MBTI, your I/E score may be a 26 which labels you an introvert, but then your boyfriend’s score is a 27 and with that one tiny point difference he's labeled an extrovert. Does that sound accurate to you?

Let's take it one step farther- just because your boyfriend’s score comes out on the extroverted side of the trait continuum - it only means he has a stronger tendency toward extroverted behavior than introverted behavior, not that he will act like an extrovert every second of every day of his life. People are (1) too complex and (2) too deeply influenced by the situations around them for us to accurately predict behavior from second to second based on just a single trait of someone’s personality, but the MBTI makes it sound like he's pure extrovert.

Additional Issues

Here's a brief summary of a few more issues the MBTI has, many of them are covered clearly in Pittenger (1993) and on celebritytypes.com (in non-academic speak):

  • Out of date and sketchy origins: The MBTI is loosely based on Jung’s research from the 1920’s (and he wouldn’t have used his work this way - he’s quoted as saying so - doesn’t that seem disrespectful? Ugh.)

  • Supported mostly by potentially biased studies: The majority of the research that supports the MBTI’s reliability and validity is done either at a conference or in a journal supported by the company which provides MBTI training and certification (which is very very lucrative for them - red flag!)

More about the MBTI:

The Big 5

The majority of I-O Psychologists believe that objective (trait-based) personality tests, like the Big 5, are valuable tools for selecting good employees. Many large organizations use a Big 5 based test because they are designed to measure dimensions of personality and related characteristics and the five traits are highly reliable and stable. The 5-factors are nicknamed OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism/Emotional Stability.

Assessing the Big 5

The Big 5 is a multiple item survey that is rated on a scale from 1 to 5. Typically with 1 standing for strongly disagree to 5 with strongly agree. To ensure the most accurate results you should quickly go through the survey and try to answer with your initial, gut level response. Filling out the survey is the easy part, but calculating your scores may be a bit tricky!

There are many options for getting your scores, some a bit more reliable than others.

  • Employers tend to use some form of the NEO, but it’s pricy for individuals.

  • 2022 Update! Fivethirtyeight provides a great popular web version

  • Many researchers have versions they have worked on and validated which are well suited to student use in research projects at either the undergraduate or graduate levels: Greenberg, Gosling, IPIP, Mini-IPIP, etc.

If you’d like to try your hand at measuring your own personality you can do so by borrowing an Excel spreadsheet from the GosLab*: Daniel DeNeui has created an excel spreadsheet, which computes your scores and plots them alongside the norms we have published. Click here to get a copy of the spreadsheet. If you have any questions about the spreadsheet please contact Dr. DeNeui.

Interpreting Your Scores

Now that you have your scores for everything, let’s chat about what the numbers actually mean!

One mistake people often make when interpreting their scores is applying judgments to their results - for example, lots of people think being low in Agreeableness is bad. Well, that’s not what personality tests are telling you (at least in this case). There are some tests that are used to diagnose disorders and those kinds of things, but for our purposes, we’re just finding out our traits, our tendencies to behave in certain ways. So because of that no score should be labeled ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

“When I advise students about their results one of the first things I look for is a very high Agreeableness score - if I see it, I tell that student to be careful to take care of themselves and to try to practice saying ‘No’ when they should, because I can almost guarantee they’re not saying it enough.” - Dr. Brown

Any score will have positives and negatives if you judge them that way, but really they should be used to inform you of tendencies in how you are likely to behave. Here's a brief rundown of the different traits and descriptors of people who have scores close to each end of the continuum. If you're in the middle - adjust your interpretation accordingly!

Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)

Reflects the degree to which you are open to new experiences. It also describes the extent to which you are imaginative, perceptive, creative, and independent. It can also be characterized by an appreciation of art, adventures, and culture.

Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)

Reflects the degree to which you are dependable, organized, and disciplined. Displays how dutiful and ambitious you are.

Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)

Outlines where you get your energy from, whether it be from the company of others, or not. Reflects the degree to which you are assertive, social, competitive, and relates to your positive emotionality. This trait tends to be the most misunderstood, so let's give it a little more explanation.

<--Extraversion --- Ambiversion --- Introversion --> is the only personality trait that has to do with where we tend to get our energy from. Extraverts generally find interactions with others to be energizing, while introverts tend to find time alone energizing. This is very well explained by Belle Beth Cooper’s Fast Company article, Are you an Extrovert or Introvert? What it means for your career. These are brain level differences in most cases, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle. It’s my opinion that this one is the hardest to understand because if you do fall on one side or the other you can’t even imagine what it’s like on the other side.

Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached)

Explains how warm, likeable, gentle, and cooperative you are. Determines how well-tempered you are, and your helping nature, whether it be cooperative and compassionate, or analytical and antagonistic.

Neuroticism/Emotional Stability (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)

Determines your degree of emotional stability. Reflects how easily you experience negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, vulnerability. This trait is definitely the second most misunderstood, mostly because neuroticism is a term whose connotations have changed (becoming extremely negative) over time - which has influenced how people interpret this scoring. Today we usually refer to this trait as Emotional Stability to try to correct this issue, the trait didn’t change, our interpretation of the label for it changed. (That's a common issue in psychology, as culture and people change our words for things have to change too.)

More about Big 5 Scores:

Summing up...

Because employers don't want to just guess if someone will be good in a certain job, personality measurement has become a key component in employee selection.

You may be growing older and changing your clothes to go with the new trends and using the hippest new slang (is that still a phrase?) but the one thing that will not change much is your personality. That will remain mostly the same for THE REST OF YOUR ADULT LIFE. Since that’s not changing then a company will want to look for personalities that will fit the positions that they’re looking for. If you want to get a leg up it’s important for you to understand your own personality as well! These questionnaires are important, but like we said before just because you scored high in extraversion doesn’t mean you’re going to be the social butterfly at all parties. Maybe at formal functions you become more of a wallflower? You need to recognize these tendencies in yourself and reflect on how this can affect your work life. A person that can recognize their strengths and weaknesses is a powerful person indeed!

Happy Traiting and May the Traits be Ever in Your Favor,

Megan Snodgrass

P.S. from Dr. Brown - If you’re applying for certain jobs and you’re curious what personality might be the best fit or what they might be looking for, try checking O*Net.

Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2003). A Very Brief Measure of the Big Five Personality Domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 504-528.

*If you’d like to see more information about the TIPI (shorter scales do tend to have reduced reliability), please visit the GosLab directly here: Ten Item Personality Measure (TIPI).