Does Personality Improve Performance? The Promise of Conscientiousness and Engagement as a Motivational Resource.

In amongst the whirlwind of the presidential election across the pond in The USA, the one issue that continued to dominate this race as well as the entire western world is the economy.  There is no doubting that we face a difficult few years of stagnation off the back of the greatest economic downturn since The Great Depression. But the question here is, how can organisations continue to perform with limited resources and investment? The answer, for me at least, comes down to capitalising on the current resources that organisations have. In particular, the most fundamental resource of any organisation – it’s people.

Psychometrics are invaluable to organisations on account of their ability to measure not only cognitive ability but personality. The concept of ‘personality’, and its value to an organisation’s performance, is widely debated. However, personality traits appear to hold the key to unlocking the ‘contextual performance’ that organisations need in times of crises. Contextual performance refers to the ‘extra-role’ behaviours that employees engage in which contribute to the organisation in a positive way (LePine, Erez & Johnson, 2002). For example, volunteering to take on more responsibility, assisting co-workers or championing organisational rules and standards. Crucially these behaviours are discretionary, thus improving an organisation’s competitive advantage without the financial expense.

But what is it that makes individuals more likely to be contextual super-performers? More and more research is accumulating on the links between personality and this kind of performance. And surprise, surprise, our good old friend, Conscientiousness is coming up trumps again (Dalal, 2007). However, researchers must be careful not to fall into the trap that traditional personality-performance research has previously fallen into. That is, to assume that personality causes the outcome, rather than understand the behaviours by which a personality trait manifests itself, which in turn leads to the outcome. This is where research into the link between employee engagement behaviours and contextual performance has been interesting (Christian, Garza & Slaughter, 2011), but considerably lacking in volume.

Research by an MSc colleague of mine (Ensor, J) attempted to unpick these intertwined constructs. She found that Conscientiousness and Emotional stability were positively related to contextual performance, as was engagement. However, the crucial finding was that when engagement was controlled for, these two personality constructs no longer predicted such performance. In other words, engagement fully mediated the relationship between personality and contextual performance in this case.

Why is this important? Well it would seem that personality is necessary but not sufficient to explain such extra-role behaviour. So recruiting conscientious individuals doesn’t guarantee a fully committed and pro-social employee. Rather, employees must be engaged in order for the benefits of these traits to be unlocked and realised. So, personality traits can be said to be the personal resources, while being engaged provides the motivation to exhibit contextual performance.

Personal resources are perhaps individual to us and innate, if certain personality theory is accepted. However, research suggests that organisational resources such as autonomy, performance feedback and development opportunities enhance engagement (Bakkar & Bal, 2010). This kind of job (re)design would therefore help to achieve contextual performance by increasing engagement levels. So, before we use psychometrics for recruitment and even developmental purposes, we should assess whether organisations have the most appropriate cultures in which to embed certain personalities to get the best out of them.

Hence my final thought: having an engaging work environment seems to be the key to unlocking the potential of certain personality traits that can ultimately enhance employee performance.

For expert opinion and presentations on the area of Personality ad Psychometrics, be sure to book onto our ‘ New Frontiers in Psychometrics’ event on the 20th November 2012. The day boasts an impressive line up, including Prof Dave Bartram, Prof John Rust, Rob Bailey (OPP) and Dr Rainer Kurz (Saville). See our news and events page on The Psychometrics Forum website for information on how to book.

Blog posted by Raj Chopra – follow me on twitter: @Raj_Glowatwork.


Bakker, A. B., & Bal, P. M. (2010). Weekly work engagement and performance: A study among starting teachers. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 189–206.

Christian, M. S., Garza. A. S., & Slaughter, E., J. (2011). Work engagement: A quantitative review and test of its relations with task and contextual performance. Personnel Psychology, 64, 89-136.

Dalal, R. S. (2007). Contextual performance / prosocial behavior / organizational citizenship behavior. In S. G. Rogelberg (Ed.) Encyclopedia of industrial/organizational psychology (Vol. 1, pp.103-106). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

LePine, J. A., Erez, A., & Johnson, D. E. (2002). The nature and dimensionality of organizational citizenship behavior: A critical review and meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 52-65.