Is There an Optimal Personality? The Best of Both Ends of the Personality Spectrum

Normal dist

Personality theory has a long and established history. Perhaps we find ourselves on the brink of a major disruption on that timeline. When individuals look back on this period, will it be described as the era of the ambivert? That is, the movement which saw the dismantling of the alleged western bias* for extraversion and the establishment of a generally more balanced outlook on the personality-performance relationship.

Wishful thinking perhaps for an ISTJ and an Introvert according to the NEO – but I do assure you, I love a good party. And on this point rests the basic argument of this piece – perhaps personality traits; hypothetical constructs designed to operationalise our vastly complex personalities, cannot be imposed on us so easily and dichotomously. Instead, if indeed personality traits conform to a normal distribution i.e. an inverted U shaped trend, most people would in fact find themselves in the average or middle range, where there is a balance of two ends of a personality trait spectrum for example an ambivert, in the case of extraversion-introversion.

Of course some of us do possess very dominant traits, but they don’t exist in a pure form. As Carl Jung has been quoted as saying – “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” Despite this, common assumptions of the relationships between certain personality traits often prevail. However new research is challenging these assumptions which are often based on simplified stereotypes.  Take for example, the common assumption that extraverts make the best sales people. It is natural perhaps, to assume, that extraversion would be a pretty reliable predictor of sales performance. Yet research shows that the average correlation across three large meta-analyses (more than 3,800 salespeople) is as low as .07 and not significant from zero (Barrick, Mount & Judge, 2001).

In fact, recent research behind a momentous wave of thinking which suggests that ‘too much of a good thing, can be a bad thing’ found that too strong of an emphasis on ‘typical extraverted behaviours’ can actually lead to reduced sales for a number of reasons (Grant, 2013). This includes the fact that extraverts may come across as over-confident given their gregarious nature as well as pushing only their agenda, because of their assertiveness. Instead, introverted tendencies of reflecting and listening would help in understanding the needs of the client and adapting sales pitches accordingly (Grant, 2013). To support this, Grant found that ambivert employees who scored at the exact midpoint of 4 on a 7-point extraversion scale produced the highest revenue ($208.34/hour). The next highest were ambiverts who scored between 3.75 and 5.50 ($154.77). Extraverts (measured as scores above 5.5) obtained, $125.19, while introverts (below 3.75) achieved $120.10.  The data produces a (beautiful – yes, I’m a stats nerd) curvilinear trend, even when all other 4 traits of the Big Five are controlled for. In other words, being extraverted and enthusiastic/assertive is good for sales up to a certain point at which sales performance begins to deteriorate. Hence, a balance of both extraversion and introversion (ambivertion) qualities leads to optimal sales performance.

Even the staple of personality-performance relationships; conscientiousness-job performance, has been shown by recent research to conform this this curvilinear trend (Le et al, 2011). However, it was moderated by job complexity – meaning that for lower job complexity, there was much more of a prominent curvilinear relationship. This is explained by the very highly conscientious individuals being too rigid, and preoccupied with control and perfectionism. Hence, this all feeds into the idea that personality traits have a dark side, which must be considered perhaps more importantly than the good, particularly when dealing with leadership – as Adrian Furnham emphasised at the Forum last February. This has seemingly be neglected wholly in the case of Extraversion, perhaps given the western bias which exists for this trait (Cain, 2012) but equally, this highlights the need for more research into the potential pitfalls of very high levels of extraversion (Bendersky & Shah, 2013). Ultimately, this alternative, ‘optimal trait’ outlook on personality has wide-ranging implications for research, recruitment, career choices, organisational culture and even society as a whole.

This month’s blog was in part inspired by the recent address by Lumina Learning’s CEO Stewart Desson at the Psychometrics Forum. The key theme of his presentation was around the idea of embracing paradox- the idea that individual personality is often a complex interplay of different traits. He argues that instead of measuring personality traits on a linear continuum, we need to give equal value to opposing ends by measuring them separately.  This avoids the potential pitfalls of overvaluing certain traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness, or inferring certain behaviours. For example, a lack of conscientiousness is often assumed to infer disorganisation or a lack of diligence. There can however be ‘good sides’ to the other end, such as being adaptable and spontaneous, just as much as having too much conscientiousness can lead to rigidity or inflexibility. He has integrated these principles into the Lumina Spark model, which measures the positives of ‘both ends’ separately, but also directly measures the inhibiting effects of personality traits if extremes are reached. The model also considers the context in which we display these behaviours, by looking at our underlying preferences, what we ‘tune up and down’ every day and how we respond to pressure.

Indeed, many of us are often a blend of the diligent and the flexible, or the conceptual and the practical, and we can be different things in different contexts. And in actual fact, this blend is often what makes for success in many areas.  Research such as this really emphasises the need to consider personality through an alternative lens. This is a lens where pros and cons of both ends of personalities are weighed up objectively. It is also a lens where a balance of personality traits is not only acceptable, but correlated with success and performance. Is it possible that we have tried to impose the process of IQ measurement onto personality? With cognitive ability (IQ), more is traditionally better, but in line with the law of diminishing returns and an optimal personality trait outlook; too much of a good thing, can be a bad thing.

Written by Raj Chopra, TPF Committee Member – @Raj_chopra24

The Psychometrics Forum – @TPF_UK

References and resources

Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K., & Judge, T. A. (2001). Personality and performance at the beginning of the new millennium: What do we know and where do we go next? International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9, 9–30.

Bendersky, C., & Shah, N. P. (2013). The downfall of extraverts and rise of neurotics: The dynamic process of status allocation in task groups. Academy of Management Journal, 56, 2, 387-406.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Crown.

Grant. (2013). Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage. Psychological Science, 24, 1024–1030.

Le et al., 2011. Too Much of a Good Thing: Curvilinear Relationships Between Personality Traits and Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 113-133.

*TED talk by Susan Cain – the Power of Introverts: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html