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Personality traits such as conscientiousness and neuroticism are significantly related to workers’ productivity, according to new research.
The research by Ana Nuevo-Chiquero from the University of Sheffield and colleagues will be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2015 annual conference this week.
The researchers say differences in parental education, wealth or cognitive skills can only explain a small fraction of the observed wage variation. Thus, personality, defined as the combination of emotional, attitudinal and behavioural characteristics that are unique to each individual, is a strong candidate to explain the remaining difference in wages. For example, human resources managers in the UK and the United States often cite attitude, motivation and personality as the most important attributes of a potential employee.
Previous survey studies have shown that certain personality traits are associated with higher wages, but the mechanism of this relationship is still unclear. It is thought that personality could affect workers’ wages through productivity and performance on the job or through other channels, such as career choices, job selection, negotiation skills or even how likeable you are to your peers and supervisors.
To this end, the authors took advantage of the controlled environment of the laboratory to analyse the effects of personality on a very specific productivity task. More than 350 undergraduate students participated in the study. They had to perform a time-constrained task and were rewarded monetarily according to performance. The task required focus, concentration and time management-skills, all seen as valuable qualities in the workplace.
Personality was measured by means of the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality inventory, which describes individuals along five dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Psychologists widely agree that these Big Five traits portray personality accurately.
The experiment results show that the more conscientious and the less neurotic individuals are, the higher their productivity and, hence, observed earnings. In addition, women who are more extrovert or more open to new experiences perform worse in the task than their counterparts, while the opposite was true for men.
Second, the authors found that not all personality traits affect productivity: agreeableness (how cooperative and helpful you are) does not make you more or less productive, even though more agreeable workers, particularly women, earn lower wages in the labour market. This suggests a potential influence of agreeableness on earnings works through social interactions in the workplace. Surprisingly, the researchers say, family income and parental education play a minor role in the effects of personality.
The researchers say the results support the use of measures of soft skills on recruitment and may also contribute to the design of policy interventions. They state: “While genetics do matter, personality is not cast in stone at birth. Personality traits are more malleable in late childhood and teenage years than cognitive skills. This is particularly relevant for educational programmes targeted at individuals after the age of 10, when cognitive skills are already mostly established but personality is still being formed. Thus, a deeper understanding of the impact of personality on productivity can provide policy-makers with a wider variety of instruments aimed to improve the economic performance of disadvantaged groups and increase social mobility.”