Getting Proactive About Employee Personality

Traditional personality assessment tools won’t help you hire better employees. Here’s how to find — and nurture — the self-driven stars

Getting Proactive About Employee Personality

The Essentials

  • Assessment tools focusing on a job applicant’s personality typically measure the Big Five traits: extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
  • Such tools are indicative of little more than 10 percent of future job performance.
  • A better measure of employee fit is proactive personality. Those scoring high in this suite of traits have a growth mindset, are comfortable challenging the status quo, have a change and learning orientation, and adopt a long-term orientation in their thinking.
  • Research shows that assessment tools based on the Big Five personality traits do not capture proactive personality.
  • Firms are advised to not rule out prospective employees who might not stand out in traditional methods of assessment. By placing greater emphasis on proactivity, organizations are better equipped to succeed in a business environment characterized by turbulence and change. 

Anyone who has ever hired staff knows that, more often than not, personality trumps skill. John Smith or Jane Doe may come with a terrific skill set but if they lack motivation, have an attitude, or undermine the team, they’re probably not a good fit.

The traditional method of hiring for fit involves the use of personality assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Most tests focus on the “Big Five” traits of personality — extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism — which can indeed tell you quite a bit about how a person interacts with people and the world around them.

The problem with most of these personality assessment tools, says Smith School of Business Assistant Professor Matthias Spitzmuller, is that they are not very indicative of job performance.

“The strongest predictor of the Big Five traits is conscientiousness — the extent to which an individual is organized, hard-working, dependable,” says Spitzmuller. “But that only explains about 10 percent of someone's job performance. The other traits explain even less than that, sometimes just 1 or 2 percent. [Personality tests] have a very limited value in personnel selection settings.”

Growth Mindset

What you really should be selecting for in your hunt for talent, says Spitzmuller, is proactive personality. People scoring high in this suite of traits are not afraid to challenge the status quo. They harbour a growth mindset and know that failure is not fatal. Instead of thinking “I’m just not good at that” and giving up, they think “I’ll get better at that” and keep going. They directly influence their environments rather than simply reacting to events that occur, and they tend to have a strong sense of personal responsibility. They are intrinsically motivated and are low maintenance for managers.

Proactive personality actually outdoes the Big Five as a predictor of job performance, organizational citizenship behaviours, and job satisfaction, says Spitzmuller. “It predicts relevant job outcomes better than the existing personality constructs that organizations have relied on for a long period of time,” he says.

The problem for employers who rely on those Big Five assessment tools is that they do not capture a person’s level of proactivity. Research conducted by Spitzmuller and colleagues Hock-Peng Sin (Florida International University), Michael Howe (Iowa State University), and Shereen Fatimah (Pennsylvania State University) showed that proactive personality is mostly a dispositional domain of its own. Their meta-analysis of 122 studies showed that more than 50 percent of the variance in proactive personality cannot be explained by the Big Five personality traits.

Spitzmuller says there are a number of ways that organizations can harness people with proactive personalities. He compares the selection processes of two large companies in terms of hiring. “What Google has found across thousands of Google employees is that the top performers are not the ones who have got straight As out of college — the top performers are often the ones who have somewhat idiosyncratic resumes,” he says. “They have failed at certain times but they’ve also succeeded. They’ve taken risks, and they’ve really seen the good and the bad of life and work.”

Proactive personality actually outdoes the Big Five as a predictor of job performance, organizational citizenship behaviours, and job satisfaction

By contrast, many consultants and investment banks take a very different approach to hiring. “Firms such as Goldman Sachs just recruit from a very small number of business schools around the world. If you’re not studying at one of those business schools, no matter what you have done in your life or what your experiences have been, you are simply not going to be considered in the selection process.”

By opening up the acceptable range of backgrounds and experiences, companies such as Google and Honda do not rule out people who succeed through alternative methods, and they place a much greater emphasis on the value of experiences than on traditional metrics, such as high grades at Ivy League schools.

Once a proactive employee is hired, of course, employers have to ensure that their work environment facilitates that proactivity. A proactive personality is a dispositional orientation — it is determined through genetic influences and early life experiences, and remains relatively stable throughout a person’s life. Certain environments, however, can either make it easy for people to express that side of themselves or quickly dampen the urge.

Supporting Proactive Employees

“To really take advantage of a person’s proactive personality, organizations need to provide autonomy, encourage experimentation, and reward experiments even when they fail,” Spitzmuller says. “Proactive employees can indeed be a nuisance and sometimes slow things down — but ultimately, they are the ones that are going to move an organization forward.”

So how can you fill your organization with proactive warriors? Widen your employee search to consider those with more diverse, experimental resumes. Are they taking risks? Are they willing to challenge the status quo and speak up?

Instead of administering a traditional personality test, administer a test that measures proactivity, such as Bateman and Crate’s 1993 scale. Since answers are self-reported, there’s always the possibility that people will fudge their answers in order to appear more desirable as a candidate, but that can be remedied. When you do your due diligence and call past employers, ask questions that allow you to double-check the applicant’s self-reported answers.

The tools are available, says Spitzmuller, but organizations are generally slow to adapt to research findings. “The challenge is simply to use the measures that are out there and integrate those into existing selection mechanisms.”

Kenza Moller