Personality matters

If you thought you understood pretty thoroughly your coworkers’ personalities before the COVID-19 crisis hit, were you surprised by discovering a few new dimensions to their characters as a result of months and months of digital-only meetings, projects and conversations?

The subject of personality and/in the workplace fascinates Robert Tett, the chair of The University of Tulsa’s Department of Psychology. According to Tett, “personality captures people’s unique behavioral tendencies, making it a useful target of assessment in hiring workers.” Tett is currently leading a team of researchers to update a meta-analysis on personality-performance relationships he helped conduct back in 1991. Meta-analyses of personality-job performance have shown, for example, that conscientiousness contributes to performance in most jobs and extraversion helps in especially people-oriented jobs.

psychology professor Robert Tett wearing an open-collar light-blue shirt and a black blazer
Professor Robert Tett

Confirmatory vs exploratory

A crucial element of the project, which Tett is carrying out with a team that includes professors and students at other universities as well as four TU psychology doctoral students and an undergraduate, is distinguishing between “confirmatory” and “exploratory” studies. In the former, a given trait is identified as job-relevant; in the latter, the researcher has no expectations either way.

“The 1991 meta-analysis,” explained Tett, “showed that confirmatory findings are twice as strong as exploratory findings, and even stronger when extra efforts are made beforehand to identify job-relevant traits.” However, related meta-analyses conducted since then have ignored the distinction. “This has generated results that understate the value of personality when used under appropriately confirmatory conditions. And this has led critics of personality assessment at work to use such meta-analyses as evidence suggesting personality is, at best, a weak predictor of work behavior.”

The key challenge is that trait-job connections can be subtle. While extraversion, for instance, is generally relevant for sales, not all sales jobs require it. Tett argues that averaging results of all studies of extraversion in sales underestimates its value where it matters most. Confirmatory studies should yield stronger results.

Tett and his team are, accordingly, meta-analyzing results of all studies of personality in the workplace, separating confirmatory and exploratory studies and looking at other factors that affect the strength of trait-performance linkages. Based on approximately 150 source studies, the group’s results to date strongly support the use of personality tests to predict performance in jobs where particular traits are relevant. As Tett observed, “personality matters, but so does the situation.”

Does the study of personality fascinate you? Deepen your understanding of why people think and act in certain ways with TU’s psychology programs.