Prof. Adrian Furnham Friday, March 29, 2019

The debate about the usefulness of using personality tests in selection waxes and wanes.

Cynics and sceptics complain about consultant greed and test costs and others about the fact that people tend to lie on the tests. Supporters and apologists point to the costs of making bad decisions and the validity evidence of tests.

A central feature of the argument is about how much personality counts in explaining business success and failure. Robert Hogan in his book Personality and the Fate of Organisations makes a very strong case for the personality of leaders being extremely influential factors in business success and failure. 

One of the oldest debates in psychology is called the person-situation debate. I investigated it for my PhD over 40 years ago.  It is the question of the major determinants of behaviour: the sort of person you are, or the situation in which you find yourself.

In a brilliant paper in the Academy of Management Journal in 2015, Tim Judge and Cindy Zapata made some simple but important points about the role of personality at work. They suggested a dozen factors where personality makes all the difference

 (1) The impact of decisions on coworkers/results, or “whether the decisions an employee makes impact the results of coworkers, clients, or the company”. Thus in some jobs (aviation inspector), the way they do the job (as a function of their personality) can make all the difference

(2) The consequences of error, or “how serious the results would be if the worker made a mistake that was not readily correctable”. Not so important for the librarian or language teacher, all important for the surgeon and ships captain.

(3) The responsibility for health/safety of others, or “the degree to which the employee is responsible for the health and safety of others”. Of little relevance to a proofreader but all important for a dentist or ambulance driver

(4) The unstructured (vs. structured) work, or “the extent to which the job allows the worker to determine tasks, priorities, and goals” (unstructured work) versus “the degree to which the job is structured for the worker” (structured work)

(5) The freedom to make decisions, defined as “the degree to which the job offers considerable decision-making freedom, without supervision”

(6) The variety, which refers to “the extent to which the job requires the employee to do many different things at work, using a variety of skills and talents” (low scores reflect little variety, high scores reflect significant variety).

 (7) The independence in completing work, where “the job requires developing one’s own ways of doing things, guiding oneself with little or no supervision, and depending on oneself to get things done,” as opposed to working under a predetermined set of rules, under close supervision, or in dependency on others for guidance

(8) The attention to detail requirement, or “the extent to which the job requires being careful about detail and thoroughness in completing work tasks”

(9) The social skills requirement, defined as “the degree to which an occupation frequently involves working with, communicating with, and teaching people”

(10) The level of competition requirement, referring to “the extent to which the job requires the worker to compete or to be aware of competitive pressures”

(11) The innovation/creativity requirement, which is “the extent to which the job requires creativity and alternative thinking to develop new ideas for and answers to work-related problems”

(12) When dealing with unpleasant or angry people, or “how frequently employees have to deal with unpleasant, angry, or discourteous individuals”