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Personality Across Working Life: Interplay between personality and environment

Personality | July 31 2018

In the world of psychometrics, personality is often seen as something that is supposed to help us predict behaviour, productivity and performance. These are important metrics for HR and businesses as researching these helps differentiate potential among candidates, develop employees to be more effective in their jobs and to understand what is worth investing in. Gaining insight into the behaviour and potential of candidates and investing in development are processes that can help improve not just performance but lead to a variety of other positive outcomes. These can be higher employee engagement and commitment to the business, better teamwork and communication and more effective leadership, which has been seen to be linked to greater self-awareness and capacity to self-improve. However, in much of the discussion what is often overlooked is the importance of the interplay between personality and environment – the idea that personality is not entirely stable and can evolve over time because of the occupational decisions people make and jobs and workplaces people operate within.

The following paper reviews research literature in psychology across several fields from which we can infer that personality can evolve and be dynamic in how it is expressed because the environment and its demands on us are also dynamic. It also suggests that certain personality predispositions in childhood, can steer us into specific educational and later work contexts, that have an influence on our personality development – this often means that as we grow, and age certain traits can be reinforced, by putting ourselves into situations which force us to exhibit them over and over again. One way to look at someone’s career development over the course of their life is to use Super’s (1980) career stages: growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and disengagement.

Growth and Exploration

In early life (i.e. the growth stage), traits among other things lead children to develop preferences for certain activities, learning competencies and skills relevant to these activities, gradually finding their vocation. This process during childhood sets people on a certain educational or vocational journey which in part reflects their interests (i.e. exploration stage). Success on that journey is often dependent on a core set of performance and learning related traits – e.g., conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness. These traits help to motivate people to work hard, master new things, and approach tasks without fear of failure. Drawing on these traits – strengthens them and by giving an advantage in education, they may provide a similar advantage in working life, explaining the long-term association of these traits with career and life success seen in the research literature. Success achieved during education has a big impact on career trajectory, opening some career opportunities while closing others. It should be noted, that the above process isn’t always observed so easily, due to a variety of barriers such as stereotypes, familial pressures, access, socio-economic status etc.

Establishment and Maintenance

When people enter the world of work (establishment stage) – their choices are influenced by personality, preferences for work characteristics and previous education. People are attracted to tasks and activities that appeal to their traits, e.g. those higher on openness traits pursue more creative or intellectual work.  As during childhood, work that people do influences the development of their traits. The longer a person works in a certain career path, the more invested he or she is, the more their trait can depend on their work experience (maintenance stage). The described mechanism of traits being reinforced by the demands of our environments, which we have chosen can explain how our work contributes to the long-term stability of our identity and personality and can become a core part of it.

Summary

The fact that we see our personalities as quite stable over time may owe much to the processes of developing preferences for activities, practicing them, applying them in a job, strengthening them, and then remaining in a career in which they are persistently drawn upon from age 25 through to 65, rather than be simply seen as a fact that personality is stable regardless of context. It should be noted, over time, the dynamic demands of jobs mean that different traits are likely to be relevant to performance and success, so it’s important to consider people’s personality profiles comprehensively and understand combinations of traits when interpreting profiles. The outlined perspective provides a richer understanding of when, how, and in what ways personality traits might help us understand the twists and turns of people’s working lives, highlighting the importance of not seeing personality as a simple predicting factor and reducing it to only a couple of traits.

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