Personality and Careers

Personality and CareersPersonality refers to characteristics that make individuals unique, including their prototypical thoughts, emotions, interests, habits, and behaviors. Psychological in nature, personality is relatively stable over time. Personality plays a significant role in determining how a person behaves in various situations. Many dimensions of personality have been linked to career development. Almost every element of a person’s career is in part determined by his or her personality. Such fundamental career decisions as occupational choice, early career socialization, job performance, career satisfaction, and career changes are affected by personality.

Personality can influence our behavior in different ways. Human personality plays a direct role in determining our behaviors; our dispositions or personality traits directly influence our actions. For example, extroverted people would be expected to behave in an outgoing and sociable fashion in most situations encountered throughout life. Personality reflects peoples’ natural tendencies to behave in certain ways; people are remarkably consistent in their behaviors over time in part because of the direct effect of personality.

However, personality is not always an important influence on peoples’ behavior; its significance varies from situation to situation. A “strong” situation has relatively clear expectations for appropriate behavior; in a strong situation, the situational expectations are stronger than personality in influencing behavior. For example, a boisterous and gregarious personality might choose to behave in a more calm and sedate fashion when meeting with the boss because this type of behavior is expected by one’s immediate supervisor. In this example, the situation (meeting with the boss) dominates the personality (boisterous). Situations without such clear-cut behavioral expectations are termed weak situations, and in these instances, personality becomes a primary determinant of behavior.

Another perspective is based on the concept of interactional psychology; this approach maintains that behavior is jointly determined by personality and situation. People and situations interact to create patterns of behavior; people influence situations and situations also influence people. In particular, the interactional approach notes that personality plays an important role in determining the types of situations people choose to enter. For example, an introverted person might choose jobs that do not require much contact with others. People engage in a complex process where they select, interpret, and change situations; thus they can also shape situations to suit their personality. For example, people can change their work methods, procedures, and task assignments in order to create a more hospitable situation at work. Both the dispositional and interactional approaches are relevant for understanding the relationship between personality and career development.

The Concept of Fit

The idea of examining the fit between person and environment to gain insights into human behavior has resulted in an increased understanding of many work-related issues, including career development. The extent to which there is a correspondence or congruence between person and situation is related to such outcomes as job performance, satisfaction, job tenure, and turnover. A subset of this research has focused on the fit or match between person and occupation. The premise of this approach is that positive outcomes occur when the characteristics of people are similar to those of their occupation. The fit between a person’s interests and occupational types has been especially useful in understanding careers.

Vocational Inventories

Several inventories assist in vocational guidance by assessing peoples’ interests and considering how those interests fit with various occupations. An early approach was the Strong Interest Inventory, which compares peoples’ interests with the interests of people already working in a particular occupation. A recent version of the Strong Interest Inventory includes broad personal style scales that reflect preferences in living and working that are quite similar to personality traits. A related approach, the Kuder Preference Record, evaluates peoples’ likes and dislikes and compares them to the content, tasks, and working conditions of various occupations. These inventories are both based on trait theories, whereby a match between individual traits and occupational features is desirable. Personality is recognized as a key influence on career choice, success, and satisfaction under both approaches.

Holland’s Theory of Vocational Choice

John Holland’s theory is a prime example of person-occupation fit research; it is based on examining the congruence or match between the career interests of people and occupational environments. People search for vocations that match their interests; such a fit results in vocational stability, satisfaction, and high achievement. Poor fit results in the opposite patterns. Holland believes that these vocational interests are a fundamental component of one’s personality.

Holland’s theory classifies people and jobs into six personality types, labeled Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC). Realistic types value practical things, see themselves as practical and mechanical, and like to work with animals, tools, or machines. Investigative types value science, see themselves as intellectual and precise, and like to study and solve math or science problems. Artistic types value the creative arts, see themselves as expressive and original, and like to perform creative activities like drama or music. Social types value helping people and solving social problems, see themselves as helpful and trustworthy, and like to do things focused on others, like teaching or nursing. Enterprising types value success in politics, leadership, and business, see themselves as ambitious and social, and like to lead and persuade people. Conventional types value success in business, see themselves as orderly and good at following plans, and like to work with numbers, records, or machines in a set way.

Holland’s theory classified environments into the same six categories: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. Because people tend to seek out problems and work situations that are congruent with their interests and personalities, each environment is primarily populated with people having the matching personality type; for example, Investigative types dominate the investigative environment.

When there is a fit between person and environment, workers are more likely to be successful and satisfied. Practically, this theory suggests that people should choose occupations whose environmental type is similar to their personality type. In addition to predicting the value of an exact match of personality type to environment, Holland’s theory also suggests other specific environments that are compatible with each personality type. Realistic people would be compatible with the investigative and conventional environments, Investigative people would be compatible with the realistic and artistic environments, Artistic people with investigative and social environments, Social people with artistic and enterprising environments, Enterprising people with social and conventional environments, and Conventional people with enterprising and realistic environments. Because most people are a combination of the various personality types, they should consider occupations compatible with more than one category.

Theory of Work Adjustment

Another example of using the concept of fit to understand vocational issues, the Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment also considers the correspondence between people and environments. This theory considers the process through which people acquire and maintain correspondence with their environments. The level of fit between person and environments is hypothesized to fluctuate over time as both person and environment changes; thus people may change either themselves or their environments to get and maintain correspondence. This theory is consistent with the interactional approach described earlier; people and environments act on and react to each other. For example, dissatisfied workers may not just accept the dissatisfying working conditions; rather, they take action to improve conditions.

The Theory of Work Adjustment considers two types of correspondence between person and environment. Satisfactoriness results from a fit between peoples’ abilities and the requirements of a particular job. Satisfaction comes from a match between peoples’ needs and desires and the rewards obtainable from a particular job. As people spend more time on a job, both satisfactoriness and satisfaction will increase. However, over time, both factors depend on individual and environmental factors.

Four relatively stable personality styles describe the way in which people interact with and change the work environment. Celerity denotes the speed with which people initiate interactions with the work environment; people who are uncomfortable with a lack of correspondence are likely to be high in celerity. These people might be expected to change jobs or initiate changes to themselves or the environment because of the discomfort. Pace reflects the effort exerted in obtaining correspondence; some people may be willing to go to great lengths to better meet the demands of a job, while others may be willing to live with low levels of correspondence. Rhythm is the pattern of effort expended in achieving correspondence; some people strive for steady correspondence, while others do so only occasionally. Endurance reflects the persistence of individuals in responding to and interacting with the environment.

Broad and Narrow Personality Factors and Careers

There are many words and phrases that have been studied as elements of personality. Early work in the personality field identified nearly 18,000 words from the dictionary as being potentially useful in distinguishing people from one another. Later work determined that over 3,500 of these labels actually were stable personality traits. The overwhelming number of potentially informative personality traits has caused personality psychologists to seek ways to simplify the study of personality. Various taxonomies or ordered sets of traits into particular categories have been offered to achieve this objective. The goal of such a classification system is to reduce the thousands of personality traits into a smaller, more manageable set.

An individual personality trait is a narrow and precise approach to categorizing one of the unique features of a human being. It is focused on a single element of personality. However, logically one would expect that various sets of narrow personality traits would be related; for example, someone who is generally dependable might also tend to be very organized. A broad trait is multidimensional and is comprised of a set of more narrow traits. Broadly defined traits offer a more wide-ranging coverage of human personality. Thus a narrow trait can be thought of as one end of a continuum representing unidimensionality, while broad traits can be thought of as the other end of the continuum and represent multidimensionality.

The Five-Factor Model of Personality

The five-factor model (also known as the Big Five) is a popular broad conceptualization of personality. The Big Five taxonomy has gained widespread acceptance among personality theorists and organizational psychologists alike. Proponents of the five-factor model believe that personality can be described by focusing on five broad dimensions: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Neuroticism refers to emotional instability as opposed to adjustment. People high on neuroticism are characterized by anxiety, vulnerability, and self-consciousness; those low on neuroticism are emotionally stable and calm, even tempered, and unemotional. Extraversion reflects the social component of personality. People high on extraversion are gregarious, outgoing, and talkative; people who are low on extraversion tend to be reserved, passive, and quiet. Openness to experience relates to curiosity and the tendency to seek out and appreciate new experiences and ideas, reflected in imagination, innovation, and broad-mindedness. People who are low in openness to experience are conventional, down-to-earth, and prefer routine. Agreeableness is defined by peoples’ interpersonal orientation; those high on agreeableness are cooperative, trusting, and friendly, while those low on agreeableness are described as ruthless, irritable, and antagonistic. Conscientiousness reflects intrinsic motivation. People high in conscientiousness are responsible, persevering, and achievement oriented; people who are low in conscientiousness are irresponsible, disorganized, and negligent.

These dimensions of personality are consistently related to a number of work-related behaviors that influence careers. People who are low on neuroticism (that is, who are emotionally stable) exhibit “getting along” behaviors at work and demonstrate high levels of job performance across occupations, especially in jobs requiring teamwork. Furthermore, people who are low in the neurotic personality are less likely to assertively hunt for other jobs. Extraversion is related to “getting ahead” behaviors, predicting job performance in jobs with a large social component such as sales and management; it is also related to success in training. Openness to experience is related to “receptivity to change” and creative ability; it is most consistently related to training success. Agreeableness is also related to “getting along” behaviors at work; it predicts performance in jobs with a large customer service component or a significant teamwork component. Conscientiousness is related to “getting things done” at work; among the Big Five factors, conscientiousness is the best predictor of job performance across all jobs and occupations. It is difficult to think of a situation where conscientiousness would not be desirable or positively associated with job performance or any other element of careers. Conscientiousness is positively associated with frequency of job-searching behavior and negatively associated with early attrition. Organizational citizenship behavior—a desirable occupational behavior involving going above and beyond the call of duty by performing extra roles at work—is related to the conscientious personality.

There is some overlap between the Big Five factors and Holland’s RIASEC types. For example, the Big Five factor of openness to experience is strongly related to Holland’s Investigative and Artistic types. However, empirical evidence suggests that the Big Five are not subsumed by RIASEC and vice versa. Because RIASEC types and Big Five factors are somewhat unique and empirically distinct from one another, some recommend the use of both approaches for vocational counseling. There is also evidence to suggest that we can better predict job performance by simultaneously considering the Big Five factors and Holland’s RIASEC environments. For example, conscientiousness might be a better predictor of job performance in the social and investigative environments than in the other four environments.

The Big Five factors have been found to be related to a number of affective (defined as emotion, feelings, and attitudes) career outcomes. For example, neurotic personalities tend to be less satisfied with their jobs, feel greater occupational stress, and report greater indecision concerning career-related decisions. Neuroticism is also related to work/family conflict. Extraversion tends to be associated with job satisfaction; people who are highly extraverted tend to report higher levels of job satisfaction than people low on extraversion. Extroverted personalities prefer managerial careers, whereas introverts prefer more technically oriented careers. People with a personality characterized as high on agreeableness prefer to work in supportive and team-oriented organizational cultures. Highly conscientious people tend to prefer detail-oriented cultures that are focused on outcomes. Among unemployed individuals, conscientious per­sonalities tend to be more active in seeking jobs and have a positive sense of self-worth in spite of their employment status.

The Big Five factors have been studied extensively in relation to career success, defined in terms of the positive psychological and work-related outcomes accumulated as a result of one’s work experiences. Intrinsic career success refers to satisfaction with one’s career, while extrinsic career success is reflected in salary and promotion, two observable rewards from the job. Various Big Five factors are related to both intrinsic and extrinsic career success, even when controlling for the effects of other relevant factors (such as general mental ability and firm size). In particular, conscientiousness is positively related to both intrinsic and extrinsic career success. That is, people who report having a highly conscientious personality tend to be happier with their careers, have higher incomes, and have been promoted more frequently than those who report being lower on this Big Five factor. Another Big Five factor, neuroticism, appears to be negatively related to intrinsic and extrinsic career success. Extraversion is associated with higher salary levels, and agreeableness is negatively related to career satisfaction.

The Big Five factors are broad in nature; that is, they are at a higher level of abstraction than more specific personality traits. The Big Five are not considered a comprehensive list of traits or a replacement for other personality theories or systems but as a framework for interpreting them. As we have seen, the broad factors described by the five-factor model have been helpful in understanding relationships between personality and careers; however, the existence of the Big Five factors does not preclude studying and learning about how more specific and narrow personality factors relate to career development. One way of thinking about this is to reflect on the level of analysis between personality and outcome; the broad Big Five factors are excellent predictors of general and wide-ranging outcomes (that is, outcomes at the same level of analysis), while more narrow personality traits might be useful in predicting and understanding a more specific set of career-related outcomes.

Core Self-Evaluations

A broad dispositional concept referring to the extent to which people hold a positive self-concept, core self-evaluations are related to several career processes and outcomes. Core self-evaluations are basic evaluations that individuals hold about themselves, and they are indicated by four specific traits: self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability (low neuroticism). Core self-evaluations are related to job satisfaction, task motivation, and job performance.

Like the Big Five factors, core self-evaluations represent a broad trait comprised of more specific and narrow traits. Self-esteem refers to the overall value that people place on themselves, and it includes self-acceptance, self-liking, and self-respect. Generalized self-efficacy is the extent to which people believe that they have the ability to perform well on various tasks and across a variety of situations. It reflects the extent to which people believe that they can cope, perform, and be successful. The extent to which people believe that they personally control their lives (rather than fate, luck, or chance) is referred to as locus of control. This trait is reviewed more fully in the next section. Emotional stability is one of the Big Five traits, and it represents emotional adjustment and manifests itself in positive tendencies such as feeling confident and secure. To the extent that people believe themselves to be described by these four traits, they would be viewed as having positive core self-evaluations. People who view themselves as relatively low on these traits would have lower core self-evaluations.

Narrow Personality Traits and Careers

There are literally thousands of individual personality characteristics that can be used to describe humans, and many of them are potentially useful for better understanding careers. A select set of narrow personality traits that are particularly useful for understanding careers are discussed in this section.

Proactive Personality

Consistent with the interactional perspective, people can intentionally change their current circumstances, such as by making career changes. People can be classified across a reactive/proactive continuum to describe their proclivity to make such changes. Proactive personalities are people who take action to influence their environments; they identify opportunities and take action. Proactive personalities take initiative and persevere until they bring about meaningful change. Less proactive people exhibit the opposite patterns; they prefer to passively adapt to circumstances rather than change them. Proactive personality is associated with many work-related phenomena, including individual and team-based job performance, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Proactive personality is associated with objective (salary and promotions) and subjective (career satisfaction) career success. Compared to less proactive people, proactive personalities earn a greater income, have achieved more promotions, and are generally more satisfied with their careers. The reason for this is that proactive people select, create, and influence the situations in which they work, increasing the chances for both high performance and happiness with the work. Examples of such behaviors include engaging in career management activities such as job search behaviors, obtaining mentors, and conducting career planning.

A theme of current writings on careers in the twenty-first century is that careers have become boundaryless, requiring people to take responsibilities for their own careers in order to ensure that they are able to contribute to their employing organizations. Proactive personality is consistent with the idea of boundaryless careers, because proactive individuals actively manage their careers. Proactive personalities demonstrate career initiative. They plan for the development of their careers, develop skill sets to continue to be valuable human assets, and consult with more senior personnel about career-related issues. They also demonstrate greater levels of innovation at work, successfully implementing new ideas for achieving objectives. All of these activities point toward greater levels of career success.

Proactive personality also is related to successful job search behaviors in terms of exerting effort toward finding a job, invitations for second interviews, and the number of job offers received. Proactive personalities believe in their ability to accomplish things, which increases the chances of a successful job search. Socialization behaviors—which set the stage for successful careers—also are in part a function of proactive personality. Proactive people take the initiative in learning the behaviors and attitudes necessary for becoming effective at new jobs and workplaces. People who actively facilitate their socialization show greater task mastery, role clarity, and social integration. Thus proactive socialization leads to valuable outcomes for both person and organization.

Locus of Control

The extent to which people believe that they con­trol the events surrounding them is referred to as locus of control. People with an internal locus of control believe that their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and that the outcomes following their actions depend upon what they do. At the other end of the spectrum is an external locus of control, whereby people believe that fate, luck, and other outside forces guide their behaviors, and that events outside of their control influence the outcomes of actions. This concept was briefly mentioned earlier as a subcomponent of the broad trait of core self-evaluations. However, because this personality variable has been extensively studied in the context of careers, it merits separate attention as an important narrow personality trait.

Generally speaking, an internal locus of control is viewed as more desirable in the world of work. An internal locus of control is associated with greater career decision-making skills and greater confidence in career decision making. Career aspiration is also associated with locus of control; internals prefer more intellectually demanding careers. There is some evidence that internal locus of control is associated with job satisfaction. People with an internal locus of control are more likely to mentor others in the workplace and to initiate mentoring relationships. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control are more likely to withdraw psychologically from their jobs and ultimately leave them.

Dispositional Affect

The moods, feelings, and emotions of workers play a significant role in a number of career-related atti­tudes and behaviors. Affect can be considered as a disposition, or a generalized trait or tendency to react to stimuli in a certain way. Affective disposition is com­prised of two facets: positive affect and negative affect. Positive affect is characterized by high energy, enthusiasm, and pleasurable engagement; it is reflected in a happy, cheerful, and pleasant demeanor. Negative affect is characterized by distress, anxiety, and hostility; it is reflected in a generally grouchy, unhappy, and unpleasant demeanor.

Positive and negative affect are linked to job satisfaction. People with positive affect tend to be more satisfied with their jobs; the greater the level of positive affect, the more satisfied we would expect people to be. The opposite is also true: Negative affect is inversely linked to job satisfaction; the greater the level of negative affect, the less satisfied we would expect people to be. Negative affect is also linked with greater levels of work/family conflict and with occupational strain. Positive affect also influences the performance of extra-role behaviors and spontaneity. People with positive affect should be more willing to help coworkers, make constructive suggestions, and engage in self-development activities.


Personality, or the characteristics that make people unique, is an important determinant of human behavior in general and careers in particular. Human personality affects much of who we are and what we do, both directly and indirectly, through its impact on the situations we choose to enter. A critical element is the concept of fit between person and situation or environment; personality plays an important role in determining whether a person will be comfortable in a particular situation. Various vocational inventories (e.g., the Strong Interest Inventory and the Kuder Preference Record) assess this by gauging how personality types will fit with various occupations. Holland’s theory of vocational choice is also predicated on the fit or congruence between a person’s personality type and occupational environments.

Thus, personality can play a significant role in helping people determine occupations that may or may not be a good match for them. It has long been acknowl­edged that good things can come from introspection and that it is important to “know thyself.” One outcome of such self-knowledge is a better understanding of which occupations and career paths would better match your interests and personality. Being honest with ourselves about who we are and our strengths and weaknesses can help us choose situations that we will be comfortable in, as well as make us aware of situations that we might want to avoid.

Both broad and narrow personality traits are relevant for understanding careers better. Broad traits are multidimensional and wide-ranging in their coverage of human personality; narrow traits are unidimensional and specific. Among broad traits, the Five-Factor Model is a popular and generally well-accepted framework for categorizing personality traits. The Big Five factors are associated with a number of important career-related factors, including occupational choice, work adjustment, job performance, job satisfaction, and career success. Another broad trait, core self-evaluations, also is relevant for understanding careers; early evidence suggests that it is associated with job satisfaction, task motivation, and job performance.

Narrow or unidimensional personality traits can also provide insight into careers. While there are thousands of different narrow personality traits, some seem particularly relevant for the career domain. Proactive personality, or the tendency to take initiative and identify opportunities for change, is associated with both objective and subjective career success. Locus of control, or the extent to which people believe that they control the events of their lives, is associated with career choice, mentoring, and withdrawal.

Dispositional affect or consistent moods and emotions is related to job satisfaction, work/family conflict, and occupational strain.

A conclusion that one could draw from considering the various approaches to personality discussed here is that “personality matters.” Our personality fundamentally shapes who we are, how other people view us, and the situations that we choose to enter. By better understanding who we are and identifying the various elements of our own personality, we can make better decisions about careers.

See also:


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