The term personality typically refers to one’s characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. In addition to the stable, trait-like features often evoked by this construct (e.g., sociability, dominance, modesty), many theories also emphasize the roles of culture, family, and other environmental factors involved in personality expression and development. This predominant individual differences variable has informed career assessment practices. Unlike many traditional personality assessments, which emphasized pathological functioning, contemporary career applications tend toward neutral to positive traits. Both quantitative and qualitative assessments based in personality theory are employed to assist clients with numerous career concerns. A growing body of research has shown important connections between personality constructs and a broad array of career behaviors including individuals’ approach to learning, vocational interests, career choices, self-esteem, confidence in performing tasks, career counseling interactions, job searches, and subsequent work performance, satisfaction, and tenure.
Foundations Connecting Personality and Careers
The Big Five
Building on decades of research within the lexical tradition, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae recently popularized the idea that there are five broad domains of personality traits, known as the Big Five: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. This empirical approach describes relationships between personality descriptors that have been encoded into language systems. The NEO Personality Inventory-Revised is frequently used to assess the Big Five and 30 more specific facets (e.g., Fantasy, Impulsiveness, Order) relevant to career choice and performance. Many personality assessments comprise different aspects of the Big Five related to career counseling.
Individually, these broad domains affect how clients might interact with counselors or approach work tasks and settings. For example, extraverts, who tend to be more sociable and active, might prefer people-oriented occupations and are more likely to be talkative and enthusiastic during counseling sessions. Those high on Openness frequently have wide interests, which may interfere with their ability to commit to one career option. Their openness to new ideas and imaginative qualities also increase receptivity to novel counseling interventions. Given their attention to details and dutiful approach to tasks, conscientious individuals often demonstrate greater job performance. Moreover, highly conscientious individuals likely show greater motivation to engage in the challenging tasks involved in planning a career. By combining two or more of the Big Five domains, even more refined insights are possible. For example, levels of Openness and Conscientiousness can inform one’s approach to learning. Those high on both may flourish in an academic setting because they are naturally curious, have greater aspirations, and are motivated to seek high goals. However, those high on Openness, but low on Conscientiousness, might struggle to realize their imaginative ideas due to lesser diligence or achievement motivation.
Holland’s Typological Theory
John Holland’s prominent personality theory of vocational types has generated almost 50 years of research informing career assessment. Holland identified six broad types of individuals and postulated that people will achieve greater work satisfaction by selecting work environments that match their vocational personality type. These six types, briefly summarized below, represent syndromes that include qualities related to individuals’ preferred activities, goals, work values, and perceived abilities:
- Realistic: Mechanical or hands-on tasks including agriculture, nature, operating machines/tools, and manufacturing, often in outdoor settings.
- Investigative: Analytic tasks involving math, science, or research.
- Artistic: Creative, unstructured tasks including music, fine art, drama, or writing.
- Social: Helping, supporting, or teaching others.
- Enterprising: Leading or persuading others.
- Conventional: Structured tasks involving organizing data in office or financial settings.
These six types have been operationally defined by Holland’s Vocational Preference Inventory in 1958 and the Self-Directed Search in 1985. Most major interest inventories now incorporate measures of Holland’s types (e.g., Kuder Career Search, Strong Interest Inventory). Holland’s theory is a foundation for career counseling and taxonomies for organizing occupational information, including for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). Counselors assist clients in identifying their top Holland scores and then in exploring occupational possibilities that match their work personality. Other important factors considered include abilities, work values, and needs. Astute counselors help clients integrate information across these important life domains to construct a meaningful career path through maximizing overlap between their personality and opportunities.
Linking the Big Five with Holland’s Big Six
An accumulation of studies examining areas of convergence between the Big Five and Holland’s Big Six yielded numerous connections. Extraversion relates to Holland’s Social and Enterprising themes, Openness relates to Artistic and Investigative, and Agreeableness slightly relates to Social. Taken together, these two theories can enhance career counseling by noting their similarities and differences. The Big Six may be more useful for selecting occupations, whereas the Big Five inform how one approaches occupational tasks.
Assessing Personality to Inform Career Counseling
Most personality measures used in career counseling are quantitative and present results comparing the test taker’s scores with those from a normative sample. For example, a client may score at the 95th percentile on a measure of Extraversion compared to other adults. The counselor can compare this result with the vast literature on typical career choices and behaviors of extraverts. Other approaches emphasize the unique patterning of scores of specific individuals incorporating their sociocultural context. Combining quantitative scores from standardized measures with insights gained from qualitative approaches such as sentence completion or narrative techniques examining clients’ individual strivings and work values can elucidate unique career stories. Together, counselors and clients can explore how personality features affect career/life decisions and concerns. The following prominent personality assessments have been applied to career counseling.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most widely used personality assessment applied to nonclinical populations. Based on Carl Jung’s earlier ideas on personality, Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers developed this measure in the 1940s to assign individuals to one of 16 MBTI types based on four dichotomies separating (1) one’s source and direction of energy (Extraversion vs. Introversion), (2) information gathering style (Sensing vs. Intuition), (3) decision-making style (Thinking vs. Feeling), and (4) planning orientation (Judging vs. Perceiving). The MBTI highlights people’s strengths and is commonly used in organizational settings for leadership development and to examine group dynamics. Although frequently used for occupational selection, its validity for this purpose is uncertain. Nonetheless, these dichotomies naturally relate to various career planning and work-related tasks. The authors of the MBTI stress that it can provide important insights into work motivations and approach to changes in the workplace. Numerous publications examine using the MBTI for managing careers.
The California Psychological Inventory (CPI) was developed by Harrison Gough in 1948 to emphasize normal personality using everyday language. It comprises 20 Folk scales that relate to four clusters of content including (1) interpersonal functioning, (2) normative orientation and values, (3) cognitive and intellectual functioning, and (4) role and personal styles. In addition, three broad scales, Internality-Externality, Norm Questioning-Norm Favoring, and Self-Realization, are compared to assign clients to classification types with career implications. There are 13 special scales, largely relevant to career counseling, including Managerial Potential, Work Orientation, Creative Temperament, Leadership, Law Enforcement Orientation, and Tough-Mindedness.
The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16 PF) was developed in 1949 to assess 16 primary factors identified by Raymond Cattell’s empirical analyses of personality traits. Some factors directly related to career counseling include Abstractedness, Dominance, Openness to Change, Perfectionism, Self-Reliance, Sensitivity, and Warmth. The 16 PF also reports five broad scales assessing the Big Five, Holland theme scores, and four facets of leadership. A computer-generated career development report is available that addresses problem-solving resources, coping patterns, interpersonal styles, organizational role and work setting preferences, interests, and other lifestyle considerations. This profile also compares clients’ scores with members of specific occupations.
The five Personal Style Scales of the Strong Interest Inventory include Work Style, Learning Environment, Leadership Style, Risk Taking, and Teamwork. These dimensions reflect personality features related to how individuals approach learning, work, and leisure.
Building on Strengths
Among other activities, career counselors assist their clients in increasing self-understanding and in exploring career possibilities suitable to their self-concepts. These functions afford great potential for optimizing clients’ work lives. Insights from personality theory, research, and assessment can facilitate this process through identifying relevant tendencies and nurturing clients’ strengths. General personality assessments and those germane to career decision making have potential to help individuals seek goals that consider their inclinations, thereby allowing clients to strategically manage their careers and enhance their overall life satisfaction.
- Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
- Judge, T. A., Heller, D., & Mount, M. K. (2002). Five-factor model of personality and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 530-541.
- Larson, L. M., Rottinghaus, P. J., & Borgen, F. H. (2002). Meta-analyses of Big Six interests and Big Five personality factors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61, 217-239.
- Lowman, R. L. (1991). The clinical practice of career assessment: Interests, abilities, and personality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Tokar, D. M., Fischer, A. R., & Subich, L. M. (1998). Personality and vocational behavior: A selective review of the literature, 1993-1997. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 53, 115-153.