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For decades now, psychologists have been perplexed by the relationship (or general lack thereof) between personality traits and workplace performance. After all, our personalities are what makes us who we are and influences every aspect of our lives, and so why should the workplace be the exception?

Although all organisations wish to hire the best possible employees, they may be unsure what to look for when hiring. This is understandable, giving the complexity of the empirical evidence in this field. As a result, the objective of this article is to outline the five most important qualities to look for when hiring an employee, based on the best available research evidence:

These two factors interact with each other in fascinating and unexpected ways.

But even the personality trait of conscientiousness, the trait most predictive of performance, only shows small-moderate correlations with success in the workplace.

Cognitive ability however, is shown repeatedly to outperform all other variables when predicting performance for employee selection.

But research is now starting to show that it’s not a simple as “Personality vs Intelligence”, and instead these two factors interact with each other in fascinating and unexpected ways.

section one

Cognitive Buffering

Have you ever met an introvert that gives amazing presentations? Or a highly neurotic person that never seems to fold under pressure?

The odds are, those people were pretty smart.

This is phenomenon is known as “cognitive buffering”, where high cognitive ability acts as a buffer against natural behavioural dispositions. Cognitive ability affords individuals greater control over the expression of their personality characteristics, helping them inhibit or enhance aspects of their personality.

Extraversion ceases to be an advantage for smart people, as cognitive buffering allows introverts to compete on an even keel.

For example, when smart introverts are required to give presentations, cognitive resources can be applied to suppress the negative effects of being introverted. A side-effect however, is that extraversion ceases to be an advantage for smart people, as cognitive buffering allows introverts to compete on an even keel.

Research shows this occurs with both conscientiousness and neuroticism, the two traits most commonly associated with job performance. In both cases, the predictive validity of these personality traits declines as the cognitive ability of the participants increases.

This has two major implications:

  • Smart people can override aspects of their personality using cognitive ability.
  • Personality traits stop predicting performance in smart people.

However, in employees with lower cognitive ability, things get even more interesting.

section two

Intelligence Compensation Hypothesis

Surprisingly, research shows a slightly negative relationship between intelligence and conscientiousness. It is hypothesised that individuals with lower cognitive ability develop higher levels of conscientiousness out of necessity, helping them compete against other individual’s higher cognitive ability. Those with higher cognitive ability however find tasks comparatively easy, having less need to develop conscientiousness. The explanation for this phenomenon is known as the “Intelligence Compensation Hypothesis”.

Conscientiousness makes a significant difference in performance among lower cognitive ability individuals.

- Ben Schwencke

But unlike high cognitive ability-low conscientiousness individuals, low conscientiousness-low cognitive ability individuals cannot employ cognitive buffering. As a result, conscientiousness makes a significant difference in performance among lower cognitive ability individuals, making it a valuable employee selection criterion.

This effect is also seen at the role-level. Conscientiousness shows comparatively lower levels of predictive validity in complex roles, but significantly greater levels of validity in simpler, more routinised roles. Naturally, as simpler roles do not require high levels of cognitive ability, personality factors are the major determiner of performance. However, in more complex roles which are disproportionately filled by high cognitive ability employees, cognitive buffering negates any advantages or disadvantages of personality traits, nullifying their predictive validity.

This also has two major implications:

  • Desirable personality traits compensate for lower levels of cognitive ability to some degree.
  • Personality traits are significantly more predictive of performance in those with lower cognitive ability.
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section three

Summary

Paradoxically, personality traits are simultaneously both more, and less important in predicting future performance than previously thought. When candidates show low levels of cognitive ability, personality traits make a world of difference, helping them compete against those with higher cognitive ability. But in candidates that show high levels of cognitive ability, personality pales into insignificance due to cognitive buffering. This explains why personality traits typically only show modest levels of validity overall, as the true picture is being masked.

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A few caveats...

Personality traits may not be predictive of performance in high cognitive ability individuals, but what about job satisfaction or employee retention?

Is cognitive buffering sustainable, or does overriding your behavioural dispositions inevitably put you at risk of quitting? What are the long-term effects of doing an extravert’s job as an introvert on job satisfaction and employee engagement?

More research is required to answer these questions conclusively, but certainly something to think about!

section five

References

Perkins, A. M., & Corr, P. J. (2006). Cognitive ability as a buffer to neuroticism: Churchill’s secret weapon? Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 39-51.

Postlethwaite, B., Robbins, S., Rickerson, J., & McKinniss, T. (2009). The moderation of conscientiousness by cognitive ability when predicting workplace safety behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(7), 711-716.

Rammstedt, B., Danner, D., & Martin, S. (2016). The association between personality and cognitive ability: Going beyond simple effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 62, 39-44.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 124(2), 262.

Shaffer, J. A., & Postlethwaite, B. E. (2013). The Validity of Conscientiousness for Predicting Job Performance: A meta‐analytic test of two hypotheses. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21(2), 183-199.

Wood, P., & Englert, P. (2009). Intelligence compensation theory: A critical examination of the negative relationship between conscientiousness and fluid and crystallised intelligence. The Australasian Journal of Organisational Psychology, 2, 19-29.

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