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Can our work make us more social?


It’s easy to imagine certain people, and more specifically, certain personalities, being perfectly made for particular roles.  Everything about their very being says they’re cut out for that line of work.  I’ve written previously about the virtues of a conscientious personality type for organizations that are attempting to become more social and collaborative.

One might imagine therefore that a workplace full of conscientious people would automatically become social, that its the people that make the culture.  Of course, that shouldn’t undersell the role our environment plays on our behaviours.  Numerous studies, with perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment the most famous, have shown how our environment can significantly alter how we act.

Two researchers from Ghent University in Belgium set out to explore what role our work environment plays on our core personality traits.

They studied 266 people who were just graduating from college.  They were given a survey before they left to gauge their individual personality traits, including their openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and extroversion.

Those same people were then surveyed again at regular periods during the next few years, with subsequent surveys including work related information, such as the industry they were in.

It should perhaps not be too big a surprise to see the personality types identified at the outset having a major part to play in the jobs people subsequently went on to hold.  Extroverted people were more likely to be in sales, conscientious people were more likely to be scientists, and people who were particularly open to new experiences were likely to end up in artistic career paths.

“For many participants, these initial occupations were not just a ‘tryout’ but were indeed representative for the rest of their career,” according to study authors Bart Wille and Filip De Fruyt. That’s what they found out a full 15 years later, asking the same participants again about their personality characteristics and career trajectories.

The follow up study, conducted in 2010, saw the researchers exploring whether the personalities of each participant had been changed by their environment, or whether they simply chose the environment that best suited their personality.

Interestingly, it transpired that people didn’t tend to become more entrenched in their initial personality.  In other words, extroverted people didn’t become even more extroverted as they matured into their careers.

“The key issue here is the concept of fit,” the researchers say while envisioning that extroverted manager. “Imagine that for this person, there is an optimal balance between his or her personal competencies and aspirations and the job-level requirements. Should this person benefit from having substantial increases in extroversion? In other words: Is there a need for change?”

As, with previous studies however, the researchers also found that conscientiousness was a key characteristic of the best managers. Participants who increased in conscientiousness over time also showed a corresponding increase in their ability to manage and persuade others.

Overall, the research speaks to the complexity between personality and occupation, and calls for further and more specific studies. But the results are important for showing that personality not only predicts what jobs we’ll take, it is also predicted by those jobs as well.

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