08 Aug 2020

The role personality plays in employee engagement: how diversity of character leads to better results for everyone

Few things are more critical to an organisation’s success than having an engaged workforce.

Harvard Business Review, Nov 2018

When employees are engaged, they are enthusiastic, energetic and motivated. The result? Higher levels of job performance, creativity, loyalty and productivity; greater revenues and profits for organisations; higher levels of well-being for employees. On the other hand, low engagement results in burnout, attrition and unpleasant behaviours such as bullying, harassment and fraud.

There’s been a huge amount of research into what engages employees: Why are some people more excited and energised by their job than others? Have they got a nicer boss? Better working conditions? Tastier food in the canteen?

Evidence shows that the following four areas are key when it comes to employee engagement:

  1. HUMAN CONNECTION: participation, friendship, fun, teamwork, collaboration, trust
  2. EMPOWERMENT: autonomy, control, ownership, responsibility, respect
  3. RECOGNITION: acceptance, value, reward, feedback, status
  4. MEANING: purpose, motivation, drive, development, challenge

These four areas should be in the spotlight for any organisation who would like to improve employee engagement. But the degree to which they matter will vary depending on the individual. Because it’s precisely the individual – or rather, the character of that individual – that can influence how ‘engaged’ the person really feels. 

According to the HBR article (quoted above), the extent to which an employee is motivated, might actually come down to the level of motivation they bring with them to the workplace (rather than how motivated their workplace makes them feel). Two individuals may have very different levels of engagement even when their job situation is nearly identical (same job, same company, same boss). 

So the question is: How much of engagement is actually just personality? If your friend told you she hated her job, are her views a genuine reflection of her awful job, or do they reflect her pessimistic personality? A 2018 study showed that almost 50% of the variability in engagement could be predicted by an individual’s personality. Unsurprisingly, those who are positive, optimistic, hard-working and outgoing tend to show more engagement at work. 

So what does this mean for organisations? Do you hire people with an ‘engage-able’ personality? This is certainly a tactic that could be deployed: conduct psychometric testing on all potential employees – and hire those that score highly for ‘agreeableness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (two of the Big Five personality traits that are strong predictors of success in the workplace). It certainly sounds more appealing than hiring ‘difficult’ characters…

But it’s not as simple as picking your favourite personalities. If that’s your strategy, bear the following in mind: 

  1. Negative employee feedback can lead to positive change. If you only hire optimist and resilient employees (who tell you what you want to hear), it will be harder to spot and fix leadership or cultural issues, because of the ‘lower standards’ of these employees.
  2. 50% of engagement is context. At least half of engagement still comes from contextual factors at work (the four areas we mentioned above: human connection, empowerment, recognition and meaning). You’ll ultimately pay the price if you choose to ignore these areas. And eventually, not even the resilient optimists will want to work somewhere lacking these qualities. 
  3. Creative complainers add value. The most creative people in your organisation are often the hardest to please. Innovators challenge the status quo. They’re more likely to complain about inefficiencies, and are more prone to disengage. Screening these people out might seem like a quick win for engagement, but you’ll lose a significant source of creative energy and innovation. 
  4. Variety is the spice of life (and the key to better performance). Anything of value is usually the result of team (rather than individual) performance. Great teams are made up of different personalities – individuals who complement each other. A variety of characters makes for a more interesting workplace and leads to greater cognitive diversity (more variety in thinking, feeling and acting). Both demographic and cognitive diversity are critical for performance and productivity. 

It’s important to understand engagement in your organisation – look at who your people are and what they think about their work. Instead of hiring according to personality, a more effective approach would be to develop skills of emotional intelligence – specifically self-awareness – amongst employees. If employees can better understand their personality and their thoughts, feelings and behavioural patterns, they will be in a stronger position to take responsibility for their own engagement. 

Get in touch to find out how we can help your employees to understand themselves, through our engaging training sessions on emotional intelligence and personality.