The Big Five Personality-Trait Mistakes

Many organizations rely on personality measures for selection and training. The problem? Not all measures are rooted in research.

By Peter D. Harms, Ph.D., and Bradley J. Brummel, Ph.D.

In 2002, Sara Rynes asked 959 human resources professionals 35 true-and-false questions concerning HR issues, with considerable research support for the correct response. Some of the topics included leadership and management practices, general employment practices, training and development, and staffing. Shockingly, the average score on the test was only 57 percent. Simply guessing would have resulted in an average of 50 percent.

Although there was substantial variation in scores across the sample, Rynes and her collaborators concluded there was a serious disconnect between HR research and practice due in part to a significant amount of misinformation being published in popular HR periodicals.

The area with the most severe problems was knowledge about staffing, where the participants only responded correctly to one of nine questions at better-than-chance levels. In particular, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion about what the evidence was for the use of personality tests in hiring and selection systems.

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While we don’t doubt that the rise of evidence-based approaches, HR analytics, and research-grounded publications like Talent Quarterly have improved the situation, our own experiences working with corporate officers and large organizations have led to the conclusion that some important misconceptions still exist.

With that in mind, we present a non-exhaustive list of beliefs about personality that are not supported by research and lead to suboptimal practices when it comes to hiring and training.

Five Flaws with the Big Five

We use the Big Five personality framework because it’s the most widely used and validated model of personality traits, and nearly all of the most reputable assessment firms use some variant of the Big Five to derive their selection instruments and provide developmental feedback (although they may use slightly different labels).

Briefly, the Big Five are five dimensions of personality that represent the five most important aspects of personality for describing the behaviors of other humans. These dimensions are extraversion, emotional stability and neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness and intellect.

1. The Big Five are dimensions, not types.

This seems simple, but we see the mistake often enough that it needs mentioning. As we noted above, the Big Five consists of five dimensions of behavior. An individual can be high, low, or medium on each of them. So the option isn’t between being an extrovert or a conscientious person. It’s possible to be both simultaneously. We think that part of the confusion comes from the language typically used to describe personality. Even experts in the field often use linguistic shorthand like “she’s an introvert” or “he’s disagreeable” instead of “she’svery introverted” or “he’s very disagreeable.”

You will find, however, that many consultants take dimensional models and attempt to extract “types” from various combinations of these traits. Plenty of HR practitioners will be familiar with the MBTI types that are created by splitting four quasi–Big Five traits into high and low levels and then jointly considering the 16 combinations. More recently, the now-defunct and scandal-ridden organization Cambridge Analytica used combinations of high-low standing on Big Five traits to create 32 types of individuals to more precisely target with advertising.

Approaches like these demonstrate only a partial understanding of personality. Although it makes sense to combine traits and it’s possible that various combinations will produce specific and meaningful behavior patterns (for example, an individual who is low on both emotional stability and agreeableness is more likely to be impulsive and potentially violent), splitting the trait dimensions into high-low levels is a problem.

One consequence is that it means a great deal of information is lost in terms of rank-ordering individuals for selection. Another is that it lumps people who are slightly above average for a trait together with those who are extreme outliers. This makes developmental feedback less accurate and useful because the descriptions end up being overly vague and broad. 

2. Personality traits are not fixed, but can change over time.

This is a misconception that’s widely spread among both academics and practitioners. The idea itself finds its origins in Freudian thought and in early models of genetics. Most individuals who have taken introductory psychology classes will remember Freud proposed that individuals could become fixated at certain stages of psychological development if they didn’t successfully navigate the challenges of that particular stage.

For example, if parents harshly impose sanctions and shame children while they’re toilet training, those children will grow up to be anal-retentive later in life and this will manifest as over-controlled, micromanaging behaviors.

On the genetic side, the basic logic is that if traits are rooted in biology (which they are), then they can’t change because genes don’t change. The fallacy here is that while genes don’t change, the expression of genes actually does change. For example, they can be turned on and off in response to stressful life events or hormones associated with transitions from childhood to adulthood.

That said, the important thing for practitioners to know is that traits actually do change, and they often do so in a systematic way. We tend to become more conscientious and more agreeable as we age. There’s also a trend to become more emotionally stable, but this trait typically falls during adolescence and doesn’t recover until early adulthood. These changes are considered aspects of maturity and are the goals of education and parenting.

But even within these trends, there are developmental differences. Individuals who aren’t regularly employed or who use recreational drugs don’t tend to increase in conscientiousness. Individuals who get promoted into leadership positions are likely to experience greater increases in dominance, an aspect of extroversion. Individuals who are parents are more likely to develop empathy, a component of agreeableness. Simply put, human personality development occurs in response to experiences and expectations. What they’ve learned and what demands have been placed on them matter for who they are.

At a more practical level, HR practitioners need to understand there are age differences for traits such that younger individuals will typically score lower on most traits. This has significant implications for hiring because it meanssetting selection criteria to certain levels could unnecessarily screen out younger applicants even though they may be above average for their age level. Shutting young people out of the workforce also means they won’t get the developmental opportunities that will allow them to mature into the workers that organizations need.

HR practitioners should also be aware that they need to reassess personality whenever they’re making a new selection or a promotion decision. Although it’s unlikely that radical change will occur, you can’tassume that an individual’s scores from years ago will reflect who they are now.

3. Quality personality assessment can’t be done with short measures.

For many years, this issue has been a far more severe problem within the personality research community than among practitioners. Recently, there has been a proliferation of super-short measures that have been created based on the idea that survey length irritates test-takers and that long measures are unnecessary for validity.

For a while, we believed common sense would be enough to keep bad practices out, but we’ve recently attended conferences and workshops where assessment companies use the brevity of their measures as a gimmick for sales (“Measure 28 critical employee values in less than 10 minutes!”) and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the problem is taking root.

There are a number of issues to consider here. First, we want to make it clear that we’re not against short measures for all situations. If you want to know whether someone thinks they would make a good leader, sometimes the best way to know that would be to ask “Do you think that you would be a good leader?” The problem comes from trying to turn something that’s relatively complicated into something simple.

For example, most personality experts will agree that extroversion consists of several behavioral tendencies including sociability, dominance, and energy.  Likewise, conscientiousness consists of factors such as dependability, persistence, adherence to rules, achievement orientation, and cleanliness, among others. There’s no single statement that can capture many of these different aspects at once.

Even aggregating these factors into the Big Five sometimes causes the loss of critical information. Dominance is considered a critical factor for determining leadership effectiveness, but sociability is not. Simply having an overall extroversion score doesn’t provide enough information to make an informed decision about who to promote when deciding between two individuals with similarscores. A further confounding factor is that assessment tools often use the same name, but emphasize different aspects of the Big Five traits, resulting in starkly different results.

Our advice to practitioners? Measurement matters. It’s critical to know what a personality instrument actually measures. A well-developed and well-validated measure that generates facet-level information is better in the long run than the products of gimmicky startups who are trying to sell you a shortcut for a low price. Personality assessment is like everything else in life: You get what you pay for.

4. Traits aren’t compensatory with one another.

One frequent issue that we confront with hiring managers is the idea that some traits can compensate for others to influence performance. This is typically found among those who have difficulty recruiting or overly kind individuals who want to give everyone a chance. The basic idea goes something like this: “This person isn’t very knowledgeable, but they’re hardworking.”

We understand the logic here. Job performance isn’t a single outcome. We all want hardworking, friendly, creative employees who do what they’re told and help their coworkers. And there isn’t a single magic trait that predicts all aspects of performance all by itself (don’t listen to the emotional intelligence advocates!).  

The problem of the logic of compensatory traits is clearer when one moves outside of the psychological realm.

For instance, being conscientious won’t make up for not being tall if you’re trying to become a successful NBA player. But even within the psychological domain, we all understand that an extremely neurotic person will be difficult to work with, even if they’re nice or intelligent.

Most of us can agree there are a number of personality and ability factors that are needed for every job. Although it may seem simple enough to assess candidates on several factors and add up the desirable ones to produce an overall score that is used to hire, we’re better off recognizing that many of those factors are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for employment. Consequently, we continue to support the idea behind multi-hurdle selection procedures that work from critical attributes to desirable ones based on job analysis.

5. There’s more to personality than the Big Five.

Although we framed most of our discussion in terms of the Big Five, it’s important to recognize there are factors beyond the Big Five that need to be assessed if you really want to understand your employees. To reiterate, the Big Five represent patterns of behavior. These patterns are extremely useful for predicting employee performance. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. But the Big Five themselves have little or no causal meaning. 

Individuals behave the way they do because of a complicated network of motives, values, abilities, and perceptual tendencies that shape the way they understand and react to the world around them. If you want to motivate an employee or change their behavior, it’s helpful to know what it is they desire or what they fear. If they’re not doing something correctly, it’s important to know if it’s because they lack a skill or because they don’t perceive the circumstance as warranting the effort.

Big Five models tend to oversimplify. And while that approach can be acceptable under most circumstances (it’s the 80 percentsolution), if you want to maximize your predictive power, you need to move beyond it. The facet-level approach is a vast improvement over the Big Five traits alone for prediction, but we’d point to other personality factors such as motives and values as being necessary to understand the long-term goals of employees and their likelihood of leaving the job.

Another critical area is the so-called dark personality traits. The Big Five model is based on what people typically do under normal circumstances. The dark personality perspective argues thereare traits that many individuals have that come into play when individuals face stressful circumstances and simply don’t have the resources to maintain their composure. This is why these traits are often called derailers.

In these situations, dark traits will manifest in potentially career-ending decisions, but more often they manifest in ways that are simply hurtful for that individual and the people around them. Our own work suggests such traits can be even more important than the Big Five as a determinant of long-term career success.

Beyond motives and derailers, there are many, many other candidate traits that may be predictive. But we’d once again caution against blindly using such measures without carefully considering their content and validity. All too often, popularized constructs such as “grit” or “resilience” or “mindfulness” are exposed as simply being well-established traits that have been dressed up with a fancy new name. 

Most HR practitioners have a good understanding of human nature. It’s what attracts them to the profession and makes them good at their jobs. Personality seems like it should be easy to understand for people with such skills and experience. We all have one, and we can all agree that personality matters.

Further, research tells us that there’s a relatively straightforward model that we can use: the Big Five. But for something that seems so simple, the answers for using it effectively can get complicated. By watching out for these five big mistakes in understanding personality, you’ll go a long way toward making the most of your personality assessment decisions and avoiding the pitfalls that are all too common.

Peter D. Harms, Ph.D.,is an associate professor of management at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on the assessment and development of personality, leadership and psychological well-being.  

Bradley J. Brummel, Ph.D.,is associate professor of organizational psychology at The University of Tulsa.  His research focuses on professional development coaching, sexual harassment, and employee engagement.