This article was originally published by Qazini, an online media platform seeking to drive systemic change in our societies through empowering storytelling.
By Stephen Kimani, Qazini
I am in my mid-20s. And to be honest, in my short work experience, I have performed below my expectations. I have started brands that have somehow withered away. I have taken on projects that did not see fruition. I have had jobs where I really wanted to be exemplary, and although I wasn’t terrible, I never became a superstar.
At the beginning of this year, I had a lot of self-doubt. Why am I not excelling at the things I’m doing? Why do my ideas never see the light of day? And those that do wither after a short stint?
One of my all-time favourite books is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Malcolm makes a convincing argument that success is not a factor of hard work and dedication only. For instance, the zip code you are born into plays a role in your success. A child born in the leafy suburbs, who gets to attend prestigious private schools or international schools, has a better chance of being financially successful than a child born in the slums who gets substandard education.
So, since reading Outliers, I have had a question at the back of my mind – what are these other factors in the success equation? I developed an interest in how personality factors in but I never pursued that idea further until now. While taking stock of what has happened in the last few years of my career, the idea of personality as a factor influencing my success came back.
Let me engage you a little. Jot down three things you think someone needs for them to be successful in their career. The highest probability is that you wrote things you possess and to an extent think of them as your strengths. I had this bias too. I would write things like focused, dedicated, an achiever. Frankly, I thought I possessed those characters.
However, before I started researching and reading about personality and its influence on career success, I thought, let me take a personality test first then compare my test results with what I find from the research to see what insights I would get.
I was not ready for my results. As I am writing this article, my heart is beating a little faster when I think of what I got. I am questioning whether to tell you my exact personality diagnosis. It feels too personal, like sharing medical results.
But after seeing my personality results, it all clicked.
A personality is an amalgamation of a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavioural patterns. For instance, when we say someone is an introvert or an extrovert, we are referring to their behaviour – likes to be with people or by themselves. This behaviour correlates with certain thoughts and feeling patterns.
There are different personality classification models. But the Big Five-Factor Model is widely accepted in the world of research and academia as the most stable personality classification model. The five-factor model has been proven to be heritable, universal and stable throughout one’s lifespan. Therefore, that is the model I used. It classifies personality into five categories:
The beauty of the Big Five-Factor Model is that the five personality traits are measured on a spectrum. Therefore, the results are not static. They do not classify you as this or that. Rather, they indicate your scale of propensity towards certain traits.
The workplace, as much as it is diversified and accommodating to different people, needs a certain kind of person to succeed in it. The environment and the capitalistic system have specific demands on the people working within them. Therefore, some traits are favoured above others.
Taking a personality test puts things in black and white for you to get a picture of where you stand when it comes to these traits. My results blew my mind. I realised where the bane of my career life lies.
So, let’s see how these traits influence career success according to research.
Openness to experience and agreeableness
These two traits have the weakest link to career success. In fact, they might affect you negatively.
People higher in agreeableness earn less money, even lesser than people in related fields. Their job satisfaction is also low. Being very agreeable may make it difficult for you to negotiate salary increases and promotions. It may also make you susceptible to being trampled and overlooked by co-workers.
Those scoring higher in openness to experience also earn lower salaries, although there is no substantial link to job satisfaction. And this was my highest-scoring personality trait.
Conscientiousness is a must-have trait for one to thrive in the workplace. Highly conscientious individuals make more money than their counterparts over a ten-year period and report high levels of career satisfaction. This is because they are more diligent and better at controlling their impulses. Hence, they are less likely to shy away from unpleasant or challenging projects. They are also less likely to procrastinate. This shows why this is the most rewarded trait in the workplace.
If you had asked me, off the top of my head, if I was conscientious, I would have told you, “Yes, without a doubt.” However, the results indicated that although I am conscientious, my score is not as high.
Extroverted individuals have greater satisfaction with their salaries and overall career. They tend to get more promotions which makes them more likely to have higher management positions. For younger individuals, extroversion leads to an increase in income over a ten-year period.
This might be explained by the fact that extroverted individuals thrive socially. Hence, they establish great relationships in the workplace. Extroverted individuals are also more visible in the work environment than introverted individuals and thus are seen as more engaged, more interested and more influential.
High neuroticism is the biggest career obstacle among the five personality traits. People who score high on neuroticism are less likely to be satisfied with their careers. They make less money and are employed at lower levels of management. If they happen to be CEOs, they make less money than the average CEO.
On the other hand, individuals who score low on neuroticism – meaning higher emotional stability – tend to have career success with higher incomes and more job satisfaction. However, research shows that if someone makes a higher income over a long time – 10 years – their level of neuroticism lowers.
Emotional stability (low neuroticism) contributes significantly to career stability and success. Emotionally stable individuals have good relations with people, including in the workspace. They are able to process their thoughts, feelings and emotions well and avoid emotional outbursts that would make one undesirable in the work environment.
As people advance in their careers, extraversion reduces, they become more emotionally stable and increase their conscientiousness.
I realised that traits that come naturally to me do not necessarily make me a superstar in the workspace. Whereas, in the things that would make me an absolute savage in the workplace I had an average score. No wonder I have been stalling.
The representation of the results on a spectrum is where I draw my hope from. While personality traits are fairly stable throughout one’s life, that does not preclude the possibility of change. One’s personality is not set in stone. It is possible to work on given aspects of your personality that you want to improve in order to excel in your career, especially if you are able to grow in conscientiousness, emotional stability and extraversion.
Overall, knowing that personality has been shown to be a good predictor of especially early career success both as a stable trait indicator and also a reliable tracker through life changes, growth and development, it is worth looking into what your personality says about you. Then, figure out your blind spots and work on what you need to succeed.
As for me, my personality results gave me a better perspective on how to approach my career success and growth. I know what I need to be more intentional about. The goal remains to escape the mediocre trap and become a superstar. As for those starting their career journey, knowing their personality traits early and understanding how they correlate to their career journey is the first step towards career excellence.