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Personality and career

Deceit does not pay

München, 09/23/2015

The value of conscientiousness and the limited relevance of personal sympathy: LMU’s Professor Markus Bühner talks about personnel recruitment and the links between personality and career.

Foto: Jakub Jirsák /

In a few weeks, tens of thousands of students will embark on their university education, while this year’s graduates are mulling over their career prospects and thinking about job interviews. Here, Professor Markus Bühner, who holds a Chair in Psychological Methodology and Diagnostics at LMU, explains the importance of personality structure for one’s choice of career, and how recruiters measure it.

What sort of selection procedures should a university graduate who applies for her first job be prepared for?
Markus Bühner: The most popular procedure, as every applicant knows, is the personal interview. For some jobs, firms make use of an Assessment Center, and for a smaller fraction of positions candidates must undergo personality and, somewhat less frequently, intelligence tests.

What exactly are personality tests intended to measure?
Some psychometric personality tests are based on the results of modern psychological research, such as the so-called big five personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to new experiences, emotional stability and agreeableness. But many more traits of personality have been defined. Nowadays about 30 distinguishable facets of personality are recognized. This is the best tested and the best established approach. There are also so-called type tests, which attempt to classify people by assigning them to personality ‘types’. Here though, one must be very careful, because they are based on placing individuals in particular boxes, although it is clear that personality types are seldom stable over time. Intelligence tests are primarily used in the selection of trainees.

How does one decide whether a given candidate is suited for a particular post?
It depends on what sorts of skills are required for the position in question. The job must be compatible with the applicant. The normal procedure is to begin with an analysis of the demands that the job makes on the post-holder, and then to assess, using the methods I have just mentioned, whether the candidate has what it takes to fulfil these demands. In other words, the recruiter already knows what sort of personality is required before any of the candidates has been tested. The test just measures an individual’s compatibility with a previously defined profile. An optimally designed test leaves little room for individual interpretation. However, many firms are uncomfortable with this strategy, because it restricts their freedom of choice.

In other words, the interviewers can’t simply decide on the basis of personal sympathy, which often seems to be the factor that determines the outcome of job interviews.
A perception of personal rapport is something that may seem to be important initially. But as soon as the executive who chose the personable and agreeable candidate moves on, its value may well decline. And if the chosen candidate turns out not to have the skills required for the job, his colleagues and his boss are unlikely to retain their good impression of him for very long. He may often be absent due to illness because the job proves to be too much for him, for instance. If the ‘appealing personality’ is consistently overvalued as a recruiting criterion, the inevitable result will be a higher rate of turnover of personnel. If a company has found four or five qualified candidates for a post, one can of course make the final selection on the basis of personal rapport. But the ability to do the job must come first.

How important is the factor personality for one’s career?
Personality plays a decisive role in determining career success, in particular in the long term. Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. In fact, I would recommend that firms use personality tests more often when recruiting personnel, in order to identify the most suitable candidates. However, it is not enough just to pick out any old test. One must first decide, on the basis of empirical findings, which personality traits are the most relevant pointers to performance in the particular post.

Are there specific personality traits that are required for success in every career?
Conscientiousness is certainly a virtue that one needs in very many professions. But there are many other traits that can be crucial in specific kinds of job. It depends very much on the particular challenges associated with the post concerned. The importance of intelligence for success in various professions has been extensively evaluated. And one can confidently assert that level of intelligence – or more specifically one‘s capacity for rational thinking – is a reliable predictor of professional success. The ability to reason, to draw logical conclusions from the available evidence, is something that is valuable and helpful in all sorts of situations.

Does this mean that all positions should be filled by people with an IQ of at least 130?
An IQ of 130 is undoubtedly a rare and wonderful gift to have. But the personality must also fit the job. If you are looking for a hotel receptionist, you can train him to do lots of things – such as greeting guests with a smile and a handshake or always looking them in the eye. But if that individual does not enjoy interacting with other people, he will not feel at ease in such a position, even if he has acquired all the necessary modes of behavior that a good receptionist must have. Or take the case of management positions. To be a successful leader, one must possess a certain degree of extraversion. One must positively enjoy leading a hectic life, love giving talks and presentations, delight in interviewing, appraising and motivating subordinates. Personality and intelligence are not tightly correlated, but both contribute significantly to professional success, and both turn out to be remarkably stable over the course of a time in adulthood.

So would you also argue for the use of intelligence tests in the selection of executives?
Intelligence tests for candidates for leadership positions can certainly be recommended. Indeed, we have already carried out such tests for companies. And the results are not always as expected. The ostensibly qualified candidate, who has the ideal personality for the job, may be rejected on the basis of unsatisfactory performance in the intelligence test. But one must remember that the intelligence test is only one component of any selection procedure. One always needs to use a variety of methods, which are appropriate to the personal qualities and capacities needed for the particular job.

So someone with the right personality can compensate sufficiently for the fact that he is not as clever as the next candidate?
We developed such a compensatory model for Provadis some years ago. It turns out that companies in certain sectors of the economy no longer attract the same numbers of candidates for open positions as they did in the past. So they are forced to shorten their lists of required qualifications, but still want to attract talented candidates. One way to broaden the pool of candidates is to compromise on the level of intelligence required. So we developed a trainee selection procedure for Provadis that allows candidates to compensate until a certain point for cognitive weaknesses provided they possess certain positive personality traits. The company now has a formula with which to calculate the probability that a given candidate will successfully complete the training course – and it works very well.

Is it not possible to pass this sort of test by preparing convincing answers to the crucial questions in advance? There are plenty of coaching manuals available.
It is quite difficult to prepare oneself for this sort of test. Basically, one would need to know the questions beforehand and learn the appropriate answers by heart. Intelligence is not something one can acquire in adulthood. It is not very responsive to training at that stage. And training on other problems has little effect on how well one deals with the questions that come up in the real test. You can do a little preparation for such tests, but you will not gain many more points unless the problems set are in some way related to those you have learned to solve beforehand. And in the case of personality tests, we now know how people go about cheating. Usually, they give socially desirable responses only to questions that they regard as being directly relevant to the candidate‘s suitability for the job, and then the cheater will put himself in a slightly more positive light, or will choose a more favorable, but not the most favorable answer.

Of course every candidate should try to present himself in the best possible light, as the best qualified applicant for the job. But if one does not actually possess the qualities required to meet the challenges the job brings, one is not going to be in a position to do it well. I very much doubt that, with regard to job satisfaction and wellbeing, deception is a good idea in the long run. The best policy for job-seekers is to see, and present, one’s self in a realistic light.

buehner_130Professor Markus Bühner Chair of Psychological Methodology and Diagnostics at LMU. His research interests include the design of aptitude assessments and the configuration of test procedures and questionnaires.