How Personality Affects Employee Engagement

Gallup has been tracking and reporting on employee engagement since 2000. Last year saw another increase in the percentage of workers who are engaged, but don’t get too excited. The increase saw the figure clock in at only a depressingly low 34%. After all, this means 66% are not engaged, which is alarmingly high. The unengaged workforce includes 13% who are described as “actively disengaged,” which means they’re truly miserable at work. In the face of these statistics, employers have tried all sorts of things to boost engagement, with varying degrees of success. Recently, some have been exploring how personality affects employee engagement.

Personality plays a significant role in employee engagement.

Why Employee Engagement Matters

Companies are rightly concerned with employee engagement because there is a fairly direct line connecting it to all kinds of positive business outcomes, including better worker performance and productivity, higher earnings-per-share growth (up to four times higher than competitors who pay little or no attention to engagement), better customer engagement, higher retention of workers, lower workplace accident rates, and higher profitability – by as much as 21%. This is all to say that finding ways to boost employee engagement is a high-stakes pursuit. The recent uptick in employee engagement can be attributed at least in part to the extended post-recession economic recovery and historically low rates of employment. The dissatisfied workers have had more opportunities to switch to more satisfying jobs. Of course, those who have switched jobs may just be in the “honeymoon” period where they tend to be more satisfied in a new workplace.

Many Pathways to Better Employee Engagement

There are many different ways companies try to boost employee engagement. A shallow approach relies on superficial perks like more vacation, better retirement plans, more flex time options, and other workplace perks – but these don’t tend to have lasting or long-term effects on engagement. A bigger factor many companies fail to work with is the quality of team leaders and managers. Gallup’s research shows that at 70% of the variance seen in engagement can be attributed to better managers and team leadership through motivating members to give their best effort, recognize work well done, and provide ongoing feedback and coaching. Doing this right is no small task – it requires making employee engagement central to the company’s business strategy. They go beyond superficial perks and actively help employees do their best, including achieving a better work-life balance. But all of this still begs the question – is the overall low rate of engagement because companies aren’t doing enough? What if there’s something even more basic affecting the equation?

How Personality Affects Employee Engagement

The clue that there might be something else lurking beneath the surface of employee engagement comes from a relatively simple observation – instances in which two different people in the same job show very different levels of engagement. They have all the same perks and rewards, quality of team leadership and management, and the same workplace culture, and yet one is engaged and the other is not. What gives? Some think that an outsized factor affecting employee engagement rarely discussed is the worker’s personality. It’s an interesting question to pursue given that character traits are mostly considered to be among the few things that don’t change much over time. In other words, a person with a glass-half-empty personality probably won’t be a highly engaged employee no matter the specifics of a job or workplace.

A staggering 50% of variability in employee engagement can be explained by four major personality traits.

One meta-analysis study published in 2018 took a deep dive into 114 different qualifying surveys covering 45,000 people all over the world. It found that a staggering 50% of variability in employee engagement could be explained by four major personality traits: positive affect, conscientiousness, proactivity, and extroversion. Note that these same traits are also strongly associated with both resilience and emotional intelligence. People who are generally optimistic, positive, outgoing and hard-working are far more likely to be engaged employees.

Should Companies Leverage How Personality Affects Employee Engagement?

This naturally leads to the follow-up question: Should companies be using personality tests to identify candidates with the desired engagement qualities in their quest to hire and retain a more engaged workforce? Several words of caution are warranted here before companies jump on this bandwagon.

First, earlier in this article I mentioned how Gallup’s research found that a major engagement factor has to do with the quality of team leaders and managers. Dissatisfied employees can be a leading indicator that something is amiss with a company’s team leaders and managers. If you hire a bunch of people who are more likely to be engaged no matter where they are, this could serve to mask the very indicator needed to recognize a company could be doing a lot better with higher-quality managers and team leaders. Having a workforce with higher natural tolerance to bad management isn’t the right way to solve a bad management problem.

Secondly, the research points out how 50% of variability in engagement could be how personality affects employee engagement, but that means there’s still the other 50% that is due to all the other factors mentioned earlier in this article. It would be a bad move for a company to put all its eggs in one basket, whether that be superficial perks to boost engagement, upping the quality of team leaders and manager, or personality screening for engagement traits. A wiser approach is to pay attention to all the different pathways that lead to better engagement.

Finally, some of the most innovative, creative people in your company are likely to be somewhat short on the engagement personality traits. They’re the ones who tend to question the status quo and have issues with authority, and yet it is those very qualities that have a lot to do with the valuable contributions they make to the company. In this sense, it’s better to stick with making sure you hire a diversity of personality types, even those who aren’t the ones likeliest to be highly engaged. When everyone’s the same, it has negative impacts on team dynamics and innovation.

Just because personality affects employee engagement doesn’t mean companies should start screening for and exclusively hiring candidates who score high on the traits associated with engagement. You’re better off focusing on hiring for demonstrated competency on the job while aiming for diversity both in terms of demographic characteristics and personality traits. And when it comes to boosting employee engagement, use all of the several pathways mentioned in this article and not just one!

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