Personality Development in the Workplace

By Katja Shimkin, Kenyon ’17

Personality is commonly considered personal identity’s constant factor. People stay the same, they have one personality; it’s what makes them who they are. Recent research into development of trait expression however, suggests personality may not be quite so simple. Instead, traits continue to be shaped throughout life by individuals interactions within their given environments. Although analyses of such trait reshaping did not appear extreme (effect sizes were small), the results of a longitudinal study by Le et al. clearly indicated a relationship between workplace conditions and adult personality development.

Le et al.’s work expanded upon previous research into the relationship between adult personality trait development and workplace conditions, taking into account factors such as adolescent personality traits and high school GPA. Data were collected twice over a period of nine years to analyze participants’ personality traits, and were linked to a separate assessment measuring self-reported aspects of participants’ workplaces: participant’s overall fit in the workplace, material benefits, pressures, safety, income, and degree of self-determination behavior facilitated. Broadly, the study’s findings substantiated the Correspondence Principle which postulates individuals with a given trait are more likely to be involved in environments in which that trait can thrive. Given such environments, traits are often reiterated, as was seen in three of the four traits assessed in Le et al.’s study. Whereas constraint did not associate with the future or current workplace factors analyzed, negative, and both types of positive, emotionality demonstrated significant effect sizes. In general, both types of positive emotionality related positively to workplace fit, self-determination, material benefits, and safety. Agentic positive emotionality also linked positively with income. Negative emotionality associated negatively with fit, self-determination, material benefits, and safety. Le et al. proposed the link between traits and workplace conditions may be mediated by trait-determined behaviors. For example, if high in negative emotionality, an individual may create increased workplace tension and, as a result, remain employed in less appealing occupations. Less appealing occupations would then reinforce the participant’s initial negative emotionality phenotype leading to further creation of tension in the workplace.

Le et al.’s study was founded upon, and substantiated by, the concepts of social selection and social influence. “Social selection” For example, a conscientious individual is likely to be highly goal-driven and hard-working. This individual has an elevated likelihood of working in an occupation which values these traits. Where social selection may be thought of as a bottom-up process, “social influence” is more top-down. The concept of social influence is that situations can shape individuals’ characteristics. For example, that individual working in an occupation demanding hard work and self-motivation will likely experience an increase in conscientiousness. When taken together, the concepts of social selection and social influence form a cyclical pattern in which traits moderate entry into a given environment, and are then increased by that environment. Social selection and influence ideologies are in line with the concepts of reaction and selection in the Correspondence and Cumulative Continuity Principles, which explain behavioral outcomes resulting from interaction between traits and situations. Le et al.’s study draws upon these concepts and principles in investigating whether given personality traits can predict current and future workplace conditions, and that current workplace conditions can predict adult personality trait development.

Le et al. examined negative emotionality (e.g. anxiety), constraint (e.g. self-control), and agentic, as well as communal, positive emotionality (e.g. positive affect in individual or social settings) of participants, by means of both S-, and I-data. The Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire-Brief Form (MPQ-FB) was used to draw out participant’s responses regarding their own levels of these personality factors. A shortened form was administered to participants’ parents to increase reliability in the accuracy of participant trait assessment. A similar study= performed previously correlated participants’ self-reports of traits with S-data regarding workplace conditions. The current study not only replicated, but also expanded upon, findings of this former research project, taking into account parental I-data regarding participants’ personality traits, as well as analyzing correlation between traits, and future and current workplace conditions. The longitudinal aspect of Le et al.’s research design also contributed to the overall strength of the study; allowing nine years to pass before collection of further MPQBF results reduced likelihood of error due to testing effects (e.g. remembering previous responses), as well as provided substantial time for personality phenotypes to change from initial assessment during late adolescence to secondary adulthood assessment. Despite these strengths, however, the study does include some limitations. Perhaps the most of these is the relatively demographically-homogenous pool from which participants were drawn. Most participants were residents of rural Iowa, an aspect severely limiting ethnic and racial diversity in the sample.

Ideally, the proportion of European-Americans would have been closer to equal with participants of other descents. Additionally, it would be interesting to analyze the samples of individuals from other regional areas, especially those outside the United States. Culture has the potential to be a strong moderating variable and repetition of the study in nations other than the U.S. could prove insightful. A further future direction to mitigate limitations of the Le et al. study would be a replication of the methods with emphasis on the Big Five personality traits. The current study focused on positive and negative effect, as well as constraint, factors which can be regarded as subsets or facets of the Big Five, however, broader vantage point regarding extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness could lead to more widely encompassing and potentially more applicable findings. Broad analysis of the Big Five will indicate the importance of each trait in interacting with the workplace to facilitate adult trait development and, from this information, possible significance of facets of the Big Five will be garnered, and allow more directed and finely-tuned future assessment.


Le, K., Donnellan, M.B., & Conger, R. (2014). Personality development at work: Workplace conditions, personality changes, and the corresponsive principle, Journal of Personality, 82, 44-56.

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