5 personality traits can predict employee engagement

Want to get a sense for how a new hire will fit in and adapt? Try to gauge their levels of conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and openness to experience.

Are some employees simply un-engageable?

Internal communicators can use various tactics to help employees engage physically, cognitively and emotionally.

People think, feel and act in their own unique way, so they’ll react differently to attempts to help them connect with the CEO or commit to organizational change. Emerging research suggests that five personality traits can help you predict people’s level of engagement at work:

1. Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is one of the five basic personality traits—or factors—examined by psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa in their influential Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality.

  • Behaviors: The epitome of an “ideal employee,” people with high amounts of conscientiousness are efficient, dutiful, deliberate and achievement-oriented.
  • Evidence: Studies consistently show that employees with high levels of this trait are more likely to be engaged at work. For example, work psychologists Ilke Inceoglu and Peter Warr explored engagement levels in more 700 employees from several countries. They found that conscientiousness—particularly the “achievement orientation” component of the trait—was the best predictor of work engagement.
  • Underlying mechanism: One suggestion is that highly conscientious employees are motivated by a need to achieve goals. It may also be that conscientious workers have a strong sense of responsibility and are likely to immerse themselves in their job tasks.

2. Neuroticism

  • Behaviors: People with high levels of neuroticism tend to be tense, irritable, shy and lacking in self-confidence.
  • Evidence: Researcher Saar Langelaan analyzed the personality and engagement survey scores of 205 Dutch employees and found that those high in neuroticism were low in work engagement. This finding has been replicated in other studies.
  • Underlying mechanism: According to Langelaan, neuroticism is strongly linked to “negative affect,” a short-term mental state marked by fear, nervousness and anger (or low energy use). Highly engaged employees tend to report low levels of negative affect.

3. Extroversion

  • Behaviors: People who score high on extroversion are generally sociable, enthusiastic, energetic, adventurous and outgoing.
  • Evidence: Studies exploring the link between extroversion and engagement have produced mixed results. However, researchers Stephen Woods and Juilitta Sofat found that the “assertiveness” sub-factor of extroversion—characterized by being driven, competitive and energetic—was more strongly associated with engagement than the “gregariousness” sub-factor (being sociable and chatty) and the broader extroversion trait.
  • Underlying mechanism: According to Langelaan and colleagues, people high on the extroversion scale are more likely to experience positive emotions, which means they are more likely to experience positive engagement.

Another explanation centers on the psychological condition of meaningfulness, an important predictor of engagement defined as the positive feeling that one’s work is worthwhile and important. According to Woods and Sofat, employees high in the “assertiveness” sub-factor are more likely to be engaged, because their high energy and ambitiousness lead them to attach greater meaning to their efforts at work.

4. Agreeableness

  • Behaviors: People who score high in agreeableness tend to be forgiving, warm and flexible.
  • Evidence: This trait has been found to be a weaker predictor of engagement than the three factors listed above. However, leadership expert Andrew Wefald and his colleagues found agreeableness was linked to engagement.
  • Underlying mechanism: According to business psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, engaged employees tend to be efficient task completers. Of course, most work tasks require teamwork—and agreeable employees encourage teamwork—so they’re more likely to be engaged.

5. Openness to experience

  • Behaviors: People who are quite open to new experiences are often intellectually curious, imaginative, artistic and excitable.
  • Evidence: Pakistani economist Nayyar Zaidi found that employees with high levels of openness were more likely to be engaged than their “conscientious” counterparts. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic and colleagues found that openness was the second-best predictor of engagement.
  • Underlying mechanism: Zaidi says William Kahn, the “godfather of employee engagement,” saw engaged employees as innovators within their organization. Therefore, employees high in openness to experience—who are naturally innovative— are more likely to be engaged.

If an employee’s unique and enduring personal characteristics dictate their level of work engagement, how are you supposed to reach all of them?

Before we all tear up our engagement strategies and go on a well-deserved holiday, it’s important to note that none of the studies referenced above concluded that having high levels of one trait made engagement impossible. People’s personalities cause them to view work, colleagues and employers in a unique way, but everyone’s capable of being engaged at work.

Professor Brad Shuck and his colleagues propose that communication within an organization can foster engagement in each employee—regardless of their personality traits—via two routes:

  • Communication can motivate employees to be engaged by aligning their values with the organization’s values.
  • Companies can create trust and integrity through transparent, consistent messaging.

Internal communicators provide a line of sight to employees and remove communication barriers between senior leaders and workers.

Ultimately, people are all engageable, but they’re also unique, with particular life experiences, views and personal characteristics that influence their behavior at work. Internal communicators should remember those factors when trying to help colleagues become—and stay—engaged at work.

A version of this post first appeared on Annique Simpson’s blog.


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