Personality as determinant for competencies

Thursday, 29. June 2017

By Dr. Alec W. Serlie (GITP, The Netherlands) & Mirjam Neelen (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)

The term ‘competency’ for a workplace environment is often used to describe a vast range of skills, expertise, abilities, and knowledge. There are various descriptions of the term competency available in the literature, both academic and specialist (e.g., technical literature). One of the first scholars referring to competencies as a measure for job performance was McClelland in 1973. Later on, Boyatzis defined a job competency as ”an underlying characteristic of an employee (e.g., motive, trait, skill, aspects of one's self-image, social role, or a body of knowledge) which results in effective and/or superior performance in a job” (Boyatzis, 1982, p. 20). Traditionally, competency models rely mainly on the expertise or skills of the worker in order to perform on the job. And even though expertise is not only limited to factual knowledge of a trade or profession, it is strongly determined by content or problem-related aspects of a job. However, in order to be truly effective in a job, this expertise also has to be used in an adaptive and relevant manner. One could raise the question whether a lawyer with just expert knowledge of the law and jurisprudence would be well able to defend a client in court. The answer obviously is “no” (or at least, not necessarily) as certain behavioural aspects such as presenting, pleading, and flexibility to counter arguments made by the other party are also crucial. In other words, only having the expertise is not sufficient to be an effective lawyer. Likewise, a computer programmer with excellent knowledge of a programming language may be apt in writing high quality code, but will also have to have mastered certain behavioural aspects such as collaboration and communication with co-workers, superiors, and clients in order to be really effective. Effective in this example does not only mean writing the code, but also getting others involved, making use of their insights, being a team player, and being able to share knowledge so that others understand the code. The common characteristics in these two examples is that the effectiveness of work depends on two basic elements; that is

  • the expertise required in order to be able to tackle the content aspects of a job and
  • the behavioural elements required to adapt to various situations.

The behavioural elements can be measured either indirectly, based on (evidence-based) predictors, and/or directly by observing actual behaviour. The latter is more time consuming as it generally involves not only the learners themselves, but also depends on the (expert) judgment of others.

The basis of behaviour can be found in a combination of intuition, personality, and temperament as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Behavioural repertoire
Figure 1. Behavioural repertoire

In the DEVELOP platform, personality assessment is one of the assessment types that employees can complete. In this article, we will explain at a high level how the indirect measurement of behaviour through personality assessment can contribute to gaining insight in an individual’s competency profile.

How personality assessment supports insight in one’s personality profile

The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: one is to understand individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability; the other is to understand how the various parts of a person come together as a whole (see The most accepted and documented model of personality is the Big Five by Costa and McCrae. This five factor model, also known as Big Five personality traits, is a lexical model based on common language descriptors of personality. These descriptors are grouped together through factor analysis. Although the names of the five factors differ somewhat, following McCrae and Costa, the following names are applied: Extraversion, Agreeableness (Altruism), Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness. Due to the negative connotation of Neuroticism, one often refers to Stability in the selection/career psychology instead of Neuroticism.

In order to adequately understand the concepts of personality and its relation to behaviours on the job, it is important to provide a brief explanation of the most important personality factors.

Extravert people are characterized by an open personality, they are people who need company, who are easy to get along with, who easily make contact with others and who are jovial. Opposites are introvert people who are reserved, who would rather keep a low profile and who do not mind being or working alone.

People who are altruistic are characterized by their helpful attitude, they are sympathetic towards others, they trust others and are tolerant. Opposites are unfriendly or harsh people, who mainly think of themselves and who do not really care about others.

Conscientious people are people who like to play by the rules, who are disciplined and persevering and who proceed in an orderly fashion and according to plan. In contrast, careless people are inclined to postpone matters, they may be chaotic, they do not strictly follow the rules and they adopt a nonchalant attitude.

Neurotic people are indecisive, quickly irritated, they have mood swings and quickly panic. People with a high Emotional Stability (=low degree neuroticism) have a strong personality, they are self-confident, they can handle tension and criticism, they have authority and are calm in nature.

Openness applies to people who are open to new experiences, who are inquisitive, who have imagination and who can form their own opinion on matters. Their opposites are conformable, in the sense that the follow the beaten path, they are superficial, they do not enjoy going deeply into any subject, who avoid difficult problems and who are obedient.

The relevance of personality assessment for Overall Job Performance (OJP) in work-related positions has been well researched and documented. Personality in relation to more specific competencies, such as Entrepreneurial Success, Leadership had also been well documented.

Studies by Bartramin 2005 and earlier Kurz and Bartram in 2002 showed that personality dimensions related to specific competency domains. Extraversion for instance is one of the determinants of Leading & Deciding and Interacting & Presenting, whereas Openness is one of the determinants of Creating & Conceptualizing (see Table 1).

Table 1. Correlations between Big Five and Great Eight Competency Criteria
Table 1. Correlations between Big Five and Great Eight Competency Criteria (Bartram, 2005)










Recent studies (Serlie, 2016) show that multiple correlations of personality, in combination with motivation and cognitive ability can exceed r=.50.

All in all, assessing personality as a basic predisposition of behavioural competencies can be useful in determining the level and the “trainability” of that competency, which is helpful for employees in the context of career development.


Find related articles on Competency Management and Learning and Development in our blog. You are welcome to discuss this article on Medium.



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