How Personality Affects Job Satisfaction – The Big-5 Model of Personality Traits

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of job satisfaction and happiness. 

Perhaps because I see so many people who feel dissatisfied with work and career, who are complaining about their jobs, but even worse, feel apathy towards their job. 

They lack meaning and purpose and have given up on finding happiness at work.

But then, occasionally I come across those people who are so happy in their jobs. They are glowing, bouncy, full of energy – it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily extroverted. They could be quite introverted but exude happiness and contentment.

That caused me to dig deeper into the question of job satisfaction and happiness. For a complete overview, check out this post. Here I want to go through how personality specifically plays a role in job satisfaction.

Strictly speaking, satisfaction and happiness are not the same, but for this purpose, I will use the term job satisfaction and happiness in job interchangeably and in its simplest sense: The positive emotions and attitudes one feels towards their job.

The majority of people want to have lives, jobs, careers, in which they can be happier. But what exactly determines happiness at work? 

True happiness comes from within. But from a practical point of view, I think there are two questions that we can ask ourselves in any area of life or situation where we ‘lack’ happiness: 

1. Do we need to effect something concrete on the outside, the external world around us, to be proactive and change our circumstances, our location, our environment? Or

2. Do we need to dig deeper into ourselves and simply change our whole perception and attitude about our job and life 

Depending on each specific case, it can be either-or, but mostly a combination of both. 

It’s easy to understand that the job itself – the duties, workload, working conditions, etc. contribute to job satisfaction.

But interestingly, a significant part of what makes us happy at work is not related to the job itself, but us as individuals.

According to a study by Roelen, Koopmans, Groothoff (2008) work factors or factors directly related to a job account for 54% of our work satisfaction while individual factors which include personality traits, age, and gender explain about 45% of job satisfaction, according to a study by Judge, Heller, Mount (2002) in the “5-factor model of personality and job satisfaction”.

I wouldn’t place too much weight on the exact percentages, and treat study results with some cautions, as there are always a lot of underlying assumptions and limitations.

But it’s safe to say that personality does play a big role in job satisfaction and happiness overall.

According to this study, people with certain personality traits are predisposed to be more content at work, personalities that are more likely to experience higher job satisfaction.

This means that we are a determinant of job satisfaction itself. We are happy or unhappy not just because of outside factors, but in part also because of our personality. 

And that returns a lot of the responsibility for job satisfaction, or even life satisfaction and happiness in general, back to us.  

The next question we might ask then is: Can I do anything about my personality? Isn’t it a given? Am I ‘doomed’ to be unhappy in any job because of my personality? Let’s park this for now.

Julia Yates in ‘Career Coaching Handbook’ refers to the five-factor model of personality and job satisfaction and summarizes that :

“The personality type most likely to enjoy their work lives, regardless of job, is that which scores low on neuroticism and high on extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Neuroticism is negatively correlated with job satisfaction (by which I mean that people who score high on neuroticism are more likely to score low on job satisfaction).”

These are likely to be the people who in life in general, are more easily satisfied, in a sense. 

In addition to this, some researchers have even linked genetics to job satisfaction. 

The area of personality studies is wide and inconclusive. There are so many different schools of thoughts and opinions, and each effort to try to pin down a definition of ‘personality’, seems to lead to an array of other questions. 

But we know that personality exists and that there are different personalities when we encounter them.

‘Thousands of traits have been invented in the research of personality research, and scores of traits have been studied in relation to job satisfaction”, as noted in the “5-factor model of personality and job satisfaction” by Judge, Heller, Mount (2002).

“There seems to be a consensus though, that a five-factor model of personality, also termed as the ‘Big Five’ (Goldberg, 1990) is useful to describe the most important aspects of personality”, it further says.

The Big Five model seems to be relatively reliable across different cultures and studies. 

I say ‘relatively here’, because there was a study that digs deeper into the Cross-Cultural Generalizability of the Five-Factor Model of Personality which shows that in some cultures these traits might not as clear cut. 

I’ll not try to describe the model completely here If you are interested to understand it in more detail, check out this post which gives a good overview.

For the purpose of this topic, here are the 5 factors and an extremely simplified explanation:

  1. Openness to experience
  • Characterized by willingness to try new activities
  • Amenable to unconventional ideas and beliefs
  1. Conscientiousness
  • Exhibit more goal-oriented behavior
  • Aware of their actions and consequences of their behavior
  • Generally careful to carry out duties assigned to them
  1. Extraversion
  • Seek external stimulation in the form of socially engaging behavior
  • Enjoy meeting new people, thrive in the company of others
  • Direct energy outside

Highly introverted people on the other side, concentrate their psychic energy on solitary activities, such as thoughtful contemplation, as described by Carl Jung.

  1. Agreeableness
  • Dislike being involved in arguments, conflicts, confrontation
  • Ability to work with others and often work well as members of a team
  • Cooperative, trusting of others, more altruistic
  1. Neuroticism
  • Persistent worriers, more fearful, often feel anxious
  • Overthink their problems, dwell on negative aspects

Judge, Heller, Mount (2002) in the “5-factor model of personality and job satisfaction” meta-analysis investigated the relationship between this five-factor model of personality and job satisfaction. This is a summary of their findings:

Neuroticism

This study shows that there is a -.29, a negative correlation between neuroticism and job satisfaction. This means that the higher the level of neuroticism is, the lower the job satisfaction. 

Correlations must always be interpreted carefully, as correlation is not causation. However, correlation hints toward something going on between two things. 

The argument here is that people high in neuroticism are more negative in nature. They experience more negative life events than other individuals. 

The reason is partially because they select themselves into situations that foster negative affect. If these situations are part of their job, it would lead to lower job satisfaction.

From your own observation, you surely know those type of people who seem to have a more positive outlook on everything, have more positive emotions – or less negative emotions – toward upsetting news, and seem to take things easier compared to the average person. As well as those people who always see the negative first, or are worried all the time about each and everything, and quickly feel like everything is doomed. 

Extraversion

Here the correlation between extraversion and job satisfaction is .25.

Extraverts are predisposed to experience positive emotions, which in general also leads to higher job satisfaction. And because of their social facility, they find interpersonal interactions more rewarding. 

I can see how introverts who prefer to spend more time by themselves, can easily become overwhelmed by too much social interaction at work and become unhappy if they do not manage this wisely.

Openness to Experience

This factor seems not to be closely linked to job satisfaction. The correlation between extraversion and job satisfaction is .02.

Openness to experience has been described here as a ‘double-edged’ sword “that predisposes individuals to feel the good and the bad more deeply”.

Agreeableness

The argument here is that agreeableness should be related to happiness because agreeable people have more motivation to achieve interpersonal intimacy, which in turn leads to a greater level of well-being.

The correlation between agreeableness and job satisfaction is .17.

Conscientiousness

The link here is quite indirect but makes sense nevertheless. The correlation between conscientiousness and job satisfaction is .26. 

It is argued that people who are conscientious generally tend to work-involvement, this in turn usually leads to a higher chance of getting satisfying work rewards. This includes formal rewards (pay, promotion) and informal rewards (recognition, respect, and so on).

It’s also easy to imagine that an individual who is extremely unconscientious at work is likely to receive a lot of negative responses from his or her environment, runs into a lot of trouble and conflicts with boss and employees, hence leading to unhappiness. 

This is an example that shows that correlation does not equal causation. We see that conscientiousness seems to influence job satisfaction through this chain of events and effects. 

It doesn’t mean that because an individual is conscientious, he or she is likely to experience job satisfaction.  

But is there such a thing as being overly conscientious to an unnecessary degree? 

Something like ‘self-imposed’ conscientiousness which does not necessarily add any benefit to anyone? For example, the employee who makes elaborate excel sheets to satisfy his own need for perfection, but that doesn’t contain information that is useful or relevant to the business?

So what do we make of all of this?  

I think understanding the link between job satisfaction and personality can help us to be happier at work in the long run.

If are unhappy in our job, career, life, the first thing we can first ask ourselves is:

Is it the job or is it me? 

If you are a happy person, especially compared to others, in most life situations, but feel comparatively unhappy in your job or career, then it’s probably the job that’s the problem.

It could be related to the work factors, work conditions, and other things.

If it’s the job, then you can consider changing jobs or careers. 

But what if you tend to be unhappy in most life situations, especially compared to others? Have you been extremely unhappy in every job you had in your life and never experienced any satisfaction whatsoever? 

In this extreme case, it’s a good idea to step back and ask yourself if it might be your personality that’s playing a major role in your unhappiness.

Yes, you can continue changing jobs or career, but it won’t guarantee that you’ll be happier. Your happiness may increase but perhaps only marginally.

As I said before, in most cases people will fall somewhere in the middle. 

It requires a fine sense to figure out whether it’s time to turn inward and change your perception about life (e.g. regulate your expectations), or whether it’s time to move out of your current job or role into a different one with more conducive factors. 

Sometimes though in life, we can’t move out of our job or career, at least momentarily, and for some time find ourselves ‘stuck’ in a less ideal job or career.

What happens then will likely depend on your personality and what action steps you take.

Let’s look at this hypothetical scenario, where there are 2 people with the exact same job, background, family, and circumstances. 

The only thing that differentiates them is their personality. Let’s call them Tom and Tracy,

Both feel that their job is super boring, every day seems to be the same. They both initially feel dissatisfied with the lack of variety and excitement. They find something lacking in their job. 

If possible, both would take action by either creating more variety in their job or changing to a different job or career altogether

But let’s say that for now they are ‘stuck’ in their job. For some reason they have to stay in this job and career for the next 1 year. 

Tom belongs to the group of people who easily feels negative emotions, he will probably sulk, feel annoyed, depressed, or hopeless throughout the entire year. 

Tracy, on the other hand, is someone who feels positive emotions more easily, she is able to ‘summon’ happiness from within, and feel happy despite this is not exactly what she wants. 

But she’ll be able to make the best of it and try to enjoy certain aspects of the job, for example, the nice colleagues she has 

The reason I bring up this example is to show that people in the exact same situation but with different personalities – ceteris paribus or if all things are constant – experience different levels of happiness. 

So is the predominant reason you’re unhappy in your job, factors related to the job itself, your personality?

To move toward more happiness at work, you have to be honest with yourself and get to the bottom of it.

Back to the questions of whether personality is fixed or not.

The good news is, that personality is not as fixed as we may have thought. Research shows that personality changes, especially with age. The older people get, the less open towards experience they become. 

Although it’s unlikely that an extreme extrovert will become an extreme introvert in a year, small personality shifts are not impossible.

And even small tweaks to your personality can benefit your overall happiness in life and lead to an upward spiral. 

So instead of surrendering to the circumstances and blaming either our job situation or our personality, there are things we can do about our environment as well as about our personality, that can lead toward a happier working life. 

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