Unifrog Area Manager, Nick Weir, writes about the magic personality factor and its importance in the hunt for a good career.
It is largely accepted that to get the best jobs, you need the best grades. But is that all that is necessary to achieve a successful career in today’s society?
Whilst it remains true that academic attainment and cognitive skills such as intelligence and good memory are central in securing a good career, they aren’t the only significant factors. There is very good reason to believe that non-cognitive characteristics, such as social skills, personality, and aspirations are also important. Recent research from David Deming, associate professor of education at Harvard, demonstrates that almost all employment growth in the US over the last 20 years has come from jobs that require social skills, and this is likely to increase.
What is a winning personality?
The psychological model most often studied in relation to career outcomes separates overall personality into five broad factors: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness, and Neuroticism. These are commonly referred to as the Big 5. Of these, conscientiousness and extraversion are frequently postulated to be most beneficial for career success, as they encompass many characteristics sought after by the labour market.
In 2009, the BBC launched its Big Personality Test to answer the question “Do our personalities shape our lives or do our lives shape our personalities?” Individuals were asked to provide information on lifestyles, personalities, relationships, and backgrounds to produce large-scale social science data for use by academic researchers.
From analysing the results, the Sutton Trust were able to come up with some very interesting findings. For instance, those who were most confident, sociable or assertive (characteristics associated to extraversion) were found to have a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (above £40,000 per year). Analysis also found that people who demonstrated characteristics associated to conscientiousness (thoroughness, preference for planning, and order) had a 20% chance of achieving a higher paying job. In addition, analysis determined that economic and occupational aspirations were directly linked to career success, regardless of an individual’s cognitive capacity.
The Trust also found some non-cognitive characteristics to work against the achievement of career success. For women, openness was seen to have a negative association to income, as did higher social aspirations for both genders. However, these relationships were far less pronounced, and significantly outweighed when associated with extraversion and conscientiousness.
Personality and social mobility
Ensuring a level academic field is a huge challenge for the British education system. The research summarised above proves that this should focus both on non-cognitive factors as well as academic ability. Sadly, the current situation is that children from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to develop the personality characteristics that would benefit them in the labour market.
Continuing their analysis of the BBC’s data, the Sutton Trust found that people from advantaged backgrounds had far greater levels of extraversion and significantly higher economic aspirations. This divide could arise from the higher levels of stress and instability experienced at home by children from lower income backgrounds, and by the more learning-conducive environments generally experienced by those from higher income backgrounds (Groves, MO. "How Important is your personality? Labour market returns to personality for women in the US and UK." Journal of Economic Psychology. 26(6) (2005): pp.827-841).
These findings imply that non-cognitive characteristics, namely personality, play a significant part in social mobility, promoting the inter-generational persistence of economic advantage. As the UK can be seen as one of the more economically unequal countries in the developed world, efforts must be made to address this.
In their report titled The Effect of Background on Personality and Earnings, the Sutton Trust put forward five recommendations aimed to tackle this issue.
- Schools should work to improve knowledge and awareness of professional careers among less advantaged students
- Schools should use good feedback to improve pupils’ social skills
- Intervention programmes aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged young people should be broad based – focusing on wider skills as well as academic attainment
- Schools and universities should provide students with suitable training in employability skills and interview techniques.
- More research is required on interventions to improve beneficial personality traits
Although education attainment is still likely to play the most important role in securing a good career, non-cognitive factors should not be overlooked. Extraversion isn’t guaranteed by a privileged upbringing, nor is the opposite by a less advantaged upbringing. However, differences demonstrated by the Sutton Trust are likely to make it more probable that children from privileged backgrounds will retain their economic advantage into adulthood.