What’s more personal… than personality?

Illustration depicting a person focusing on a monitor while sat at a desk, in an indoor setting

Ben Moss, MD of workplace wellbeing experts Robertson Cooper, argues that we can’t provide personalised support for employees without understanding their personality differences.

In this age of ambiguity and change, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of personalisation when it comes to maximising the workplace experience for employees. All parties stand to gain from adopting a tailored approach to supporting health, financial security, engagement and performance. But what steps are employers actually taking to personalise experience inside their organisations?

Employers, with the best of intentions, still tend to segment their workforces along traditional lines. To do this, demographics such as age, gender and earnings are most often used. Of course, this is not without merit because people in these categories do share certain characteristics. For example, higher earners think differently about savings and retirement compared with lower earners. But this approach alone risks ignoring the one thing that makes a person truly unique: their personality.

Imagine two individuals whose circumstances are very similar. How alike are they really? 

Think about two people, Emily and Cath. They’re the same age, earn the same money and they both work in the same business, at the same level. They even live in the same part of town. Their employer treats them the same way in terms of the benefits and support on offer. But scratch the surface and, as people, they’re not so similar. They have different personalities.

Emily is highly conscientious and emotionally stable. She’s confident, organised, proactive, positive and resilient… but also relatively unaware of risks coming down the track. She sometimes misses things.

By comparison, Cath has low levels of conscientiousness and is much less emotionally stable. This means she often sees work through a negative lens, doesn’t like a lot of structure and struggles with sustained pressure. But she’s very aware of risks and is seldom taken by surprise.

So now we know this, it makes much less sense for their employer to treat them in exactly the same way. When it comes to maximising their performance and maintaining their individual wellbeing, what makes them different as individuals is just as important as what makes them the same.

Emily struggles with fluid, unstructured work and needs help anticipating future problems. Cath needs her line manager to help her stay positive and cope with the natural pressure that comes with the job. Seen through this lens, in an age of unrivalled uncertainty and challenge for workers, this is something that employers can no longer ignore.

Don’t underestimate the role of personality in the workplace

Aviva have been working in partnership with Robertson Cooper to look in detail at the role of personality within the workplace. New research has led to the development of four different personality types. Based on levels of conscientiousness and emotional stability, these profiles are informed by a clear understanding of how such factors play out in the average workforce.

To return to Emily and Cath, we can now see that their respective personality types clearly fall into the Resilient Completer and Impulsive Worrier categories. By understanding the four personality types uncovered by this research, we can enable greater understanding of employee preference and support needs. But its value doesn’t end there. This research also acts as a starting point for conversations about some of the most challenging issues facing employers right now.

Impulsive Worriers

Less organised and resilient – strong motivated but need emotional support.

When and where do they thrive?
Work well in a free-flowing work environment where there is a lot of emotional support and flexibility is valued more than discipline.

When and where do they struggle?
Impulsive Worriers are unlikely to perform well in a situation where other colleagues are heavily reliant on their output and supervision of their own behaviour is light.

Resilient Completers

Disciplined, organised and confident – good under pressure but like a clear path with little unpredictability.

When and where do they thrive?
Are suited to a high-pressure setting where self-discipline and determination is important.

When and where do they struggle?
A rapidly changing, fluid and ambiguous work situation will feel difficult.

Apprehensive Achievers

Determined and disciplined – can struggle when under pressure.

When and where do they thrive?
Are usually aware of potential threats or problems, so tend to perform well in situations where high levels of forward planning and vigilance about what could go wrong are required.

When and where do they struggle?
High pressure, ambiguous work settings where goals and objectives are open-ended and not fully specified would be troubling.

Spontaneous Survivors

Work well under pressure and in fast-moving situations – can lack attention to detail.

When and where do they thrive?
They enjoy high pressure but informal work settings and thrive where detail and planning are not priorities.

When and where do they struggle?
Would struggle in any work setting that required high levels of self-organisation, structure, and self-motivation.

Aviva’s report, Evolving in the Age of Ambiguity, looks at the specific challenges relating to three key areas:

  • Financial wellbeing and its link with mental health
  • Employee experience within the current fast-changing workplace
  • Supporting employees who are navigating a course into later life

In particular, it examines the influence of personality in each of these contexts and shows, clearly, that it has a tangible impact on personal and organisational outcomes.

For example, taking just two of the four personality types, 74% of Resilient Completers (high conscientiousness, high emotional stability) rate their financial wellbeing as good, as opposed to just 48% of Impulsive Worriers (low conscientiousness, low emotional stability).

Turning to the connection between financial and mental health, nearly half as many Resilient Completers (28%) agree that their financial situation negatively impacts mental health compared with Impulsive worriers (50%).

When it comes to the workplace, Resilient Completers are half as likely to report dissatisfaction with their jobs than all of the other three personality types.

And finally, more than twice as many Resilient Completers (43%) feel comfortable that they’ll be able to retire when they want to, compared with Impulsive Worriers (19%). This clearly shows that Resilient Completers enjoy greater confidence and ability to deal with future uncertainties.

So just looking at these two personality types alone, the research has uncovered real differences in a number of areas that are important to employers and employees alike. These are strengths and risks that go beyond the insights gained through demographic-based personas alone. Once uncovered, these revelations are very difficult to ignore.

Getting support to dig deeper on personalised wellbeing

As MD of Robertson Cooper, I’ve been working alongside Professor Sir Cary Cooper to help employers manage employee mental health and wellbeing in a joined-up way for many years. I know very well how hard it is for HR and Health professionals to make the time and space to dig deeper on this topic. But ultimately, it’s worth that extra effort to create a more integrated and sustainable approach to supporting employees and developing organisations.

So embracing full personalisation, by opening the box on personality, may seem daunting at first but it need not be with the right support. Workplace benefits providers can offer a range of assistance and resources from financial education seminars to physical and mental wellbeing support. They can also offer training to managers on identifying signs of mental health issues.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that almost every person in every organisation has been uniquely challenged in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity and change. The particular challenges they have faced – and will continue to face – depending on their life situation and, yes, their personality. Now is the time to look closely at the findings from this latest research and start a conversation about what personalisation really means inside all of our businesses.

Ben Moss is a Business Psychologist and the Managing Director of Robertson Cooper, Sir Cary Cooper’s firm of mental health and wellbeing Specialists. Their mission is to create more good days at work for everyone, everywhere. www.robertsoncooper.com

Research of 2,000 UK employees working in organisations with over 1,000 employees, conducted on behalf of Aviva by Quadrangle conducted in February 2020, August 2020 and March 2021.

The personality data was collected using Robertson Cooper’s i-Resilience tool – a fully validated free online personality questionnaire. A balanced sample of 1564 employees was used.