Performance and Individual Differences

Performance and Individual Differences

Performance and Individual Differences


People are different! Everybody knows that.

But what are the important differences from performance point of view?

What makes some people perform better than others?

To answer that question, one must consider the individual differences of people. More specifically – how they differ by the two main settings from organisational point of view –  Cognitive ability and Personality.

Why those two are interesting? Because they are what makes the biggest difference when considering performance of a person towards specific task.



Cognitive Ability and Personality – Explained:


Cognitive Ability

It is our capacity to learn, reason, problem solve, plan, think abstractly, and comprehend complex ideas. It is also simply known as “Intelligence”. It is proven fact ( 1998 – Frank Schmidt and John Hunter  85 years of research summary), that cognitive ability is the single strongest predictor of performance throughout very broad spectrum of tasks.

An important thing to mention is, that cognitive ability is important not only with complex tasks, but in all tasks! Even the simplest ones.


hunter diagram

Being incredibly important though, cognitive ability is only one part of a very complex puzzle.  It turns out that Knowing that a person is very smart tells us nothing about how friendly, team oriented, organised, socially engaging, or diligent they are as an employee, manager, leader, partner, etc. For that, we need Personality…



Our unique and relatively stable patterns of behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. It gives a perspective about what types of behaviour a person tends to default to.


OK but how to apprehend the rich spectrum of all people personalities?!

For that, we use so-called trait-based approaches. Or in other words – we can imagine a set of dimensions within which every person stands with his own personality.

Each trait has it’s own scale and every person is somewhere on that scale. To imagine that better think of the trait called Extraversion. We all has it but in different level. Some of us are totally extraverted (meaning more sociable and outgoing), while others might stand at the middle of the scale or  at the “introverted side”. Most of us are somewhere around the middle:

Extraversion Bell Curve

The same scale is relevant for all the 6 most important personalities traits from performance perspective:

  • Openness to Experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Emotional Stability
  • Honesty-Humility

So let’s go back to why personality is so important… Whereas cognitive ability tells us a lot about what a person can do, personality tells us about what a person is willing to do and how they might go about doing it.

For example, conscientiousness has been shown to predict performance across many jobs and tasks and extraversion has been shown to predict performance in jobs like sales or managerial roles where interpersonal relations are far more frequent.

The same is true for the opposite…

Personality can also be used to predict negative task outcomes. For example, people who are less agreeable seem to be more inclined to withdraw from their task and people who are less honest tend to engage in activities like counterproductive work behaviours, (stealing or taking longer breaks.)

The important thing to remember is that personality tells us about how we typically behave, and so it can affect what we choose to do.



The Situational Circumstances

Quite often, it is the situation that determines how we behave.
For example, even the most extroverted person will probably stay quiet when in a library and even the least conscientious person will try to work hard when the boss is watching them. In strong situations like these, personality does not determine our behaviour so much. Our personality is likely to be most important in situations where we have the freedom to choose how we behave.
Situational Circumstances
Most modern theories of personality now discuss how situations we face can combine with our traits to predict our behaviour in the workplace.

OK But How Can We Use All That Theory In Practice?

It’s all about making a prediction about how a specific person will perform with a task or a group of tasks (e.g. job)

As mentioned earlier, we should take under consideration the personality traits. The two most influential traits to be considered when trying to predict performance potential of a person are cognitive ability and conscientiousness:

Performance prediction

Great! But what is consciousness?


FIRST – conscientiousness is NOT consciousness ! (Use the internet to see the difference!)

Conscientiousness is less about getting to a job interview or board meeting on time in a freshly ironed suit and polished shoes and more about what fundamentally influences whether people set and keep long-range goals, deliberate over choices, behave cautiously or impulsively, and take obligations to others seriously. 

Conscientiousness is generally a key ingredient for success; people high in this trait are disciplined, high-achieving, and dependable. Yet the off-the-charts conscientious may court perfectionism because their sights are set too high. The extremely conscientious are less spontaneous, less flexible, and more stubborn. They may also suffer more than the less conscientious under conditions of extreme stress. How one fares as a conscientious person may be determined by how well they can stay in control of a stressful situation.

So having that in mind, let’s get back to practical implementation…

To simplify all this – in longer run, we should come out ahead when choosing who to task with a job if we put our focus at their cognitive ability and conscientiousness as the main performance predictors, but also if we get under consideration person’s other personality traits.
Whenever an organisation is hiring new workers, they’re really peering into the unknown. Often a hiring manager has very limited information about the applicants who apply for their positions.
For example, they might have a cover letter or maybe a resume. Or they might have managed to get some information from a referee. At the end of the day, a hiring manager has to make a prediction about how well a prospective applicant will perform on the basis of this limited information.
This is where all the above comes handy…

Can you think of a person or organization, that could benefit from this? Share it with them…