How employees’ personality types affect productivity

Governments are the primary provider of services for the poor in developing countries. Yet these services are often inefficient. Evidence suggests that, in addition to financial incentives, employee personality tests can help improve public service delivery

Governments are the primary provider of services for the poor in developing countries. Yet, government employees, from front-line providers such as teachers and doctors to senior administrators, commonly face weak incentives to perform. Indeed, staff absenteeism at health centres across Africa and South Asia is notoriously high. Our baseline measurement found doctors at clinics in rural Punjab, Pakistan to be absent 68% of the time. As is so often the case with service delivery in developing countries, and with economic development more generally, links along the chain provide opportunities for the process to break down. All of these links depend on human actions. Given the commonly held stereotype of unmotivated bureaucrats in the developing world slowing down care in hospitals, we wondered if measurable personality traits affect how public servants perform, and, if so, how understanding this relationship might help improve service delivery.

The ‘Big 5’ personality traits

Several studies, in particular those led by Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman, have shown that 5 personality traits (known as the ‘Big 5’: 1. Conscientiousness; 2. Openness to experience; 3. Extraversion; 4. Agreeableness; and, 5. Neuroticism/emotional stability) are robust predictors of behaviour. Another study shows that the personality types of people who take a government job changes depending on the wage being offered. We decided to test if these 5 personality traits – along with a 6thpublic sector motivation – affect how public servants perform in their jobs.

We applied personality tests to three tiers of public servants (doctors; inspectors; and, senior officials) across the 36 districts of Punjab. Notably, the senior officials surveyed are responsible for public healthcare affecting millions of people across the region. In random districts, we replaced the paper-based system with smartphones that fed attendance data straight up the chain. Unannounced visits to healthcare facilities were conducted, and we also developed a way of measuring collusion between inspectors and clinic doctors. Finally, we created an index of traits that could be desirable in a civil servant, such as, for example, emotional stability, conscientiousness and agreeableness.

The results

3 major results emerged from this experiment that support the relevance of personalities for policy outcomes:

  1. Personalities predict doctor attendance and whether a doctor will collude with inspectors to falsify reports.
  2. Smartphone monitoring has the largest impact on inspectors with high ‘Big 5’ characteristics.Senior health officials with high ‘Big 5’ characteristics are also more likely to respond to a report of an underperforming clinic by compelling better subsequent staff attendance.
  3. All of these effects were found to be large and statistically significant.

In short, the study suggested that placing officials who show the right combination of ‘Big 5’ personality traits in strategic positions and combining these strategic placements with smart policies can greatly improve outcomes for the public – and at a relatively low cost.

A brave new world?

However, if these results were replicated in other, non-health, contexts, would we end up in a brave new world where people are personality tested and directed to the positions deemed desirable? We think not. To understand why, it is important to take a step back.

Despite how people tend to perceive themselves, personality traits are not static. For starters, they change continuously over our lifetimes. Psychologist Brent Roberts has shown that people’s trait conscientiousness takes gradual steps up throughout the lifetime – including a considerable jump between 45 and 55. That is, that people’s scores in measures of their ‘Big 5’ personality traits change throughout the course of their lives. In addition, there is evidence that certain traits can also be manipulated. James Heckman’s work using long-range data on the treatment of subjects in the Perry Preschool Programme which gave added emotional and social support to disadvantaged children has shown that those subjects, now aged in their 40s, achieved greater success on a variety of socioeconomic measures – evidence that altered personality traits made the difference.

Whether personality traits can be manipulated once individuals reach adulthood (i.e. employment age), however, remains an open question. More broadly, adding social supports early in life could have benefits for individuals and societies down the road. Guiding people into certain positions at certain ages may have benefits too. For example, based on estimates from our research, if the government of Punjab, a region with a population of 100 million, replaced the bottom 25% of doctors with average doctors in terms of conscientiousness 9,500 more patients would be seen every month.

Practical use for policymakers

Though more research is needed to understand, for example, the mechanisms by which personality traits transfer to productivity, this documented correlation suggests that personality measures such as the ‘Big 5’ index could potentially provide useful diagnostics in public sector hiring, training, and promotion decisions in developing countries with weak incentives. The findings thus imply that taking personality measurement seriously could open new doors that would greatly improve the provision of services.

In the short term, however, the research may have a more practical use. Generally, practitioners and researchers tend to focus on reforms that strengthen incentives. Our findings give us confidence that changing the composition of the workforce by attracting better employees, promoting better employees, and/or personalised tailoring of employees’ individual incentives can help improve health service delivery. The study gives a sense of how things get accomplished in settings where existing incentive schemes should lead to nothing getting done. In our setting, there is little chance of being fired for being absent, yet doctors are still present 32% of the time. This is a depressingly low number, but it is not zero, as logic would dictate when one considers only the incentives. After all, why would any employee go to work when they do not need to do so to get paid?

Given these realities, new policies and new information can be intelligently targeted at civil servants who are identified by personality tests as more intrinsically motivated. Such policies might provide useful complements to more traditional strategies – such as increasing worker monitoring or performance incentives – and provide the basis for additional, cost-effective policies for better public health.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Guardian.