Fit to work

Different people are good at different things. Part of being productive and fulfilled is about finding the kinds of work and jobs that you are good at or enjoy doing. Finding a best fit between an individuals abilities and a particular job process or skill is important but under-appreciated.

Last month we focused  on the idea of employing strengths in order to get more from your working day and feel invigorated at the same time. Strengths might be considered as skills or abilities that an individual has developed over their life. Another way of looking at them is to consider that they might also relate to different personalities – the type of person you are affects what skills, hobbies and activities appeal to you. An extrovert might develop strengths as a leader simply because they find social interactions rewarding and so are motivated to interact regularly with their team. Conversely, a conscientious individual might consider one of their strengths to be perseverance because they do not like the idea of ‘giving up’ on something.

Compared to the few years of strengths research, there have been decades of personality research leading to many many different theories of personality and personality factors. I would be staggered if you haven’t come across at least one personality scale (if not several!). Recently, researchers have asked an interesting question: “well, if there are so many different personality measures are they each measuring something different, or are they all tapping into the same basic underlying personality characteristics?”

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that YES there are a small number of underlying personality traits. All the other myriad factors and characteristics are just reflections of those basic ones. And here are the five fundamental factors:

  • Extraversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness
  • Agreeableness

Bit of a mouthful, but these five factors can account for pretty much our entire personality variance. These ‘Big 5’ also appear to reflect basic neurobiological processes. So for example, the more neurotic you are, the greater your amygdala reacts to negative emotional faces (see Cremers et al., 2010). Indeed, the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala appears to relate to the personality trait of neuroticism (we could write a whole newsletter on that!). Put simply, neurotic individuals are more likely to ‘self-reference’ a negative facial expression that is made towards them – ‘it must be my fault that they are negative!’

In contrast, extroversion is all about dopamine! There’s a fascinating (and as yet not fully understood) relationship between reward sensitivity, extraversion and the brain chemical dopamine (Depue and Collins, 1999). Did you know that extraverts discount rewards more steeply over time? In other words, if I offer £50 now or £200 next month, then the extrovert is more likely to go ‘reward me now… now, NOW!’ In fact, as you increase the dopamine in the brain then you increase the focus on NOW. I think there are some lessons there for business leaders, bankers and the world of commerce.  Interestingly, there’s been a resurgence in the value of introverts in business. They often get a bad press, but it turns out that it can be very healthy and valuable to be introverted! Check out Susan Cain’s TED talk to find out why (link at the end).  I suspect that agreeableness may well relate to the flow of chemicals such as oxytocin – more of which in a future newsletter – as it appears to promote affiliative behaviour and bonding.

But how does this all relate to strengths?

Well, it turns out that our strengths are indeed related to our personality – it looks like who we are affects what we enjoy doing and what we are good at. If you factor analyse all the strengths (24 in the VIA classification) and compare them to the Big 5, you find that they form clusters. So for each of the Big 5 there is a group of strengths that are related to it. The trait of Openness, for example, reflects the strengths of optimism, creativity, appreciation of beauty and judgement. Whilst Extroversion reflects zest, vitality and curiosity (Macdonald et al., 2007).

I think there’s a strong argument for using strength-finding to help promote good practice in the office (and at home!). As I mentioned last time, a knowledge of strengths may be a powerful way to match job descriptions/processes to people. Some big companies have used strength-finding to increase productivity and customer satisfaction (Hodges and Clifton, 2004; check out pages 11-15 for a couple of case studies including Toyota in the US).

No matter whether you focus on personality or on strengths (the latter is closer to ‘the job’) it’s worth trying to match individuals to processes – both at home and at work. Fundamentally it comes down to neural fluency – your brain is good at processing information in a certain way, this gives you the edge in certain tasks. Promote this fluency and you will be more productive and feel better about it.

– Dr John –


Cremers HR, Demenescu LR, Aleman A, Renken R, van Tol MJ,

van der Wee NJA, Veltman DJ, Roelofs K, (2010) Neuroticism modulates amygdala—prefrontal connectivity in response to negative emotional facial expressions. NeuroImage 49, 963–970.

Depue RA, Collins PF (1999)  Neurobiology of the structure of personality: Dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion. Behavioral and brain sciences 22, 491–569.

Hodges TD and Clifton DO (2004) Strength-based development in practice. In Positive Psychology in Practice, Ed. Linley PA and Joseph S. Chapter 16, pp256-268. John Wiley and sons.  (pdf here:

Macdonald C, Bore M, Munro D (2008) Values in action scale and the Big 5: An empirical indication of structure. Journal of Research in Personality 42 787–799.

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