Does the phrase “I earn a good salary, but I want to be in a job that I truly love” sound familiar? How about, “I work in a nice place, but the pay is really bad?” If you’ve ever felt unfulfilled or underpaid, take heart. Because as it turns out, experts say that your personality is the key to getting the career and the money you want.
We’ve known for a long time that finding a job that suits your unique combination of personality traits is key if you want to be happy, motivated, and satisfied with your work. Now, European researchers have discovered that people whose personality preferences align with the traits that are ideal for their jobs are also more likely to earn a higher salary than people who are not so perfectly matched.
This is the first study of its kind to show that finding a job that fits your personality can actually boost your income.
How personality fit boosts earnings
Researchers from a number of universities in Europe compared the personality profiles, jobs and annual salary of 8,458 people living in Germany. First, they asked each participant to complete a Big Five personality inventory, rating the degree to which they believed certain personality statements applied to them, for instance, “I see myself as someone who has a forgiving nature’’ or “I see myself as someone who does things efficiently.”
The Big Five inventory measures five broad traits which most researchers consider to be the core of an individual's personality. These traits are:
Openness: If you enjoy new experiences and like to learn new things, you probably will score high only on openness. A high score correlates with imagination, insightfulness and having a varied range of interests. A low openness score correlates with specific, straightforward thinking and pragmatism.
Conscientiousness: People who are reliable, hard working, diligent, organized and thorough will score high in conscientiousness. Low scorers will be more easy-going and prone to glossing over the details.
Extraversion: Extraverts get their energy from others while Introverts draw energy from within themselves. Extraversion is associated with expressiveness, social confidence and quick-wittedness.
Agreeableness: Agreeable individuals are cooperative, harmonious, friendly and compassionate. Low scorers tend to be more analytical and challenging.
Neuroticism: People who score highly in neuroticism have a high level of negative emotions such as anxiety and moodiness. Low scorers tend to be calm and emotionally stable.
These traits are often referred to by the acronym “OCEAN.” Each trait is measured independently on a scale from low to high, so you might score very high on Conscientiousness, medium on Openness and low on Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism, for example.
If your job and personality click, you'll get paid more
As well as measuring the participants’ personalities on the Big Five, the researchers also quantified how the participants’ jobs stacked up using the same Big Five personality inventory. For example, they found that a bookkeeping job required a very low level of Extraversion, whereas an actor/director job required a high level.
This allowed them to compare the “fit” between a given employee and a given job.
Finally, they compared how the degree of fit contributed to employee income. The results were convincing—the greater the match between an employee's personality and the ideal personality for the job, the more money that person earned. The researchers called this a "fit bonus."
A few conclusions stand out:
- Overall, people with personality traits that were stronger or weaker than their work required (a poor match) earned less than their peers.
- People with the best personality-job fit earned up to a month's salary more than their peers each year.
- The fit bonus predicted a substantially higher income for the traits of Extraversion, Openness, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness. The odd one out was Neuroticism, which did not appear to correlate with higher earnings.
- When an employee’s level of Openness matched the requirements of the job, the employee benefitted the most financially.
- Importantly, the researchers found that people who were more Agreeable, Open or Conscientiousness than their job needed them to be were actually paid less than people who had more congruent levels of these traits.
There's no one "best" personality for the workplace
Findings from previous research suggest that certain personality traits are markers of success in the workplace. Highly conscientious people, for example, have been shown to do very well in corporate America because their qualities tend to be valued by employers.
This research questions the idea of an “optimal” personality for the workplace. Rather, it shows that it’s the match—or mismatch—between an employee’s traits and the job description that determines how successful a person will be. When it comes to earning power, it really is about finding a job that clicks.
As to why having a perfect-match job leads to a higher income, no one’s really sure.
Could it be that people in perfect-fit jobs are more efficient at mastering the required skills, and thus are rewarded for their superior performance? Perhaps working in your comfort zone requires less effort, so you have more energy for the extra-mile stuff that makes you stand out compared to your peers? Or maybe those with a fit bonus are simply benefitting from stereotyping—the notion that employees who match the stereotype of a certain profession (for example, being a typical “military man”) are more easily considered for promotions? We don’t know what’s happening, and more research is needed to understand the effect.
For now, this research shows us that your best approach is to find a job that fits your personality traits, instead of trying to “improve” yourself or adjust your personality to fit a job that’s clearly not in your wheelhouse. If you succeed in finding a job that naturally fits your personality, you'll not only earn more money—you'll be happier in your career too.
If you’re questioning whether you should make a career switch—and just which careers might be worth switching to—check out the Career Personality Profiler assessment, which uses the OCEAN model to help match your natural talents to careers that fit.
Denissen, Jaap JA, et al. 2017. Uncovering the Power of Personality to Shape Income. Psychological Science 29, No. 1, 3-13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5774615/