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By Liz Warren-Pederson

Empirical research demonstrates little relationship between employee neuroticism — a personality trait characterized by instability, anxiety, aggression, or the like — and job performance, a finding thatmanagement and organizations associate professor and Brian Lesk Faculty Fellow Jerel Slaughter and former management and organizations doctoral student Edgar Kausel found puzzling.

Slaughter and Kausel used the finding as the jumping-off point for a line of inquiry that resulted in a theoretical paper published in Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management. Now they’re testing their theories in a pair of empirical studies.

“Neuroticism is one of the broad, big-five traits,” Slaughter explained. “It’s conceptualized to be made up of a number of narrow facets, such as depression, anger, impulsiveness, self-consciousness, angry hostility, and vulnerability to stress. However, two people who score the same on the broad neuroticism scale might have very different scores on several of the facets.”

In their paper, Slaughter and Kausel deconstruct the general neuroticism domain into its lower-level facets as a means of better understanding the influence of these facets on work behavior. They theorized that some facets of neuroticism could even have positive outcomes on job performance. For example, Slaughter pointed out, “Anxiety can make people over-prepare by causing them to think about all of the ways a performance event could go badly.”

They also expect that in jobs in which people do not have much autonomy, employee neuroticism is less likely to influence performance. “It’s likely to have a bigger effect on job performance for someone with a lot of autonomyfor example, when they have a lot of discretion over how they spend their time, impulsive employees might be more apt to shirk their duties,” Slaughter said.

To test their conjectures, Slaughter conducted two studies, a laboratory exercise that focused on performance feedback, and another on a situational judgment test. Initial results of the performance feedback study indicate that individuals who tested high on self-consciousness and depression facets performed less well after a negative review.

“After receiving negative feedback, self-conscious individuals performed less well on a second task,” Slaughter said. “People who were high on depression traits were also more sensitive to negative feedback, in that they lowered their self-evaluations more than did non-depressed participants.”

Situational judgment tests can be useful in screening potential employees, but Slaughter found that the tests are poor predictors of performance for people who score higher on the anger scale. “The tests are given to people when they are in a relatively neutral mood state,” Slaughter said. “So employees who are angrier likely struggle to translate their intentions expressed during the test to actual behavior on the job.”

“There are many implications of breaking down the subcategories of a trait as broad as neuroticism,” he said. “Research needs to give more attention to these narrow facets, and we’re continuing to develop ways to study the implications of this for understanding how employees perform on the job.”