This Key to Engagement May Surprise You

From leadership training to flex scheduling to workplace-wellness campaigns, efforts to increase employee engagement are abounding as the labor market continues to tighten. But a new study suggests that one of the main drivers of engagement doesn’t come from within the organization, but rather from within employees themselves.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review details a study that found employees’ inherent character traits significantly contribute to their engagement at work. The meta analysis of more than 100 surveys, in which 45,000 workers around the globe were polled, determined that nearly 50 percent of the variability in engagement levels can be predicted by personality.

The study authors identified four traits that increased an employee’s likelihood to intrinsically be more engaged at work: positive affect, proactivity, conscientiousness and extroversion. Together, the four traits have been linked to emotional intelligence and resilience, which can increase employee engagement, the authors write. The HBR authors–Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Lewis Garrad and Didier Elzinga–suggest that the results point to the need for recruiters and hiring managers to not only prioritize skills, but also personality.

“If you want an engaged workforce,” the authors write, “perhaps your best bet is to hire people who have an ‘engageable’ personality.”

However, recruiting and hiring solely for personality, they caution, isn’t the solution. For one, having a workforce of highly resilient employees can mask progress–as they may be less likely to report serious leadership or cultural issues. Additionally, the authors write, the most cynical and skeptical are also often the most creative–so weeding them out through personality-based hiring alone could impede innovation. Productivity has also been linked to cognitive diversity of teams, so hiring a workforce whose personalities are too similar may also stymie growth.

Instead, more calibration to employee personality is needed, the HBR authors suggest.

“If you want to truly understand engagement in your organization, then you need to look at both who your people are and what they think about their work,” they write.

Raising awareness about the impact of personality on engagement–among both employees and managers–is essential, they say. For instance, managers who are leading team members who provide consistently harsh feedback could benefit from seeing engagement data through the lens of personality, while this approach can also help employees better understand the root of their own views.

“If we can combine what we know about engagement with what we know about personality,” the writers say, “then we can help each person more effectively navigate their organizational reality–leading to better, more effective organizations for all.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at