Have you ever felt that someone you work with is simply in the wrong job and that nothing anyone does or says seems to improve their performance? According to researchers from the University of Iowa, that's because if a worker's personality doesn't fit the job requirements, he or she will not be motivated by external factors, no matter how tasty the carrot or painful the stick.
Encouragement, coaching, praise, bribery or threats make little difference to someone who is a square peg in a round hole, argue Mick Mount and Ning Li, management and organization professors in the Tippie College of Business, in their paper, "The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior", published in the Academy of Management Review and co-authored with Murray Barrick of Texas A&M University.
"Our approach shifts the traditional perspective that employee motivational forces are primarily imposed by external situational factors to a view that individual motivation is generated by the pursuit of high-order goals that emanate from one's personality traits," they said.
So what does explain why people do what they do at work and how can organizations engage in better hiring and training practices to make sure the right worker is in the right job?
The Mount and Li theory about what makes people tick at work draws upon the Five Factor Model (FFM), which captures five broad dimensions of personality that are used to describe human personality. These are: extroversion/introversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. (You can test yourself for these factors here).
Behavioral scientists have long used the FFM to see how people perform at work and interrelate with each other, and it's proven remarkably effective at explaining human behavior.
But Mount and Li differ because they tie FFM personality types to the work environment and the nature of the person's job. They suggest that workers' personality traits create high-order goals that they strive to attain in their lives. When the characteristics of their jobs are aligned with their high-order goals, Mount and Li found they tend to be more productive workers.
"Striving to naturally express personality traits leads us to invest more personal resources - mental attention, emotional connections, and energetic activity - to fulfil particular types of higher - order goals," they write. "These implicit goals represent essential, enduring personal agendas that reside at the top of the individual's goal hierarchy."
In other words, if our job allows us to work towards one of those four higher-order goals - status, autonomy, achievement or communion (being with other people) - then we find a level of psychological fulfilment that intrinsically motivates us to perform our jobs well. If not, then we are likely to be too bored to care.
So, for example, if an employee is an ambitious, go-getting extrovert whose high-order goal in life is status, it will be hard to motivate that person if he or she works in a repetitive job with no opportunity for advancement.
Conversely, if someone is a shy and retiring individual whose goal is autonomy, he or she will not be motivated to perform better by promises of a promotion to management because the last thing he or she wants is to be in charge of other people.
"The implication for businesses, then, is that we first need to understand which goals matter to employees and then match those goals to characteristics of jobs so we can make work more meaningful and intrinsically motivating to the person," Mount says.