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Accounting for Individual Differences in the Workplace

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2659 words Published: 11th Apr 2018

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In today’s society, there is little doubt that individual differences are certainly important in the workplace as one of critical predictors of training outcome, individual productivity or stress at work. For the reason it affects us most in every way to name a few, we perceive and respond information, our abilities and skills such as logic, creativity and critics, etc., it is necessary for an organisation to understand, value and enjoy the benefits it would bring. This essay would write about the definition of individual differences to begin with; analysis individual differences in demographics, intelligence, and personality; some commonly mistaken assumption in measuring them and recommendation for improving it in selecting and managing people. The aim of the paper in the end is to provide some suggestions for managers to mitigate any false assumptions’ impacts in person differences’ assessment.

What are individual differences?

Studying individual differences is concerned with variations between one person to another, in other words, it is defined by Ashleigh and Mansi (2012:68) as “those parts of “us” which differentiate “us” from others”. Investigating individual differences is a continuing concern within organisations enables us to, in the view of predicting people’s behaviours, making team formation easier, in turn, managing the team more effectively while there is a common goal and value among team members. The facts remain that each individual is likely to have a regular pattern of behaviour towards similar situation. While there are other key differences between individuals, such as creativity, values, emotions, the scope of this essay will be focused on 3 key points in demographics, intelligence and personality and the way to measure them in a setting of organisational behaviour.

Individual differences in demographics

According to a definition provided by Ashleigh and Mansi (2012:80), it refers to “differences within a population group-such as race, age, income, disabilities, educational level, experience, marital status and gender”. For work psychologists, it is important to take those factors into consideration in order to know the group of people involved in research, and their impact on finding results if any in the way to design data application in reality.

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For example, in the research carried out by Tsui and O’Reilly (1989), some demographic factors, namely age, sex, race, education level, job tenure were used to investigate their impacts on the relationship of supervisors and subordinates. This study outlined that a negative relation between differences and work effectiveness had been reported, not mention to increased role ambiguity for subordinates. Hence, reducing dissimilarity from those factors mentioned above in job allocation and team formation is likely to improve work effectiveness.

Moreover, criteria in demographics like age or experience can be employed as supporting factors in the generation-specific HR strategies. For example, young employees are looking for an attractive and supportive environment in which offers learning goal orientation, in exchange, they will display job commitment; while, this environment, on the balance of it, should retain a wealth of valuable knowledge and skills from the older ones (D’Amato and Herzfeldt, 2012). Thus, proper and suitable HR strategies should be given differently to each group. Additionally, while younger employees are, in a way, more creative, fast action, quick response to changes, especially with modern technology, risk-loving, but do lack of professional experiences coming with prices, as against with a bit conservative, slower in response to new changes, but a more professional way of working, rational decision-maker for the older ages. Therefore, it is undoubtedly true that when HR managers fit the job with a person or design training strategies for staff, demographic differences should be given a serious consideration to provide suitable programs.

Individual differences in intelligence

To explain the definition of “intelligence”, let just put it versus “ability”. While Wiseman (1967:290) declared that ability “is defined operationally by the performance of an individual in a specific situation”, for Cooper (1999:6), in general, “are any behaviours that can sensibly be evaluated” by either monitoring behaviour or asking others to give evaluation such as typing, reading a map, cooking, etc.

On the other hand, as for intelligence Binet and Simon (1905) agreed that it has shown the ability to judge, understand and reason easily, while Vernon (1956) added “the more general qualities of thinking, level of concept developing, reasoning and grasping relations”. By comparison, the term ability has a broader meaning than that of intelligence which means “mental ability”.

There is also a room opening for ongoing debate whether it is fixed or not, or nature-nurture debate. In the study of Dickens and Flynn (2006), increasing amount of nutrition, test familiarity, educational games, TV show complexity, etc. have been attributable to intelligence improvement. However, Lynn & Vanhanen (2006) found that such IQ discrepancies found in across ethnicities, races, and nationalities are proposing “a difference in innate brain capacity”. Furthermore, Marks (2010) analysed the association between IQ and situational factor like literacy skills across time, nationality, and race.In addition, regarding to the nature-nurture debate, there are those who believed that only environmental factor is absolutely qualified enough to account for individual differences in intelligence Karmin (1977), however, nearly 20 years later, Mackintosh (1995) declared that heritability should be taken into consideration as well. In more details to what extent, Cooper (1999) argued that, with constant conditions, intelligence is influenced by genetic component to the extent of 50 – 60%. These results are consistent with other studies (Plomin et al. 2001; Neisser, 1996) and suggesting that genetic factor may account for more in IQ differences than environmental factors. Therefore, if we are fortunate enough to be born by clever parents and have appropriate educational training, it is possible that our IQ score can be shifted.

That leads to another question, i.e How to measure intelligence?. In order to measure it, cognitive ability test which is a part of psychometric test has long been used to reflect individual’s intelligence quotient (IQ) (William Stern, 1912) is calculated as follows: a mental age divided by chronological age, and then multiplied it by 100. One of the most popular and widely used tests of intelligence is Wechsler Scales of Intelligence first introduced by David Wechsler in 1955.

A great deal of research and literature has been taken place in the relationship of intelligence and work performance. This combination of findings provides some support for the conceptual premise that general intelligence is certainly a good predictor in assessment of job performance and training proficiency (Sakett et all., 2008; Furnham, 2005; Drasgow, 2003). Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true while other conditions should stay the same, otherwise, this criteria is absolutely not the only variable that influences performance, but job knowledge and motivation, do also rate a mention here (Kamin, 1995).

One of the advantages associated with psychometric test is that it provides a comparison ability in scores which based on the same standard within a group of people. Secondly, this kind of test offers a prediction of performance in a various settings. For example, to assess one’s ability in the recruitment process, situational judgement tests would be given, e.g asking reaction of salesman towards customer’s complaint. Particularly, in the context of the organisation, a great number of organisations have found these tests are effective enough, both in the sense of cost and means for employee selection in recruitment and after-training seasion.

On the other hand, there exists some special skills which can not be assessed quickly and accurately through psychometric tests, such as hand and eye coordination (Cooper, 1999). In fact, some previous study found that about half to two-thirds of large companies apply psychometric testing in senior managers’ assessment in Europe (Cook, 2004; Furnham, 2004; Salgado, 1997), and 72% of UK organisations employed ability tests in selecting and assessing process (CIPD, 2007).

Individual differences in personality

There is a degree of lacking consensus around the terminology of personality. For Furnham (1997:161), the term refers to “enduring traits or characteristics that account for consistent patterns of responses”, later on, Pervin added (2004:6) more details in the sense of feeling, thinking and behaving. Although there have been some other ways to elaborate its definition, they all shared the common feature is that making every human beings unique in their interaction with the environment.

The key theories of personality can be listed as follows: psychodynamic, behaviourist, humanistic, biological, trait and type and social-cognitive. However, due to limited scope, this essay will focus on behaviourist (Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner, 1849-1990) and trait and type (Allport, Cattell and Eysenck, 1916-1998).

Regarding behaviourist theory, they put emphasis on psychological investigation in observable, measurable behaviour regarded as the merely appropriate method. They stated that through reinforcement either punishment or reward, all behaviours can be modified. The environment can, however, initiate our initial response; but on the account of reinforcement experiences, our behaviours are possibly shaped, thus creating learnt associations which, in turn, direct our future behaviours provided in the same settings.

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As for the type and trait theory, their approach’s similarity lies in the fact that both of them consider grouping people into personality characteristics. While the type theory places people into discrete groups, as against with seeing personality feature as a continuum for trait theory. For example, a person would be considered either introvert or extrovert in a view of the type theory. By contrast, the trait theory (Allport, Cattell and Eysenck) would find anyone can be anywhere in the between of introvert and extrovert included those towards the extremes (Matthewman, et all., 2009) and that amount and type of trait would be constant. Later on, Costa and McGrae (1992) discovered the essence of traits had been found in 5 factors which were developed into “Ocean theory” mentioning about 5 traits, namely Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. It is regarded as a widely acknowledged template in explaining the human personality’s structure (Arnold, 2010).

Although Ashleign and Mansi (2012) agreed that “trait theory is considered the most useful of personality theories for organisational psychologists” so far for its pattern of behaviour detection and classification, its limitations can not be overlooked. In particular, this approach not only offers frameworks in major pattern of behaviours, in which personality assessment can be constructed and employed (Bayne, 1994). However, the fact remains that human behaviours are affected by lots of situational factors (Bandura, 1999), thus individuals are highly unlikely to behave in the same way all the time (Armstrong, 2003). That is the reason why this approach will probably have a limited prediction in value to typical behaviours (Pervin, 1994). Moreover, it fails to explain how these 5 factors develop and the way of their influence on human behaviours which is the centre of work psychology’s interest. Therefore, Makin (1996) claimed that their level of anticipation is not quite high.

One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether reading Big Five traits may make people jump into conclusion too quickly that Neuroticism is something least favourable among all. The answer is it should be dependent on the situation and job’s characteristics. There are actually some jobs requiring a high N scale. For example, Spencer Lord, a HR specialist, says highly neurotic people are often strong in roles that require attention to detail, e.g positions in finance or compliance. Due to their natural caution for avoiding worry about consequences, they can also be very effective in assessing risk (2013). By contrast, being too extroverted may be associated with try to be dominant, attention seeking which are possibly not a good thing in teamwork. In addition, Robertson (2001) claimed that the strongest predictor of job performance is Conscientiousness. However, it failed to consider in a situation demanding being creative and innovate which high C scale usually lacks of. Futhermore, not mention of the fact that, especially in such a rapidly changing world, being adaptive and flexible is certainly necessary (Maltby, et all., 2013:414).

Personal characteristics’ measurement probably remains significantly important in the occupational assessment process in organisations. In fact, there have been some popular ways, such as personality questionnaires which is another part of psychometric tests, interviewing and behavioural observation.

Firstly, a personality questionnaire contains a lot of standardised statements which need to be responded by candidates. Those statements are filtered from a large database to the target group based on essential characteristics that an organisation needs to know (Matthewman at all., 2009). Their scores would be compared with that of specific group which is “norms” tables. Therefore, this kind of measurement is also called as “normative personality measurement”. For example, 16PF5 was developed from the Cattell model of personality, as for NEO-5 was based on the OCEAN model (Costa and McCrae, 1985), or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is also a commonly used one. The fact remains that 56% of UK companies using personality tests at some point of their assessment procedure (CIPD, 2007).

On the other hand, despite the great benefits that it offers if being applied in the right way, personality tests can not be trusted as the only source of assessment in people selection. Firstly, candidates may give fake answers in the way they think that would score them up in employers’ eyes. However, this problem can be mitigated by three ways, namely through direction as “be honest, no right and wrong answer”, social desirability (Crowne and Marlowe, 1964) and answers whose choices are forced.

Secondly, the interview has long regarded as the most commonly used forms of people selection (Keenan, 1995). Although it was brought into criticism for being subject to bias and unreliability, some recent researches show that a structured interview with well trained interviewers is highly likely to improve its validity (Dipboye, 2005; Posthuma et al., 2002). Therefore, it is essential to ensure that those questions in the interview should be a job analysis related and consistent. Moreover, as for the interviewer, he should keep set of assessing criteria constant among interviewees in general, and in their responses in particular (Arnord et al., 2010), e.g: rating each answer with multiple rating scale, taking special notes, asking multiple interviewers if possible.


“In most situations it is best to use a combination of several personnel selection techniques to ensure fairness and accuracy”.


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