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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 1


Personality Correlates of Perceived Senior Executive Effectiveness:

An Application of the Five-Factor Model

Robert B. Kaiser

Kaplan DeVries Inc.

Author Note: Poster session presented at the 13th annual meeting of the Society for Industrial
and Organizational Psychology, Dallas, TX. I am grateful to Bob Kaplan for constructive
feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript. Thanks go to James M. LeBreton and S. Bart
Craig for conversations that facilitated the design and methodology of the study. David DeVries
is also recognized for thoughtful discussion about the meaning of the results. Correspondence
about this article may be sent to the author at Kaplan DeVries Inc., 1903 Ashwood Court,
Greensboro, NC, 27455. Electronic mail may be sent to [email protected]

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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 2


Previous work has suggested how the personality correlates of effective leadership can be

understood within the Five-Factor Model of trait structure. Yet this has not been demonstrated

with executive samples. In this exploratory study, senior executives’ Adjective Check List scores

were correlated with reliable self, superior, peer, and subordinate ratings of overall effectiveness.

Analyses were interpreted within the five-factor/Big Five framework. The traits measured by the

ACL scales were significantly related to coworkers’ perceptions of effectiveness, with multiple

R2s ranging from .19 to .44 across rating sources. Moreover, the relationship between the Big

Five and executive effectiveness appeared to be more complex—and somewhat contradictory—

when compared to previous suggestions gleaned from research with lower level managers.

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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 25

more specific facets of irritability, impulsivity, and pessimism suggest that effectiveness is

related to a kind of unpredictable and negative disposition. Another facet of low Stability,

vulnerability (as found in the ACL scales Succorance, low Dominance, and low Masculinity),

appeared to be negatively associated with rated effectiveness. It seems that Stability plays a role

in executive effectiveness in that effective senior leaders must be able to persevere in the face

adversity and cope with the emotional toll of stress (low vulnerability). However, the present

results do not suggest that generally calm and collected, self-satisfied executives are more

effective. Rather, higher ratings were given to those who are more easily angered, somewhat

impulsive, and moderately as opposed to highly self-accepting.

It was surprising that peer ratings were negatively related to traits associated with

Conscientiousness—scales which executives tend to score quite high on. Notice also, that peers

tended to be the most severe rater group, providing the lowest average ratings (see Table 2).

These findings might be interpreted as reflecting a jealousy bias. Leaders with these traits (e.g.,

Endurance, Order, Adult) are likely to set high standards of performance. Given the competitive

nature of the executive suite—where the rewards are high for those who can set themselves

apart—peers may implicitly resent colleagues who set the bar high. However, this seems

unlikely. Although they are “non-significant,” the same correlations for superior and subordinate

ratings are all also in the negative direction. It seems more likely that peers are in a unique

position to observe the negative consequences of extreme Conscientiousness.

Extremely Conscientious people are often too fastidious and painstakingly thorough—even

compulsive—in dealing with projects and tasks (Costa & McCrae, 1992 p. 16; see also, Tett,

1998). Perhaps extremely driven, thorough, and ambitious executives undermine their

performance by taking on too many responsibilities, investing more time and energy in tasks

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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 26

than is necessary, and getting over-involved personally in their unit’s work and problems. This is

consistent with Kaplan’s (1991a) discussion of “expansiveness” and how this character motive

can have a negative impact on performance. It is not clear why the negative relationship between

Conscientiousness-saturated traits and effectiveness was so pronounced only for peer ratings.

Perhaps the less formal relationships among peers (Murphy & Cleveland, 1995) facilitates the

exchange of information that signals the negative consequences of extreme Conscientiousness.

At any rate, it seems that the relationship between Conscientiousness and executive effectiveness

is curvilinear: too little and one would hardly be organized, thorough, and planful enough to

handle such a complex job; too much and one may be too conservative and self-defeating in

overly ambitious, thorough, and doggedly persistent efforts.

Clearly, the most pervasive Big Five correlate of perceived senior executive effectiveness

was low Agreeableness. The strong and consistent negative relationships between low

Agreeableness ACL scales and effectiveness ratings from all three coworker sources were

surprising. For example, Hogan et al. (1994) persuasively claimed that Agreeableness is a critical

factor required in building a team, fostering trust, and maintaining cooperative relationships.

Perhaps this is so, but there may also be a double-edged quality to this sword.

Leading large corporate institutions in the “constant white waters” of the global

marketplace is an incredibly challenging task. In addition to working with and through other

executives, those at the strategic apex are responsible for making large-scale decisions that affect

the viability of the entire organization. As the recent trends in restructuring and downsizing

attest, many of these decisions have an adverse affect on people. Making difficult decisions such

as these which pit the interests of individuals against the viability and economic interests of an

organization is hardly an easy task, especially for those who have deep concern for the welfare

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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 49

Significant ACL Scale Big Five Correlationsa

ACL predictors E A C N O B SE B Model R2

Subordinate Ratings

Critical Parent .06 -.55 .03 .27 .15 .03 .01 .48**

Welsh’s A-1 .17 -.12 -.35 -.04 .02 .03 .01 .27*

Welsh’s A-3 .19 .37 .07 -.30 -.18 -.02 .01 -.26

Final model F (3,41) = 8.69*** .39

Note. E = extraversion, A = agreeableness, C = conscientiousness, N = neuroticism (low

stability), and O = openness to experience.

a Correlations reported in Piedmont et al. (1991).

p < .10. * p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001.

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Personality and Executive Effectiveness 50

Figure Caption

Figure 1. Executives’ Adjective Check List Adult scale T-scores plotted against averaged peer

ratings of effectiveness to demonstrate curvinlinearity and the importance of level in interpreting

the correlations with conscientiousness saturated scales.

ACL Adult Scale T-score















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