Psychologists have historically vastly underestimated the importance of genes in predicting the behaviour of people at home and at work. I am sometimes asked which book I consider to be the most important psychology publication to date and I always answer “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins. A psychologist who does not understand genetics is missing the lion’s share of the explanation in my opinion.
A recent paper by Dawes and colleagues (2015) showed that elements of civic engagement such as volunteering have a very strong genetic component. This suggests that such behaviours may well run in families and of course this is what we see in the real world.
The same thing applies to engagement at work. By engagement we mean the contemporary definition of engagement as proposed by Bakker and colleagues (2010). They defined engagement as being three psychological characteristics:
- Vigour – an energetic and positive approach to work
- Dedication – high levels of commitment and a sense of significance
- Absorption – the employee is deeply involved in his or her work and time flies
This definition of engagement is a particularly useful one because it turns out to predict an extremely wide range of meaningful outcomes at work including productivity, customer or client satisfaction and profitability of commercial organisations. The importance of engagement has led to widespread interest in the topic and many attempts by organisations to maximise the engagement of their employees to gain the benefits mentioned above.
There are a number of well-known determinants of engagement, including the intrinsic meaning that the work has for the employee, the quality of leadership they receive and the quality of the relationships that they enjoy with their colleagues at work. But what about the genetic component?
Fortunately, an important aspect of this genetic component can be measured before you hire someone by assessing their personality.
In the graphic at the head of this article you will see the results of a study that SACS undertook in partnership with Deakin University, which measured a number of characteristics of engagement in just over 2600 employees in Australian workplaces.
One of the questions we asked in this study was whether engagement of individuals could be predicted from their personality (heavily genetically determined) and their values (largely learned). The box in the middle that says “Engagement” represents the scores of these people on the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. The sections on left of the diagram represent the person scores on the various characteristics of the HEXACO personality inventory and the Schwartz Portrait Values Questionnaire. The figure in the box at the top headed “adjusted R square” is a percentage accuracy figure for the degree to which personality and values were able to predict the levels of engagement of the person. What it says is that 30% of the person’s engagement was predicted by personality and values. The box at the bottom right of the graphic shows you the various predictors ranked by their comparative accuracy. The key lessons from these predictors are that:
- Diligence is the best predictor, suggesting that people who are hardworking and committed are more likely to be engaged in their work.
- Liveliness was the second best predictor, indicating that people who are optimistic, positive and cheerful are also likely to be highly engaged.
- Greed Avoidance was the third most powerful predictor, suggesting that greedy, selfish people are less likely to be engaged in their work.
You will see that the list continues with all but one of the key predictors being personality characteristics. I think the key message here for employers is that you can account for 30% of the engagement of your workforce by recruiting the right way. The right way is by assessing the personality of people before you hire them. Click here to find out how to do so.
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Bakker, A.B., & Leiter, M.P. (Eds.) (2010). Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research. New York: Psychology Press
Dawes CT, Settle JE, Loewen PJ, McGue M, Iacono WG. 2015 Genes, psychological traits and civic engagement. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370, 20150015.
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