Does Personality Count?
I am by nature a reflective person. So when I read a want ad, I find myself wondering just what some employers are looking for. “Native language English, familiar with FrameMaker and MS Word, engineering background,” and so on. I remember reading an article in Intercom, “Tools or Talent? Hiring a technical writer” (Molisani 1999, 46 2: 24-25). I kept asking myself what characteristics Molisani was looking for. It seemed to me that the person being sought after needed more than tools or talent-that special something, which for lack of better terminology I think of as “the right personality.” We’ve all met someone who seemed to have the right skills and knowledge for the job and provided a great writing sample. Yet shortly after working with that person, we found that they were hopelessly not suited for the job. In more fortunate circumstances, we can “feel the person out” and know they are not suitable. But we have no hard measure. I recall meeting someone who had completed a course in technical writing. They had thoroughly enjoyed it and asked me, “do you think I’ll be able to find a job?” I sought for a kind way to say, “no, you don’t have the personality for it.” I mean, who was I to say that? After all, most of my reading on technical communication rarely touches on personality. I was relieved to learn that the person later found an enjoyable job-not in technical communication.
All this reflection led to my conducting an international Internet-based survey on the personality characteristics of technical communicators. Participants were recruited from technical communication news groups around the world as well as from among my own contacts. All participants submitted an email advising that they have worked or are currently working as technical communicators. There were 223 respondents from 17 different countries.
The survey included a validated personality test based on the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality. The test was developed and tested for validity by Buchanan et al. (1999) based on a body of work by one of the major FFM researchers, L.R. Goldberg. Initially implemented on the Internet, the test has only 41 questions; Buchanan’s results were within acceptable reliability. The personality questions were scored according to Buchanan’s instructions (2001). The survey also included demographic and professional questions. Data was correlated to answer my research question: Are there personality characteristics that technical communicators have in common?
What is the Five-Factor Model?
Before sharing the results of my study with you, we need to understand the parameters being examined in the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality. Most of the information provided here is based on the work of Piedmont (1998) and Howard and Howard (1992).
The FFM examines a large set of personality dimensions. It has broad uses for various types of personality testing, from therapeutic psychology through the NEO Personality Inventory to vocational counseling and development of optimal working teams. The FFM is also gaining increasing attention in personality research as a possible standard for personality structure. The five factors examined (collectively termed OCEAN) are detailed below. Because Howard and Howard’s work has a business orientation, I use their terminology in discussing these factors. However, the explanation of each factor is based on their work as well as that of Piedmont.
- The Openness factor provides a measure of a person’s originality, creativeness, and openness to new knowledge. We can call a high scorer an “Explorer,” whereas a low scorer might be termed a “Preserver.” An average scorer might be thought of as a “Moderate.”
- The Conscientiousness factor provides a measure of a person’s persistence, self-control, dependability, ethics, and orderliness. We can call a high scorer “Focused,” whereas a low scorer might be termed “Flexible.” An average scorer might be thought of as “Balanced.”
- The Extraversion factor provides a measure of a person’s sociability (whether they are affectionate, friendly, outgoing, personable, and so on). We can call a high scorer an “Extravert,” whereas a low scorer might be termed an “Introvert.” An average scorer might be thought of as an “Ambivert.”
- The Agreeableness factor provides a measure of a person’s cooperativeness (trust of others) and likability (whether they are good-natured, cheerful, and so on). We can call a high scorer an “Adaptor,” whereas a low scorer might be termed a “Challenger.” An average scorer might be thought of as a “Negotiator.”
- The Neuroticism factor provides a measure of a person’s emotional stability, or how many stimuli are required to elicit a strong emotional response (Howard and Howard 1992). Specifically, Neuroticism includes anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability. We can call a high scorer “Reactive,” whereas a low scorer might be termed “Resilient.” An average scorer might be thought of as “Responsive.”
Each factor also has subfactors or “facets,” which can provide more detail about the individual’s personality; however, this personality test only looks at the broad five factors. The first table on page provides a summary of the five factors.
The more I read about the FFM, the more I realized the factors being examined might be particularly relevant to technical communicators. In particular, I noted that
- Much of our literature stresses the need for technical communicators to be open to new knowledge. The Openness factor may relate to a technical communicator’s curiosity and ability to learn new technologies and tools because this factor includes creativity and the desire to learn new things.
- Interest in detail, high ethical standards, and research skills are important aspects of a technical communicator’s work. The Conscientiousness factor may relate to a technical communicator’s motivation, ability to meet deadlines, and attention to the small details of writing or design because this factor includes self-control and ethics.
- Some personality research indicates that when compared to extraverts, introverted people are more “vigilant, more sensitive to pain, more easily bored, more cautious, and more disrupted by overstimulation” (Aiken 1997, 341). This research made me wonder if introversion could interfere with good technical communication. The Extraversion factor may relate to how well a technical communicator is able to communicate with others, particularly on a team, because this factor looks at sociability.
- Molisani (1999) and those job advertisements seem to imply that employers are searching for people with whom they can get along. The Agreeableness factor may relate to a technical communicator’s ability to work well with others because this factor includes a person’s cooperativeness and likability.
- The major component of technical communication, writing ability, has been shown to be affected by apprehension, anxiety, and motivation (Sharples 1999). The Neuroticism factor may be connected with a technical communicator’s people skills and writing ability because this factor is a reflection of the extent to which various stimuli affect a person.
The demographic data was most interesting. Although the participants were from 17 different countries, the mother tongue of most participants was English (92%). Interestingly while there was a good spread across the age groups, the number of male participants increased with age. The primary product documented was software, and the main technical communication specialty was writing. Also, many lone writers were represented.
For easier correlations to the personality results, I grouped the respondents into four geographical regions: North America, Europe, Israel, and Australia. The figure on page 109 provides a view of the types of products documented, correlated to gender. From this graph it’s clear that while the majority of respondents were female and the majority document software, the majority of respondents were not females who document software-an important distinction.
The second table on page provides the overall results for all respondents. The composite score is a reflection of the majority responses for each factor examined. Interestingly, the composite score held strongly, even when all data were correlated across age, gender, and professional specialty, with the following exceptions:
- There was a significant difference between the ages of the respondents and their level of extraversion; extraversion seems to decrease with age.
- The Neuroticism factor varied more among lone writers, roughly split between a low (Resilient) or average (Responsive) score.
The correlation of the OCEAN score across geographical regions is particularly interesting.
- Israelis: Of the six respondents with an A- (Challenger) score, three were from Israel. Israelis also represented the largest grouping with an O- (Preserver) score (out of 22 Preservers, 9 were Israeli).
- Europeans: None of the Europeans had an A- (Challenger) score, although they had a fair number of the C- (Flexible) scores (8 out of 26).
- Australians: Australians represented the largest group with N- (Resilient) scores (20 out of 31).
- North Americans: In comparison to the other regions, the North Americans had the largest number of Extraverts (13% of all participants).
But What Does It All Mean?
The Openness and Conscientiousness Factors
The Openness and Conscientiousness factors were equally important, although in general, Conscientiousness was not as high as I expected (see the second figure on page 110). Much of the related personality literature emphasizes the importance of the Conscientious factor for career success. Apparently for this group of technical communicators, being an Explorer is more important than being Focused (see the first figure on page 110).
Why is Conscientiousness not higher for the technical communicators studied? At the extreme end, one might be so focused on the details that the overall picture is missed (Tett 1998). This could be a disaster for technical communicators who must work to strict deadlines. While technical communicators must pay attention to the fine details, knowing when to stop is often more important, even when a documentation project is not perfect. Thus while the technical communication literature seems to indicate a need for high Conscientiousness, in actual practice this need does not seem to be the case. This finding is further supported by Collins (1998) who points out that high Conscientiousness, contrary to popular belief, can work against a job well done.
Openness, on the other hand, relates to the interests to which one is attracted and how deeply those interests are pursued. Given that technical communicators must be constantly learning new tools in order to perform their jobs well, in addition to learning new information that must be conveyed to various types of end users, the large number of Explorers is not a surprising finding for the group studied. In addition, the personality literature indicates that being an Explorer may be an asset to one who is highly introverted. Thus, being an Explorer may be of great benefit to a highly introverted technical communicator (see the discussion on Extraversion).
Openness also seems to relate to the creative performance of teamwork (Buchanan 1998). Consequently, being an Explorer would seem to contribute to technical communicators’ effectiveness because working with others is an integral part of their work and creativity is an important aspect of writing.
The Agreeableness Factor
Another important trait for technical communicators appears to be Agreeableness (see the third figure on the left). Part of this factor’s importance may lie in its relationship to Conscientiousness and Extraversion (Piedmont 1998).
Much of a technical communicator’s work requires interaction with others (planning, information gathering, collaboration, and so on). When technical communicators are also Focused, they tend to be concerned for others, helpful, and able to work “through the system.” There were 47 Focused/Adaptor profiles of those surveyed. On the other hand, there were only three respondents with a Flexible/Challenger profile. This latter profile presents a rather self-seeking and controlling personality.
Technical communicators with an Adaptor/Balanced profile may be more likely to find the balance between research and writing in a friendly, communicative manner (Howard and Howard 1992).
The Extraversion Factor
Extraversion varied among the groups (see the first figure on page 111). This finding may indicate that extraversion is more important to technical communicators than might initially be thought. First, this factor is important when viewed in combination with others. Generally, the more extraverted the person, the more likely he or she is to communicate well and be easy to get along with, unless extraversion is combined with a high neuroticism score.
Research indicates that introverted people are more vigilant, sensitive to pain, bored, overly cautious, and easily distracted (Aiken 1997). Buchanan (1998) points out that Ambiverts in a group promote conversation and the sharing of ideas without the potential for competition if the other people in the group are highly extraverted. Thus, Ambiverted technical communicators may find it easier to work in collaborative groups than Introverts or Extraverts. Additionally, Ambiverts are probably better able to work in a group or in isolation as the need requires (Howard and Howard 1992). That the majority of lone writers surveyed were Ambiverts should not be surprising.
In light of the importance of the Extraversion factor, courses in technical communication should consider focusing on the technical communicator’s individual style of communication because introversion may interfere with meeting others’ needs. The importance of the Extraversion factor merits further investigation, particularly as to how this factor correlates to a technical communicator’s cognitive skills.
The Neuroticism Factor
Of the 223 technical communicators surveyed, only 20 (9%) had a high Neuroticism (Reactive) score (see the second figure on the right). Neuroticism is a measure of emotional stability, or, as Howard and Howard (1992) phrase it, a measure of how many stimuli are required for the person to elicit an emotional reaction.
With regard to competitive performance, the lower Neuroticism is in relation to a high Conscientiousness (Focused) score, the more likely the person is to be the stereotypical achiever. Resilience contributes to one’s emotional stability in a competitive situation.
Twenty percent of respondents had a Focused/Resilient profile. However, when adjustments were made to this score based on the personality literature, the percentage dramatically increased to 56%. Other correlations that I performed indicated that there may also be a strong relation between Neuroticism and Professional Effectiveness see the sidebar.
Clearly, I have shared only a small part of my research. Nevertheless, much can be gleaned from what I have shared.
My research question was: Are there personality characteristics that technical communicators have in common?
The answer, within certain limitations, seems to be yes. While this answer can be stated clearly only for technical communicators who document software (see the figure), the common profile for technical communicators is
Explorer, Balanced, Ambivert, Adaptor, Resilient/Responsive
My study answers the question that many of my colleagues have asked but for which we have had little concrete evidence: Does personality count? The answer is yes. Must a technical communicator have the above traits to be a good technical communicator? I think this would be a very dangerous jump to make. More research is required. Certainly, our field attracts certain types of people. I personally do not subscribe to the theory that we are what we are born. I believe we can change. Certainly Extraversion changes with age. Why not other traits such as Openness or Agreeableness? Knowledge empowers. If you have a technical communicator in your group who is highly introverted or reactive, perhaps studying these traits will help you to find their strengths and cultivate them (for example, cultivate their Explorer aspects).
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