Are there certain features of our personality that increase or decrease the likelihood that we will behave safely or be involved in accidents at work? A number of recent meta-analyses have, with increasing rigor, attempted to combine all we know about the relationship between our Big Five personality characteristics (i.e., Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism – think OCEAN) and safety at work (Clarke & Robertson, 2005; Chrisitan et al., 2009; Beus et al., 2015). So, what can we say about this relationship?
First, it exists! There is indeed a relationship between four of the Big Five personality characteristics and safety. Surprisingly, agreeableness has consistently shown itself to be the largest and most robust predictor of safe behaviour. I say surprisingly because I would have guessed that conscientiousness, how orderly and responsible we are, would have shown the strongest relationship. Yet, conscientiousness came a modest second place (similar effect size but less variance explained) in terms of predicting safe behaviour. Finally, extraversion and neuroticism showed much smaller but consequential relationships with workplace safety behaviour, such that the more extraverted and neurotic individuals are, the more likely they are to behave unsafely at work.
The idea that agreeableness is the most robust predictor of unsafe behaviour is fascinating and has many implications. Beus and colleagues discuss many of these implications in their paper and I tend to agree with the idea that agreeableness motivates people to seek communion. Essentially, the goal of communion is to seek meaningful and healthy relationships with others. People are thus less likely to behave unsafely to avoid putting others at risk or to make the group suffer because of their own carelessness. In turn, this finding has tremendous implications for the power of social interventions and social features of the organization for shaping safe behaviour. Reframing safety performance as prosocial and adding information about how behaviour affects others to feedback systems are examples of how organizations can improve safety by activating the motivation towards communion.
While I find the idea that agreeableness is the best personality predictor, I could imagine there are almost certainly boundary conditions to this finding. For instance, I could imagine that an agreeable person who finds him or herself in a group that behaves poorly and unsafely will likely be swayed by the group to also behave in a poor and unsafe manner. I cannot think of any empirical evidence off the top of my mind to support this idea, but it would be a fascinating study and one that is entirely possible to do given the advances in multilevel analyses.
Moving on, it came as no surprise that conscientiousness was important to workplace safety behaviour. What was interesting was the idea that extraversion and neuroticism were related to unsafe work behaviour. Beus and colleagues examined particular features of these broad personality characteristics to provide insight into what is driving these relationships. What they found was that the relationship between extraversion and unsafe behaviour was largely driven by a feature of extraversion called sensation seeking; thrill seekers put themselves into more risky situations on average. Meanwhile, the features of neuroticism that were driving the relationship are anger and impulsiveness, while anxiety actually reduced unsafe behaviour. You could imagine the overlap between sensation seeking and impulsiveness to be a particularly dangerous combination of personality when it comes to safety.
While personality and workplace safety behaviour were shown to be are related, what about personality with accidents and injuries? Beus and colleagues address this question both theoretically and empirically. They proposed that personality would be related to accidents and injuries through unsafe behaviour. That is, behaviour would fully mediate or explain the relationship between personality and accidents and injuries. This is what they found*. If you want to understand how personality is related to accidents and injuries, you need to understand how personality drives workplace safety behaviour.
The role of personality on workplace safety behaviour and safety outcomes has become more clear through these reviews. However, there could still be doubt that personality is rendered unimportant when compared to other predictors of workplace safety. For instance, does personality still matter when compared to a robust predictor of workplace safety such safety climate (i.e., the collective perceptions of an organization’s safety practices, policies, and procedures). Again, Beus and colleagues rose to the occasion to provide an answer. In their meta-analysis they showed that personality still mattered when taking safety climate into account (although slightly less than in isolation).
Based on the reviews, especially that completed by Beus and colleagues, we can be confident in a number of things. First, we know what the most important personality characteristics are in predicting workplace safety behaviour and their relative magnitude. Second, we can confident that personality is indirectly related to accidents and injuries through safety behaviour. Finally, we can be sure that personality can explain safety behaviour when taking other predictors, particularly safety climate, into considering.
*NOTE. Well not exactly. Results from Beus et al (2015) suggest that a partially mediated model has a slightly better statistical fit. However, Beus and colleagues suggest that this is only because of how certain personality characteristics are measured, such that some measures are behavioural in nature. Given that the statistical techniques used were not designed to detect and account for methodological contamination, researchers need to make judgement calls as Beus and colleagues did – and to their credit, argued that a fully rather than partially mediated model is appropriate.
Beus, J. M., Dhanani, L. Y., & McCord, M. A. (2015). A meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety: Addressing unanswered questions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 481-498.
Clarke, S., & Robertson, I. (2005). A meta‐analytic review of the Big Five personality factors and accident involvement in occupational and non‐occupational settings. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 355-376.
Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: a meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103-1127.