Iâ€™d like to address these provocative questions in this column, the last in my ISHN series on personality and safety.
But a critical question remains: Can personality and its impact on behavior be changed? Most personality researchers and scholars claim certain personality characteristics (termed â€œtraitsâ€) are essentially immutable, and can not be targeted for change tactics. These include the very common â€œBig Fiveâ€ traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Many personality researchers suggest we must accept the reality that people are born to express certain personality characteristics. But we should realize that there are ways to influence the extent a particular personality trait is manifested in behavior.
Someone who is naturally low on a Big Five trait can be influenced to express this characteristic through an environmental protocol (such as a policy), a behavior-change intervention (such as an incentive offering), or interpersonal dialogue (such as coaching).
For example, students in my large university classes, as well as participants in my professional development workshops, often inspire me to transition from my natural tendency to be shy and introverted to behave in an outgoing and extraverted manner.
To understand the potential flexibility of personality traits, I find it useful to consider handedness. While most of us have a clear preference to use one hand over the other for specific activities, we can use the other hand when situations call for this change. It feels awkward, but we can do it. And with practice we can get quite good with our â€œoffâ€ hand. Likewise, practice can make it feel natural to behave contrary to a personality trait.
From the Big Five, itâ€™s obvious that Conscientiousness is most aligned with self-accountability. But I also expect Neuroticism to be related. Some degree of ongoing anxiety contributes to the self-motivation needed to keep a person doing the right thing for safety when working without supervision. Iâ€™m not talking about extreme neuroticism, but a level somewhere between â€œcompletely calm, relaxed, and unemotionalâ€ about an injury possibility and â€œnervous, emotional, insecure, and distressedâ€ about safety issues.
These are only intuitive hypotheses about a sample of personality characteristics identified through psychological research. Actual relationships between personality traits and workplace safety have not yet been systematically studied. This much is clear to me: We would be well-served to increase our awareness and understanding of the role personality can play in injury proneness and injury control. And relationships between personality predispositions and voluntary participation in safety efforts are worthy of empirical study.