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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: How flexible is personality?

August 1, 2004
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My recent “safety and personality” presentation at the professional development conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers was well attended and triggered a number of questions and comments, such as:

  • Aren’t personality traits inherited and unchangeable?
  • How does personality affect perception and attitude — and safety-relevant behaviors such as “actively caring”?

I’d like to address these provocative questions in this column, the last in my ISHN series on personality and safety.

Aren’t personality traits inherited and unchangeable?

In theory, a personality trait is permanent, especially when our surrounding environment (at home or at work, for example) does not prescribe a certain behavioral protocol. When we are free to express ourselves, our personality has a powerful influence on what we do.

But a critical question remains: Can personality and its impact on behavior be changed? Most personality researchers and scholars claim certain personality characteristics (termed “traits”) are essentially immutable, and can not be targeted for change tactics. These include the very common “Big Five” 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 “off” hand. Likewise, practice can make it feel natural to behave contrary to a personality trait.

How does personality affect perception and attitude?

Simply put, our personality influences our readiness to perform in certain ways. It makes us naturally aware or unaware of certain aspects of our life space. It influences how we interpret the various happenings in our daily lives. And personality affects how we respond to environmental stimuli, biasing our perceptions. We selectively attend to some things and not others. And as mentioned, environmental and social circumstances interact with our personality traits to enhance, neutralize, or inhibit them.

How can personality influence specific safety-related behaviors?

Narrowing our focus to only the Big Five, it’s intuitive that people who score higher on Extraversion and Agreeableness are more people- and relationship-oriented by nature. They will also be more comfortable with safety procedures that involve interpersonal interaction and influence, such as coaching. Also, those displaying a high degree of Openness will be more likely to approach new safety initiatives with an open mind, and will be less likely to resist change.

What personality types promote self-motivation?

This is certainly a major goal in safety — to move from “other-directed” behaviors that occur because we are held accountable by observers, supervisors, or coworkers to “self-directed” behaviors that occur because we hold ourselves accountable. In an ideal, safety-mature organization, employees don’t need outside accountability systems to motivate them to follow safety procedures. They hold themselves accountable to stick to the safety protocol when working alone, even in their backyards, when no one else is around.

From the Big Five, it’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. I’m not talking about extreme neuroticism, but a level somewhere between “completely calm, relaxed, and unemotional” about an injury possibility and “nervous, emotional, insecure, and distressed” 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.

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