New research identifies the traits that take you to the top |

In today's highly competitive world, understanding the qualities that drive success has become increasingly important. One crucial factor that influences an individual's ability to climb the corporate ladder is their personality. Research has shown that certain personality traits play a significant role in determining a person's career trajectory, and in this blog, we'll explore those traits and their effects on seniority levels. We'll share the fascinating findings recently published by Thomas' research psychologists including a surprising discovery that could change the way we think about the role of personality in determining success.

The most widely accepted model of personality is known as the 'Big 5' model. It encompasses five broad dimensions of personality: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. These dimensions are often used by psychologists and researchers to describe and predict behaviour in various aspects of life, including the workplace. The Big 5 model serves as a comprehensive framework for understanding how individual differences in personality can impact career outcomes. Thomas researchers investigated the link between these Big 5 personality traits and the rank of individuals in organisations across more than 10,000 people. The study sought to uncover whether there are specific traits that consistently propel people to higher positions. Get ready to learn which traits you need to get ahead!

The traits you need to lead

Before we get into these breakthrough new findings, let’s review what the existing research has to say about personality and job progression. Psychologists have used personality to predict work performance, satisfaction and success for more than fifty years (Judge & Bono, 2000; Kajonius & Carlander, 2017; Nieß & Zacher, 2015; Richardson & Norgate, 2015). Some studies even suggest that more senior managers are more likely to have ‘dark side’ personality traits, such as self-centredness and Machiavellianism.

However, the two traits that are generally accepted to be predictive of strong leadership are low neuroticism and conscientiousness (Pendleton et al., 2021). An important recent study (Asselmann et al., 2022) found that ‘up and coming’ leaders are more extraverted, open, emotionally stable, conscientious and willing to take risks. They also had a greater sense of control, and higher trust in others than non-leaders. Once promoted, people’s personality traits appear to change, becoming less extraverted and less conscientious but more risk averse with higher self-esteem.

It is possible that success (defined here as promotion), changes people (Hirschi et al., 2021), although there is less evidence to suggest this. Findings by Furnham and Sherman (2023) suggest that personality is most stable between the ages of 30 and 60, though there are modest increases in emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness over this period. 

Other factors affecting job progression

Research into the link between personality and seniority has important implications for organisations looking to select and train effective business leaders (Ling et al., 2019; Spark et al., 2021; Sutin et al., 2009, Conard, 2020). However, there are numerous factors that affect an individual’s progression up the career ladder. To determine which personality traits are shared by effective leaders, it is essential to control for factors such as sex, age, ethnicity and education, especially since most leaders are still older males.

There is a growing body of research showing that women are underrepresented at senior levels, either because they choose not to apply or are not chosen (Davies et al., 2017). In our most recent study, we also controlled for ethnicity, as there is also substantial evidence to show that ethnic diversity becomes more limited at higher levels of leadership.

There are other factors too. Certain groups (based on beliefs, education or expertise) are more likely to promote members of their own group. Some organisations promote based on length of tenure, meaning that age is the primary predictor of managerial level. Similarly, educational level often relates to management level, especially in certain fields (Pendleton et al., 2021). 

What we learned about personality and progression

Our research used the ‘High Potential Trait Inventory’ (HPTI) to measure the link between personality and professional seniority. The test measures six traits, four of which are reflected in the ‘Big 5’ model of personality. They are; Conscientiousness, Adjustment (low Neuroticism), Curiosity (Openness), Competitiveness (low Agreeableness), Ambiguity Acceptance and Courage (or Approach to Risk). Numerous studies have established the link between this set of personality traits and professional success (Furnham & Impellizzeri, 2021; Furnham & Treglown, 2018, 2021).

Encouragingly, multiple studies found that the most important factor in success is conscientiousness (MacRae & Furnham, 2020, Teodorescu et al., 2017), followed by low neuroticism and openness. Our study found that the factors with the greatest impact on job seniority are demographic factors; gender, age, ethnicity and education. Personality has a lesser but still significant impact on job promotion, accounting for a 6% variance in seniority. This begs the question of what the other contributors to progression might be, such as intelligence and political capabilities. Most significantly however, we found that in addition to the widely accepted ‘Big 5’ model of personality, there are two traits that predict professional advancement.

1. Ambiguity acceptance

The first of these essential traits is ambiguity acceptance, which relates to how well an individual processes unfamiliarity and adapts to unfamiliar environments. It makes sense that individuals who are higher in this trait would progress in today’s markets, which are characterised by change and uncertainty. Multiple studies bear out the link between confidence in the face of uncertainty and management level (Furnham & Marks, 2013, Herman et al., 2010, de Vries, 2021).

2. Courage

The second personality trait that predicts professional advancement is the way an individual approaches risk, otherwise known as courage. Courage is the ability to ameliorate threat-based emotions, thereby broadening an individual’s potential range of responses to difficult situations and problems despite adversity. Our finding aligns with Hannah et al. (2007), which suggested that the courageous individual uses positive emotion (courage) to mitigate fear and address problems. 

Takeaways to take you to the top

What have we learned? Our study found that barriers to job progression are primarily sociological, and the impact of unequal access to opportunity cannot be discounted. Similarly, promotion decisions are still to a large extent determined by age, which is problematic for organisations, as age is not in itself a strong predictor of successful leadership.

Still, when it comes to getting ahead, the biggest personality factors are working hard and the courage to take adversity in your stride. So perhaps, despite societal setbacks, Tennyson’s old lines are still relevant:

‘...Heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

Click the links to learn more about how to predict and accelerate professional success by assessing personality and emotional intelligence or view an overview of our assessments.