Individual Personality, Emotional Intelligence, and Life Outcomes


Memory Nguwi caught up with Steve Hunt (Senior Vice President Human Capital Management Research at SAP SuccessFactors) to discuss how personality and emotional intelligence impact on life outcomes.

MN: What is individual personality and can it be changed or improved?

SH: Personality is often defined as a natural tendency to display certain kinds of behaviours that depend more on volition than ability. For example, some people tend to naturally strike up conversations with strangers more readily than others.  Some people find it easy to pay attention to details that others find boring or disinteresting. These differences are not about what people can or cannot do, but what people feel comfortable doing. People can absolutely control the behaviours associated with personality. For example, I might not enjoy paying attention to some details but I can do it when required. Similarly, many introverted people teach themselves to proactively engage others in order to be more successful in their jobs.  That said, it can be tiring to engage in behaviours that do not align with our natural personality tendencies.

Personality does change over the course of our lifetimes.  Although the nature of these changes tends to be slow and varies depending on the person, the personality traits in question, and people’s life experiences.

MN: What is emotional intelligence and can it be changed or improved?

SH: Emotional intelligence is probably best thought of a combination of social perception, interpersonal skill, and volition. Emotionally intelligent people are able to read others’ emotional states and reactions and alter their own behaviours in order to influence the emotions of others. This, like most skills, is probably something that certain people have more of a natural aptitude for than others.  But also like all skills, it is something people can improve over time with practice, experience, and constructive feedback.

MN: Others have argued that emotional intelligence is part of individual personality. Is there a difference between emotional intelligence and personality?

SH: In my opinion, personality and emotional intelligence are closely related. Emotional intelligence probably has some components related to emotional perception and behavioural self-regulation that are due in part to differences in ability. For example, autism could be defined in part as something caused by a lack of natural abilities related to emotional perception and self-regulation.

MN: Which specific personality dimensions are related to positive life outcomes in the workplace and life in general?

SH: Personality traits do not tend to be “good” or “bad” per se.   Performance of certain jobs depends on different personality traits. For example, extroversion may be positively associated with jobs that require quickly building social relationships. But it could be negatively related to jobs that require working independently on tasks with little social interaction. Personality traits also tend to have bright and dark sides, in the sense that they can be both good and bad.  For example, high levels of conscientiousness are associated with responsibility and follow through, but can also be associated with resistance to change and functional fixedness.

MN: Are there some undesirable personality types?

SH: Societies tend to place value judgments that favour some traits over others. But I would be careful about labelling any trait undesirable. What makes more sense is to call out behaviours associated with certain traits that may be undesirable. For example, neuroticism tends to be associated with emotional expression, but some ways of expressing emotion are more appropriate than others in most social setting (e.g. in most companies it is okay to show displeasure, but it is not okay to show anger.)

MN: Is there any need to assess both personality and emotional intelligence when selecting employees?

SH: Yes, it is useful. But companies should make sure to start with understanding the behaviour that drives job success before they start looking at what personality traits are better or worse for the job.

MN: There are people described as having personality disorders such as narcissism and psychopaths. What are these disorders and how are they linked to life outcomes?

SH: This brings up the concept of the difference between “normal” personality differences, and clinical personality disorders.  I am not a clinical psychologist, so I’m a bit reluctant to answer this question.  But personality disorders can certainly negatively impact valued life outcomes – that is why they are called “disorders”.

MN: Is there any relationship between personality and career choices people make?

SH: Yes.  People tend to gravitate toward jobs that fit their natural personality tendencies.  For example, sales people tend to be socially extroverted and computer programmers tend to be more conscientious/detail oriented.  But it’s critical to emphasize that these are average tendencies.  People can self-manage their behaviours and our personality does not dictate what we can do, just what we tend to prefer to do.  There are many examples of successful introverted sales people and effective computer programmers who are not extremely conscientious.

MN: Individual integrity is important in most if not all professional roles. How can this be assessed for the benefit of organisations?

SH: It is important to define the behaviours that are associated with integrity. Once these behaviours have been defined, there are ranges of methods that can be used to assess personality traits that predict them.

MN: I have seen a lot of coaching programs targeting to change people’s personalities and emotional intelligence. Is that possible and if so how?

SH: See my earlier response.  People can absolutely learn to self-manage their behaviours and improve the skills associated with emotional intelligence. But it can be more difficult depending on our personalities.  It is a bit like learning to play basketball; you do not have to be tall to be a good basketball player but it certainly makes it easier to block shots and score baskets if you are taller than average.

 Memory Nguwi is an Occupational Psychologist, Data Scientist, Speaker, & Managing Consultant- Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. He is the president of the Zimbabwe Psychology Association. He hosts a radio program HR Perspective every Thursday at 1900hrs on Capitalk 100.4FM Phone 481946-48/481950/2900276/2900966  or email:  or visit our website at

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