How important is fitting in at work?

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Not_fitting_in

Summary

For most people, having a career which is a good “fit” for their personality is extremely high priority. Unsurprisingly, the notion of “person-environment fit” is fundamental to most careers advice. The general idea is that a) people have different personalities and interests, b) different types of people are suited to different working environments and c) finding the right working environment for your personality and interests is crucial to finding a job you’ll enjoy and be successful in.

However, despite several decades of research, psychologists have failed to demonstrate that personality/interests fit with the workplace has any substantial effect on job satisfaction or job performance. This suggests the normal approach of first working out your interests and personality and then finding a job to match them might be wrong – it doesn’t seem to help you find a job you enjoy or are good at!

This is surprising: it seems intuitively obvious that your personality fit with your job is important. It might be that the effect is too complex to be picked up in the existing studies, and that improved survey design would uncover a stronger connection. But we should also consider whether being a good personality fit with your work is less important than we first think. We’ve found good evidence that other factors: doing engaging work, as we define here, and good social support at work, are important for finding a satisfying job. We’ve also had independent reason to think that following your interests isn’t a good way to find a good job.

Therefore we recommend:

  • Don’t focus so much on ‘following your interests’ and finding a job that fits your personality and interests type
  • Instead, focus more on finding good social support (opportunities to receive help in the workplace), engaging work (work with good feedback, autonomy, well defined tasks and so on), developing mastery of that work, and making a positive impact.

Holland Types

To evaluate whether person-environment fit matters in job satisfaction, we need some way to measure it. “Holland types”, a theory developed by psychologist John Holland, are currently the best developed scheme, and indeed are one of the most empirically tested areas of work psychology.

According to Holland’s theory, most people can be categorised by six types for the purpose of job matching:

Realistic: (“Doers”) Enjoys manipulation of objects, working with tools, machines, or animals. Sees oneself as practical and mechanical.

Investigative: (“Thinkers”) Enjoys systematic and creative investigation of natural and cultural phenomena, analysing and solving problems. Sees oneself as precise, scientific and intellectual.

Artistic: (“Creators”) Enjoys working in unstructured situations using imagination and creativity. Sees oneself as expressive, original and independent.

Social: (“Helpers”) Enjoys helping, informing, and training others. Sees oneself as helpful, friendly and trustworthy.

Enterprising: (“Persuaders”) Enjoys leading and persuading others. Sees oneself as energetic, ambitious and sociable.

Conventional: (“Organizers”) Enjoys working with data, carrying out tasks in detail and following others’ instructions. Sees oneself as orderly and good at following a set plan.

Each type appears to be a combination of personality and interests, though this is controversial in the literature. 1

Holland’s Theory of Career Choice

Using Holland codes to determine person-environment fit in a career is supported by the Handbook for Career Advising, where it’s claimed that doing so “provides a useful structure that organizes a tremendous amount of information that can be readily applied”, providing a “structure for students to understand themselves.” The Occupational Information Network (ONET) has also put a huge amount of effort into using Holland types.

How are Holland types used in career choice? Most people are all six types in varying degrees, and your three most dominant types make up your “Holland Code.” There are well developed tests you can take to identify your Holland Code, like the Self-Directed Search. There are various free tests too, although they’re likely to be less accurate. The idea is that once you have your “code”, you can search for jobs which best match that code.

The key conclusion drawn from all this is that people are more likely to be satisfied and successful in environments where the environment type matches their personality type.

How useful is this approach?

What evidence is there that this approach is actually predictive of job success and satisfaction?

The literature on this is controversial. One meta-survey argues that the theory is invalid.2 First, it claims there are different ways to measure “degree of fit” between person and work environment, and these different ways turn out to give significantly different answers. This is a serious problem for the theory as it means your “fit” with a job based on personality type is ambiguous. Moreover, the survey finds no correlation between degree of fit and job satisfaction.

Two large meta-studies (involving ~9,000 people) looking at degree of fit and job satisfaction found slight correlation between the two, but still surprisingly weak: one found a correlation of 0.1 and another 0.2.3 This hardly indicates the theory is highly useful for job selection, since it means it only accounts for 1-4% of the variation in levels of job satisfaction.

Similarly, a large meta-study on job selection showed that interests, as measured with Holland types, are only very weakly predictive of job performance, with a correlation of 0.1.4

This said, demonstrating this kind of validity is complex. There are many reasons why the correlations might be weak even if the theory were in fact predictive. For instance, there might be a third, moderator variable that affects the strength of the relationship between degree of fit and satisfaction that we’re missing5, or the measures being used might simply be unreliable. It seems we have good prior reason to think that people do care about “fitting in” at work, and that this is justified, so we’d need strong evidence to think fitting in really doesn’t matter.

Something else worth considering is that, if Holland’s theory is correct, we’d expect people to have already self-selected into jobs based on their types (at least to some extent.) This would mean that merely performing correlation studies will understate how predictive of satisfaction the personality types are.6 To avoid this, ideally we’d want to perform full longitudinal studies. We might also want to investigate the extent to which peoples’ existing job choices fit with what the theory would prescribe based on personality type.

There’s also independent evidence that people seem to move towards jobs with a higher degree of fit when given a choice. Assuming that people are correctly optimising for job satisfaction, this suggests that “degree of fit” as defined by Holland types is relevant.

Another study argues that degree of fit is a sufficient but not necessary condition for job satisfaction. If your Holland type fits with your work environment, you’re likely to be satisfied, but it’s also possible to be satisfied even if you don’t “fit” in this sense.7

Finally, psychologists are investigating other measures of person-environment fit, which may be more promising.

It seems surprising that none of this debate is acknowledged by the Handbook of Careers Advice, and that the majority of careers advisers aren’t aware that the actual case for using Holland types is so weak. In fact, the literature on job satisfaction suggests that much stronger predictors of job satisfaction are characteristics of the job itself, but careers advice seems to focus less on this. This might be partly because Holland types depend on the individual so allow advisers to provide more personalised advice, whereas job characteristics depend on the nature of the job itself.

What can we conclude from all of this?

The evidence is pretty unclear on how useful matching based on Holland codes is for predicting job satisfaction. This means that, for now at least, it’s probably better to focus on other things besides “person-environment fit”, such as job characteristics and social support, where the evidence is stronger. However, it’s worth noting that:

  1. Improved survey design might uncover a stronger relationship between Holland matching and job satisfaction
  2. The evidence that Holland matching is sufficient for job satisfaction is stronger, suggesting you could view Holland matching as one path (among several) to finding a satisfying job.
  3. Even if Holland matching isn’t predictive of job satisfaction, this doesn’t mean that person-environment fit isn’t important, as this is only one way to measure it. Although, given the effort put into developing Holland types, it’s not a promising sign for the importance of person-environment fit.

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Notes and References:


  1. Spokane, Luchetta & Richwine; “Holland’s Theory of Personalities in Work Environments”; PDF 
  2. HEA Tinsley, “The Congruence Myth: An Analysis of the Efficacy of the Person-Environment Fit Model”; Journal of Vocational Behavior; Volume 56, Issue 2, April 2000, Pages 147–179; http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000187919991727X 
  3. Arnold, John; “The congruence problem in John Holland’s theory of vocational decisions”; Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology; (March 1, 2004), http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-115567607.html 
  4. The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings.
    FL Schmidt, JE Hunter – 1998 – American Psychological Association
    PDF 
  5. There’s some evidence evidence that the extent to which you care about fitting in with the group is an important moderator (pretty obviously!). 
  6. Further explanation of this point: Holland’s theory says that 1. People will look for work environments that fit their personality type and 2. People are more satisfied in careers where there is a high degree of fit. If 1. is true, assuming people have at least some implicit knowledge of their own skills and preferences, people will be fairly well matched to careers to start with. This means that if 2. is true, then differences in satisfaction in careers must be mostly explained by factors other than personality – external factors or more objective job characteristics, for example. This would result in a weak correlation between degree of fit and and job satisfaction, even if the former is predictive of the latter. 
  7. Spokane, A. R., Fouad, N. A., & Swanson, J. E. (2001). Culture-centered
    career intervention. Paper presented at a symposium on career intervention
    (S. Whiston, Chair). San Francisco: American Psychological Association.