Monday, 13 August 2012

Interested workers are better performers

Vocational interests – the activities, processes and environments you prefer at work – are, compared to ability and personality, the neglected child of occupational psychology. This is partly thanks to a 1984 meta-analysis, which reported a weak correlation with job performance of just .1. However, recent focus on the idea of person-job fit has drawn attention back to this domain, and a new meta-analysis appears to further rehabilitate interests by showing a rather stronger relationship to performance.

Lead author Christopher Nye and his team gathered 60 studies by searching the literature for terms such as vocational interests, job performance, and turnover, and by perusing the bibliographies of texts such as interest inventory technical manuals. Half the studies followed the 1984 meta-analysis, 42 involved employment (the remainder looked at academic achievement), and these related interests to various measures of performance, such as job outcomes or organisational citizenship behaviours. Interests were measured in various ways, but common to many studies was John Holland's six-interest taxonomy, comprising work that is realistic (e.g. technical), investigative (research), artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. Interest scores can be treated in a fairly absolute way - your standardised interest score is above average, so you should be somewhat suited to this role - but the team suspected that stronger relationships would be found in by taking a different approach. An individual's interests can be portrayed in terms of a personal ranking or interest profile, where the absolute scores matter less than the relative priorities; a strong investigative interest matters less if other areas matter even more to you. Matching individual interest profiles to job profiles produces 'congruence scores' that, by more closely reflecting fit or misfit, could be better predictors of outcomes.

Overall, the regression-based meta-analysis revealed the baseline relationship between interests and job performance to be .20, already twice as strong as the original 1984 analysis. Moreover, the congruence indices had a much stronger relationship, on average .36. Highest correlations were found around organisational citizenship behaviours, which makes sense: if you enjoy what you do you are more likely to go over and above what the job asks of you. Across the measures, the team found that "interested employees are likely to perform better, help others in the organization, and stay with the company longer." These correlations are substantial and suggest that interests are of greater value than previously believed.

The analysis also made it clear that choosing the right measure is critical. In Holland's taxonomy certain domains are more closely related than others: social interests can be partly compatible with artistic or enterprising job features, but opposed by realistic features. Following that example, studies that correlated a social interest measure with job performance found stronger relationships when the jobs were dominated by social features, weaker ones for artistic, and weakest for jobs that were essentially realistic. This re-emphasises that for interest to be valuable, it must be considered in terms of fit to a particular role, rather than as a more-or-less proxy of motivation. “Because past research has  indicated that interests are not strong predictors of performance, vocational interests have seemingly been ignored in selection contexts”, concludes Nye's team, inviting a new wave of research to fill in the gaps.

ResearchBlogging.orgChristopher D. Nye, Rong Su, James Rounds, & Fritz Drasgow (2012). Vocational Interests and Performance: A Quantitative Summary of Over 60 Years of Research Perspectives on Psychological Science (7), 384-403 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612449021


  1. I think the main difference between this blog and the original BPS digest is articles like this. I'm afraid we're left thinking 'so what' after reading. Had the authors found that uninterested workers were better performers, then I could understand why it was being highlighted but all it manages to do is confirm what we had already worked out. I gather that 'adding to the literature' and 'increasing our understanding' is a good thing on the face of it, but as far as practical implications are concerned, this paper is of limited utility.

  2. Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading. Sorry that you didn't find the finding useful. As the consensus in the field has historically been that interests are of limited value, this meta-analysis feels like an important riposte, drawing attention back to something that matters. In a way I'm glad that this, our current best scientific understanding of the phenomenon, is already intuitively apparent to you (and probably others).

    I definitely understand our collective interest in counter-intuitive findings - one of the big drivers of 'sexy science' across all fields of science publications. Rest assured, as they arise in the field of work psychology we will do our best to give appropriate coverage.

    Glad you enjoy the Research Digest. Christian does a great job on it.


  3. Hi Alex,

    Thank you for your reply. I generally enjoy the Research Digest and the Occupational Digest. My high expectations of the latter may stem from how useful it is for me!

    I appreciate your continued effort.

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