Personality Tasks

Safety Leaders: exploring the latest thinking in safety leadership, personality and competencies

Safety Leadership model

Safety Leaders: exploring the latest thinking in safety leadership, personality and competencies

The focus of safety leadership appears, on the face of it at least, to not have changed too much in in its focus over the last 20 years. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK have long advocated that safety leaders’ display behaviours that help develop and encourage an open and honest culture, involve the workforce, lead by example and ensure systems are working in practice. As an example, the HSE guide ‘Leadership for the major hazard industries’, first published in 2004, outlines many of these safety behaviours. Examples include ‘I mention health and safety whenever I can and to a wide range of audiences’ or ‘I will develop an open and honest organisation, which is as receptive to bad news as it is to good news.’

What are the behaviours of an effective safety leader?

In 2012 Lekka & Healy published a research paper, funded by the HSE, called ‘A review of the literature on effective leadership behaviours for safety’. The research analysed journal (quantitative & qualitative studies) papers, policy research and incidents over a 10-year period in order to review theories of safety leadership and identify a framework for describing the key elements. Among the key message emanating from the research were for safety leaders to be ‘coaching-orientated’, to ‘articulate a clear vision for safety’, ‘show concern for the welfare of employees ‘, ‘encouragement of two-way safety communications’ and ‘the ‘bottom up’ communication of safety concerns’. The review also emphasised that these ‘transformational’ behaviours should be performed in conjunction with more ‘transactional’ ones such as ‘communicating and setting clear goals and standards for safety’ and ‘monitoring and recognising positive safety behaviours’. The review also highlighted that ‘trust in management is an important determinant of safety’ and that ‘consistent safety messages need to be demonstrated at all management levels’. Overall, the review painted a picture of a safety leader who was proactive, emotionally intelligent, a skilled communicator and able to build a healthy and collaborative safety culture.

The current focus

All these behaviours and competencies are still extremely important for safety leaders today but in recent years there has been more emphasis and detail on the way these behaviours are achieved and the type of environment/culture that should be aimed for. Two areas that have been given significantly more focus have been ‘servant leadership’ and ‘psychological safety’.

Effective Collaboration

One of the core goals of any leader is to build a collaborative work environment rather than create a ‘them’ and ‘us’ top-down culture. In order to work collaboratively on safety issues leaders need to engage the workforce and their peers which requires self-belief, vigour, variety and emotional awareness. Research has shown that workforce engagement is linked to a wide variety of benefits such as increased learning, taking the initiative (Sonnetag, 2003), job performance (Demerouti and Bakker, 2006) and a reduction in safety incidents (Rigoni & Nelson, 2016).

At the same time as this active engagement recent research has shown that safety leaders also need to take a more humble approach akin to servant leadership where the focus is on how they can help the team. There are many different expressions of this but the general gist is that on focussing on others the emphasis of the safety leader is on listening, compassion, principles and humility. A summary of 328 research studies has found that this approach to leadership has an even greater impact on improving safety and behaviours than transformational and transactional approaches due to the collaborative and supportive environment that it engenders (Cooper, 2015). In our safety leadership model this effective collaboration is driven by 2 key competencies – ‘engaging others’ and ‘humble coaching’.

Effective CollaborationEngaging othersHumble coaching  
Psychological SafetyGenerating an open cultureReacting constructivelyInspiring trust 
Proactive management of risksSeeking the wider pictureInnovating solutionsCoping with riskProactive action

How to foster Psychological Safety

In her academic research and popular books Harvard professor Amy Edmonson has highlighted the importance of ‘psychological safety’ in achieving the ‘open’ culture that has long been spoken about in safety. That is, a culture where people are willing to speak up, ask questions, suggest ideas and in general take personal risks without fear of retribution. This focus to create psychological safety has been supported by the research, with positive links being found with reporting errors (Edmonson, A. C. 1996), performance (Baer, M., & Frese, M., 2003), learning (Bunderson, J. S., & Boumgarden, P., 2010) and sharing (Arumugam, V. et al., 2013). In other words, psychological safety is key in achieving the ‘learning’, ‘reporting’ and ‘informed’ dimensions of safety culture that James Reason (1990) identified many years ago. Our model picks up on 3 of the key competencies leaders need to deliver psychological safety – ‘generating an open culture’, ‘reacting constructively’ and ‘inspiring trust’

Proactive management of risks

The final grouping of competencies is around the proactive management of risks. It’s all well and good having a collaborative culture where people feel open to have their say, report issues and make recommendations. However, if nothing is done about those issues then the workforce will rightly question whether leaders were sincere or just paying lip service. A meta-analysis conducted by Nahrgang and colleagues (2011) identified that hazards, risks and complexity were the biggest job demands placed on employees and led to burnout and safety issues. These demands had a negative relationship with employee engagement, counter-acting the benefits of a supportive environment provided by supportive safety leadership. In other words, the best safety leaders need to act on these demands and provide the resources and support necessary to manage them otherwise the collaborative and safe environment will not be effective. The review of safety leadership conducted by Lekka & Healy (2012) found that some of the recurrent themes across major incidents (e.g. Bhopal, BP Texas City etc) included ‘learning from previous incidents’, ‘commitment to safety’, ‘complacency’, a ‘lack of oversight’ and ‘hazard awareness and management’. All of these themes appear to link to leaders not showing the necessary attention, support and commitment to follow through on providing the necessary resources to manage risks. Our model identifies four competencies that support the proactive management of risks – ‘Seeking the wider picture’, ‘Innovating solutions’, ‘Coping with risk’ and ‘Proactive action’.

Personality and safety practices

The Mosaic Personality Tasks assessment is an objective measure of the big-5 personality traits (Conscientiousness; Extraversion; Agreeableness; Openness to Experience; Emotional Steadiness). For each of these traits the assessment identifies four facets that map on and contribute to each trait. For instance, Conscientiousness is made up of the four facets Fixed Principles, Bound by Duty, Relentless Focus and Constrained by Caution.  A large scale meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety found that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness had the biggest significant impact on safety behaviours and subsequently accidents (Beus et al., 2015). It is likely that these relationships were due to conscientious employees being more likely to follow safety protocols and rules and be focussed, cautious and methodical about their work whereas agreeable employees are more likely to carry out pro-social behaviours such as reporting near-misses and removing hazards that might impact others.

Great Safety Leadership is not just about getting people to follow safety procedures and wear personal protective equipment

As our competencies are ‘Leadership’ competencies it does not necessarily follow that the focus should be on conscientiousness and agreeableness. The safety behaviours examined in the Beus and colleagues (2015) research were primarily focussed on the behaviours of front-line workers not safety leaders and it is likely that emotional steadiness, openness to experience and extraversion will all play their part in safety leadership competencies. For instance, Judge, Bono, Ilies & Gerhardt (2002) conducted a meta-analysis and found that Extraversion (closely followed by Conscientiousness and Openness to experience) was most strongly related with leadership performance.

Is the link between some aspects of personality and job performance curvilinear?

An assumption often made is that the relationship between personality traits and job performance are linear. That is, that job performance improves the higher you are on a scale e.g. the more conscientious you are the better it is for job performance. The counter-argument is that there comes a point on the scale where performance dips. As an example, many people believe that if you are too cautious or consumed by detail you may struggle to make a decision! The research in this area is quite varied with some research identifying that selection decisions based on an ‘ideal point’ leads to more favourable hiring outcomes (Carter et al.,2014). Indeed, there are many small studies that identify curvilinear relationships between specific traits with specific job outcomes. For example, leaders that are too assertive are not as effective (Ames & Flynn, 2007); high levels of transformational leadership behaviour led to emotional exhaustion in others (Molines et al., 2020); pilots with extreme dutifulness & self-assurance having more pilot mishaps & incidents (King et al., 2000). However, the largest meta-analysis study between the big-5 personality traits and a combined measure of job performance has found that the evidence for curvilinear relationships is limited, with any expected decline in performance to be minimal (Walmsey et al., 2018). Therefore, at Mosaic we have exercised caution when using curvilinear relationships and only occasionally use the ‘ideal point’ with performance declining slightly at the extremes.    

Potential issues with using personality traits for leadership development

The review of leadership by Lekka & Healy (2012) raised a couple of weaknesses associated with using a ‘personality traits’ approach for safety leadership development. Firstly, that there is no ‘one’ universal set of traits that will be effective for safety leaders in all situations. Strengths in some personality traits might help someone excel in one situation but struggle in another. The second issue they raised is that because personality is considered relatively stable over time (Northouse, 2010) it is not possible to train or develop individuals to become better leaders with this approach. There is of course an element of truth with both these statements and raises questions about how personality information is used.

Through developing a number of ‘competencies’ based on personality traits we are essentially saying ‘this particular mix of personality traits may make it easier (or harder) to perform a certain aspect of the job well’. The same personality traits may not be as relevant for other aspects of job or indeed may make it harder (or easier) to perform well. So, indeed, there is no ‘universal’ ideal profile. This is just real life though, no one person is good at everything or finds everything easy. Personality is complex and it is in the understanding of how various traits interact in different situations that real value can be found.

The second issue (the stable-ness of personality) is really linked to the whole purpose of using a personality assessment to support leadership development. The purpose is to help people understand themselves better. To understand and be much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and why they may find some things easy and other things difficult. In developing this understanding, the individual is able to improve the way they manage situations and certain aspects of the job. They may decide that others are more suited to certain activities or that they can do things differently to improve performance. Although, personality is thought to be reasonably static, there is no reason why safety performance can’t be improved through understanding and planned activity. Examples include a leader:

  • who is not a naturally innovative may decide to rely more on colleagues to provide ideas and suggestions.

  • who does not naturally reflect on their shortcomings may decide to spend more time reflecting and discussing their actions and behaviour with others.

  • who is low on cautiousness may make a point of running critical ideas past a more cautious colleague.

  • who is not broadminded may make more efforts to not jump to conclusions (or at least to act on their assumptions) when an incident occurs. 

Developing the Mosaic Safety Leadership Competencies

The Mosaic Assessment is unique in that it measures personality both objectively through short online tasks and also using a self-report measure through a questionnaire. We use these scores to create an average score for each facet and for clarity and insight display when there is a difference between the objective score and the self-report score. These ‘blind spots’ are particularly critical in helping leaders understand aspects of their personality that they may not have been conscious of, but may have been hampering their performance.

INSPIRING TRUST – breakdown of facets mapping on to this competency

When developing our Safety competencies we had a number of decision to make 1) which safety leadership competencies make up a freat safety leader 2) which facets were relevant and mapped on to competency? 3) how did the facets map on to each competency? The image above shows the competency ‘Inspiring Trust’ and how the facets map on to this competency. To explain how this works, these are some of the features of our Safety Leadership Competencies:

  1. Measures Competency Potential. The assessment measures Competency Potential not the individual’s actual competency. The competency scores are derived from personality scores which tell us about how the individual is likely to think, feel and act in situations. For instance, in the example competency profile above we would expect to see someone sticking to their principles quite rigidly and prioritising the fair treatment of others. Someone who behaves in this way is likely to inspire the respect and trust of others. One of the key components of trust is integrity, and this highly principled approach to the treatment of others is likely to be seen as a display of integrity.

  2. Higher is not always better. As discussed in this article we have occasionally highlighted in our competency model that some of the personality facets can be counter-productive at the higher end. As an example, the facet ‘Swayed by Sympathy’, as the name suggests, is characterised by decisions being impacted by sympathy over objective reasoning at the higher end. As the image above clearly shows the ideal score when it comes to ‘inspiring trust’ for ‘Swayed by Sympathy’ is 6 or 7, where the leader is sympathetic to others but not to the point where it clouds their decisions. Similarly, ‘Taking Charge’ is also ideally scored at 6 or 7 where the leader takes charge but not at the ‘extreme’ scores of 9 or 10 which may on occasion break trust when the other party feels micro-managed.

  3. Blockers can impact competency potential. The ‘Inspiring Trust’ profile above shows two blockers (the maximum allowed for any competency). These will not always be shown, only appearing when the participant scores in the ‘danger zone’, which could be either the top 3 or bottom 3 scores depending on the facet/competency combination. In this case we can see that trust could be damaged by someone who is very low on ‘selflessly helpful’ and/or ‘Bound by Duty’. In these cases, the participant might be at risk of behaving in a way that might make others feel that they don’t have their best intentions at heart (e.g. by not helping them) or by not acting with integrity (e.g. breaking important rules or not following through on promises).

  4. Self-Report vs Objective Tasks. The Mosaic Personality Tasks assessment takes two measures of personality, one objectively through online tasks and one through a self-assessment questionnaire. Mostly, these two scores will align and won’t be shown on reports but when they differ, they will be shown. On the profile above we can see that ‘Belief in Own Ability’ has the self-report and objective tasks score shown. The way they are displayed suggests that the participant may have a blind spot for this facet. Their self-report scores suggests that they feel they have an extremely high belief in their own ability but their objective score suggests that their belief in their own ability if not actually as high as they think. This is something that can be explored with the participant.     


Inspiring trustInspiring the trust of others is likely to rely on a leader being able to demonstrate that they are principled, have others’ best intentions at heart and are able to demonstrate competence. The trustworthiness of leaders has been shown to mediate the relationship between communication and safety behaviours.
Seeking the wider picture Seeking the wider picture involves looking for a wider body of evidence in order to make decisions – including facts, evidence and expert, opposing and disparate views. This approach helps avoid tripping up on cognitive bias as decisions are based on more objective and wider sources of data.
Reacting Constructively Reacting constructively involves being restrained and not acting based on emotions or impulse. It involves being able to put yourself in others’ shoes and acting in a fair and measured way based on all the facts. This competency is important for safety as the wrong reactions to situations can set back the culture and lead to under-reporting.
Coping with risksCoping with risks involves taking a strategic and cautious approach to risks. This means thinking risks through carefully and paying attention to all relevant guidance, processes, obligations and rules. It involves carefully considering the impact that decisions could have on the risks for others both now and in the future.
Engaging Others Engaging Others is about finding interesting and novel ways to engage people in safety. It involves giving people the opportunity to give their opinion, feel valued and get involved. This is a necessary skill for safety as it helps maintain an enthusiasm and focus on safety. 
Humble Coaching Humble coaching is about approaching conversations with people from a position of genuine curiosity and humility, knowing that you do not have all the answers. It involves asking the right questions in order to build an understanding of others’ concerns and having a genuine desire to help and support. This approach is critical for understanding how work is really done and the actual issues being faced.
Generating an open culture Generating an open culture is about creating an atmosphere feel safe to speak up and voice their concerns, mistakes, questions and ideas. This involves setting expectations, being willing to admit shortcomings and being sympathetic to others. Creating this open and safe culture makes it more likely that people will speak up and share vital information.
Innovating SolutionsInnovating Solutions is about the ability to be creative and come up with new ways of looking at problems. This involves being able to see and develop new and adaptive ways of addressing known and emerging issues.  These skills might help in emergency situations but also when known methods are not achieving their goals.
Proactive ActionProactive action is about taking the necessary proactive steps to manage risks based on the information that is being received.  This involves following through on commitments, keeping focussed when things get difficult and having the necessary self-belief and leadership skills to get the job done.

Safety roles

There is a train of thought that says a great safety leader should be good at everything. If you get to that position, you should be able to talk authentically with others, be able to solve safety issues quickly and effectively, ask the right questions, engage others etc. Safety initiatives often involve a blanket requirement for leaders to be conducting a wide variety of activity (e.g. shop-floor walks; developing safety procedures; being role models) or new supervisors are suddenly responsible for delivering engaging toolbox talks and developing safety goals. The reality is that every person has a different personality and they will find some of these initiatives naturally easy to do well and others naturally challenging and awkward to complete. The question is should effective safety leaders focus on what is natural strength for them or master all these activities? Included in our safety leadership role we devised a profile of likely natural role strengths. The idea of this graph is to help the individual to think through what activities might naturally suit them and which ones they may need more support with.

In summary, in developing our safety competencies we wanted to create a nuanced and thoughtful set of competencies built around building psychological safety, effective collaboration and the proactive management of risks. We believe the insights that leaders in safety critical industries and organizations will gain about themselves from completing the safety leadership report will help them to understand themselves and become better safety leaders.

Identifying safety issues and measuring performance

In support of our personality assessment we also run a safety culture survey that covers each of the nine safety competency areas. This will help the senior leadership team identify any gaps in performance. Coupled with the personality data they have a detailed picture of the safety issues and how they will address them.

By Johnny Mitchell, Director, Mosaic Assessments Ltd.

A sample of our Safety Leadership report can be viewed here


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    Arumugam, V., Antony, J., & Kumar, M. “Linking Learning and Knowledge Creation to Project Success in Six Sigma Projects: An Empirical Investigation.” International Journal of Production Economics 141.1 (2013): 388–402.

    Baer, M., & Frese, M. (2003). Innovation is not enough: Climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24(1), 45-68; Liang, J., Farh, C. I., & Farh, J. L. (2012). Psychological antecedents of promotive and prohibitive voice: A two-wave examination. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 71-92.

    Beus, Jeremy & Dhanani, Lindsay & McCord, Mallory. (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Personality and Workplace Safety: Addressing Unanswered Questions. Journal of Applied Psychology. 100. 481-498. 10.1037/a0037916.

    Bunderson, J. S., & Boumgarden, P. (2010). Structure and learning in self-managed teams: Why “bureaucratic” teams can be better learners. Organization Science, 21(3), 609-624.

    Carter, N. T., Dalal, D. K., Boyce, A. S., O’Connell, M. S., Kung, M.-C., & Delgado, K. M. (2014). Uncovering curvilinear relationships between conscientiousness and job performance: How theoretically appropriate measurement makes an empirical difference. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(4), 564–586.

    Converse, P. D., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Thinking ahead: Assuming linear versus nonlinear personality‐criterion relationships in personnel selection. Human Performance, 27(1), 61–79.

    Cooper, M. D. (2015). Effective safety leadership: Understanding types & styles that improve safety performance. Professional Safety, 60(2), 49–53.

    Demerouti, E. and Bakker, A.B. (2006), “Employee well-being and job performance: where we stand and where we should go”, in Houdmont, J. and McIntyre, S. (Eds), Occupational Health Psychology: European Perspectives on Research, Education and Practice, Vol. 1, ISMAI Publications, Maia

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    Lekka, C., & Healey, N. (2012). A review of the literature on effective leadership behaviours for safety. Retrieved from

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    Nahrgang, J.D., Morgeson, F.P. & Hofmann, D.A. (2011). Safety at work: A meta-analytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement and safety outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 71-94.

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    The Dark Triad of Personality – part 1

    The Dark Triad of Personality – Narcissism

    It has been almost 20 years since Paulhus and Williams first published their paper on The Dark Triad of Personality.  In the first of three articles, I explore the first of the Dark Triad of personality.

    How can you tell if someone is narcissistic?

    Can you spot this behavioural pattern in your workplace?

    This person creates a great first impression, but as you get to know them as a colleague or boss, it becomes increasingly apparent that it is “all about them”.  They can be charismatic and initially incredibly engaging towards you.  You may fall under their “spell”.  However, as time goes by things begin to change.  As long as you remain useful to them, you will be manipulated and put to work serving their needs in return for intermittent and insincere praise.  They have worked out how to exploit you, know your weaknesses and play to that to keep you chasing that praise and approval.  As they rise up to a powerful position in the organisation, all must worship!  They believe they are better than others, entitled to special treatment and of course if things go wrong nothing is ever their fault.  Negative feedback or criticism can be met with explosive anger, hostility towards the source and extreme denial.

    Yes well spotted, meet the Narcissist! Of course, often the person (you are probably already thinking of someone) doesn’t have the full set of the above personality traits.  Just some of them.  But these narcissistic traits are bad enough, right?

    Research on personality derailers

    In our own research for Mosaic tasks, we found that the evidence suggest that those who scored high on Narcissism as measured by a combination of a questionnaire and certain behavioural measures on our Objective Personality Tasks (OPTs) admitted to the following:

    • that in the past year other people had mentioned to them they showed off about their personal achievements

    • that they had, over the past year, used others for their own ends and taken advantage of others

    • that they had over the past three years always made sure that their family and friends knew about their successes and achievements

    • that in the past year they often caused disagreements with people around them.

    A low score on the “Big 5” personality traits of Agreeableness is a common feature for all aspects of the Dark Triad.

    Can narcissists change?

    So, what can be done about it?  Can these people change?  According to psychologist Andrew Jamieson, absolutely not.  His book “Prepare to be tortured: the price you will pay for dating a narcissist” is a great read, part novel and part descriptive.  I can recommend it for that bored moment.  He is adamant that these people will never change, even if they manipulate you into believing that they are really trying. 

    Instead, we need to try and select narcissists out at hiring stage.  But this can be easier said than done.  Recall that narcissists often specialise in that great first impression.   Many hiring processes are brief and relatively superficial.

    And what about personal development?  Can narcissists with feedback and coaching, learn to change?  A highly controversial approach is outlined by Hamstra et al in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.  They recommend “sincerity training” for narcissists.  Not surprisingly they found that employees who work for narcissistic leaders and managers had a lowered perception of trust in their boss.  However, this could be mediated or improved if the narcissistic leader learned to manage the impression of being sincere!  And to sell it to the narcissists, convince them that it is in their own best interests to try to get along with others in order to get ahead and advance their career.

    What do you think?  Would that work in your organisation?  Is this the solution?  

    Measuring leadership derailers objectively

    Mosaic Personality Tasks is the first (we think!) assessment to measure leadership personality derailers obectively by using our behavioural tasks. We measure Feelings of Superiority; Potential to Manipulate; Displays of Low Empathy and Impulsive Acts and highlight any potential concerns. We believe that measuring derailers using an objective personality test is crucial as self-report questionnaires are known to be easy to manipulate and an interviewer may not neccessarily spot these traits.


    Paulhus, Delroy L. and Kevin M. Williams. “The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.” Journal of Research in Personality 36 (2002): 556-563.

    Article can be download here:

    Hamstra, M.R.W., Schreurs, B., Jawahar, I.M., Laurijssen, L.M. and Hünermund, P. (2021), Manager narcissism and employee silence: A socio-analytic theory perspective. J Occup Organ Psychol, 94: 29-54.

    Article can be read here:

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      Man with shortcomings

      New personality scale found: Reflects on Shortcomings

      reflects with shortcomings
      Image by Schäferle from Pixabay

      New personality scale found: Reflects on Shortcomings

      As part of our major UK study into the development of objective tasks to assess personality (as opposed to the traditional self-report questionnaire approach), a new personality scale has emerged: the tendency to reflect on shortcomings.  It has not, to our knowledge, been possible to measure this personality scale using any other approach.  Relying on people that are low on this scale to self-report that they are not good at reflecting on shortcomings does not make logical sense! We believe that the addition of this scale makes a very valuable contribution to personality assessment. Reflecting on our own shortcomings is integral to growing and developing as humans as well as building relationships with others.

      Our Mosaic study asked 480 volunteers about how they felt about resolving complex problems (e.g. “I can handle complex problems”), reading challenging material (e.g. “I have a rich vocabulary”) and understanding complex emotions (E.g. “I am concerned about others”). They were then recorded actually completing objective online tasks measuring their ability in these very same attributes.  The two were then compared to see how accurately volunteers judged themselves.

      Did some volunteers over-judge or inflate their attributes compared with the reality of the objective tasks?  The answer was yes, but there were just as many volunteers who tended to consistently under-judge their attributes i.e. they performed BETTER on the objective tasks than they had rated themselves.  In other words, direct evidence that some people really are unjustifiably self-critical about themselves.  We have always known that some people are self-critical whilst others are overly confident, but now we have direct objective evidence of this within an assessment. When put together as a personality scale, the team of occupational psychologists at Mosaic Assessments Ltd were able to assess the extent to which each of the 480 volunteers in the study tended to Reflect on their Own Shortcomings.  Those who tended to be particularly self-critical and to reflect more often on their shortcomings were found to score more highly on a major personality area: Openness to Experience, one of the internationally recognised Big 5 building blocks of personality. 

      Those who tend to reflect LESS on their own shortcomings also tend to be less broad-minded and to dislike working with complexity.  They perhaps prefer to see the world in black and white rather than more subtle shades of grey, and this seems to extend to a less nuanced consideration of their own skills and abilities.  For coaches and leadership development specialists working with clients, this is very useful information!

      It seems very likely that this personality scale could not have been spotted through the use of questionnaires alone. The addition of objective personality tasks creates a contrast to the questionnaire, and has highlighted this new scale. It is relevant to leadership competencies such as Change & Adaptability, Working with People, Resilience and Continual Learning amongst others. Popular approaches such as humble leadership and Psychological Safety also rely on leaders being able to reflect on their own shortcomings. Leaders who are high on this scale can build trust by being willing to make themselves vulnerable to others by admitting their own deficits, thus giving an example to their team that ‘it’s ok to be wrong’ and ‘it’s ok to admit mistakes’. You may ask, but what if I score low on this facet? Well, that is also very useful information as you can learn to be aware that this is something that might not come naturally to you and to set aside deliberate time and effort to reflect on feedback and use this reflection to build trust. All in all, a very useful scale!

      Please go to for more information.

      written by Alan Howard, Director, Mosaic Assessments Ltd

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      Why scoring high on some personality traits is not always desirable

      Why scoring high on some personality traits is not always desirable.

      The Big 5 personality traits emerged to describe the essential traits that serve as the building blocks of personality. They aim to simplify and explain individual differences in personalities and are often used as the basis of personality tests. These traits are: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Importantly, each personality factor represents a range between two extremes, for example Extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion, and most people lie somewhere between the polar ends of each trait (Cherry & Susman, 2021)

      Are high scores good and low scores bad?

      Whilst the name of each of the Big 5 describes one end of a personality trait continuum, the other end is open to opposing descriptors, and we should imagine a scale stretching between those two trait extremes with our personal demeanour pegged somewhere along that scale. When it comes to personality testing, the system and language used is crucial. Where, for example, might one place oneself on a scale between Agreeableness and Antagonism? Between Neuroticism and Emotional Stability?  Between Conscientiousness and Laziness? Where testing methods use language that assigns positive and negative behaviours to each trait descriptor there lies the possibility of allowing test candidates to skew their self-assessments towards descriptors perceived as more favourable.

      Many test candidates tend to view high scores as ‘good’, and some have tendencies to amplify personality traits they consider to be more useful in a test undertaken in a particular context. However, over scoring or exaggerating traits may inadvertently undervalue some valuable personal characteristics, and candidates may unwittingly undermine their strengths in a specific context. Candidates may also undervalue what they might perceive to be weakness simply because of negative connotations in the use of language. This kind of mis-scoring within testing can have demonstrable consequences in real world situations.

      Can you have too much of a good thing?

      An assumption often made is that the relationship between personality traits and job performance is linear. That is, that job performance improves the higher you are on a scale e.g. the more conscientious you are the better it is for job performance. The counter-argument is that there comes a point where on the scale where performance increases but dips again at the extreme end (curvilinear). As an example, many people believe that if you are too cautious or consumed by detail you may struggle to make a decision! The largest meta-analysis study between the big-5 personality traits and a combined measure of job performance has found that the evidence for curvilinear relationships is limited, with any expected decline in performance to be minimal (Walmsey et al., 2018). The size and quality of this research suggests that caution is needed when using curvilinear relationships to develop competencies, particularly in blindly sifting candidates.  However, for development purposes there is also a duty to point out to a participant where they might find things difficult if they are at a high-end of a personality trait. Further, the research by Walmsey and colleagues only had one single measure of job performance and used the big 5 personality traits, not the more discrete facets. There is much more to explore here – what about the impact of extreme levels of focus on mental exhaustion? How does extreme cautiousness impact decision-making? Is displaying too much sympathy helpful when caring for others? This article explores some of these relationships.

      Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

      The ‘dark-side’ of being high on personality traits

      In a day-to-day practical context, imagine a situation where an employee is extremely helpful to others. On the face of it they may be highly suitable for a job in the service-based industry. This employee generally finds it very difficult to say ‘no’ to colleagues who ask for help and will regularly sacrifice their own needs for others. After continually saying ‘yes’ to colleague’s requests, in addition to their own workload and pressures, they are eventually overwhelmed, taking days off with stress and exhaustion. ‘Selflessly Helpful’ is a descriptor that will be mentioned again later.

      Consider a candidate for a medical degree who may consider and amplify conscientiousness as a good trait to possess. Conscientiousness is a good trait in relation to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in preclinical years where a methodical, self-disciplined approach is needed. However, research shows the trait to be less beneficial in the later clinical years of the degree where greater flexibility and adaptation is required to engage in clinical situations, and where the rigidity of thought associated with conscientiousness may in fact be a hinderance (Ferguson et al., 2014).

      Similarly, a medical candidate may be tempted to strive for a lower score for neuroticism in order to portray low anxiety levels. However, clinical performance can have serious implications for patient safety, and medical candidates with moderate to high anxiety levels in stressful situations show higher levels of alertness, attentiveness and care. Anxiety should therefore be linked positively to clinical skills acquisition. These candidates often go on to achieve a higher degree of success in later clinical years (Ferguson et al., 2014).

      Extreme personality traits may also impact those around you

      Research by Ames & Flynn (200&) has looked at the impact of levels of assertiveness on the effectiveness of leaders. During 3 studies they found that leaders who were too low on assertiveness impacted goal achievement negatively. However, they also found that leaders being very high on assertiveness had a high social cost with a negative impact on relationships. They propose that it is most optimal for leaders to be in the mid-range of assertiveness and apply ‘more situationally appropriate levels of assertiveness’.

      Again, in a medical context, sympathy, empathy and compassion would appear beneficial where patient-doctor relations are seen as highly important. In one study, patients can easily distinguish between the constructs of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. While patients acknowledged considerable overlap between empathy and sympathy, they were unequivocal in identifying sympathy as a distinct and unhelpful reaction to their suffering. Sympathy was described as a superficial acknowledgment of suffering, due to its pity-based motivators and lack of utility in relieving patient suffering (Sinclair et al., 2017). In other words, patients wanted doctors to understand their emotions but to retain some objectivity and not to be overly emotional or pitying.

      In a study on Pilots in the US Air Force, high levels of conscientiousness were seen as the most desirable trait to possess and has been regarded as the secret ingredient to success in aviation (Siem & Murray, 1997). However, when studies were conducted collating the data of pilots who were involved in flying incidents, those who were scored more highly on dutifulness and self-assurance were more likely to have been involved in incidents. Preliminary interpretations suggested that high levels of dutifulness may precede a lack of flexibility or inability to meet novel demands in crisis situations, and that high levels of self-assurance (often considered a sub-facet of emotional steadiness (low neuroticism)) may lead some pilots to exceed their ability (King et al., 2000).

      If the purpose of testing is to assess the suitability of an individual for a particular context, it is important that personality assessments are open and honest about both the upsides and downsides of being at either end of personality scales.

      What’s in a name?

      Mosaic Assessments have spent 4 years developing and carefully validating a unique personality tool (measuring the big 5 personality traits and 20 sub-facets) that integrates a self-report questionnaire with objective tasks – Mosaic Personality Tasks. In order to address the issues outlined in this article the team at Mosaic have deliberately named some of their scales to reflect the associated issues with being high on the scales.  For instance, ‘Constrained by Caution’ reflects that people high on this scale may avoid making important decisions because they are just too cautious; ‘Bound by Duty’ reflects that people who are high on this scale feel compelled to follow obligations even when it is not the right thing to do; ‘Swayed by Sympathy’ reflects that those that are high on this scale may let sympathy get in the way of making objective decisions; and ‘Selflessly Helpful’ reflects those who feel obliged to help others to such a degree they often undermine their own needs.

      How should this impact feeding back personality data?

      There is a balance to met as the research seems to be saying that in general terms the impact on job performance at the high levels of personality traits has been found to be very slight/inconsistent/negligent. However, other studies have found there can be other unconsidered impacts of being high on certain traits (e.g. negative social effects or burnout) which may not have immediate job performance effects but can claw away and erode team spirit and long-term performance. The Mosaic Personality Tasks reports have been designed to highlight the possible pitfalls of being at the extremes of any personality trait or facet. Descriptions are given that identify potential issues and tips are given on how to handle these potential issues. The theory being that being able to identify and respond to situations where ‘toning down’ certain attributes is beneficial to self and others, is a highly useful skill to possess.

      This article was written by Henry van Dijk who is in his final year of Psychology at the University of Stirling. Henry has a strong interest in Occupational Psychology and has been on a student placement at Mosaic Assessments Ltd. Please connect with him here.

      You can find out more about Mosaic Personality Tasks and the reports we pffer at If you are interested in reading more articles on personality as well as receiving updates on Mosaic Personality Tasks please sign up to our mailing list.

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      Ames, Daniel & Flynn, Francis. (2007). What breaks a leader: The curvilinear relation between assertiveness and leadership. Journal of personality and social psychology. 92. 307-24. 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.307.

      Cherry, K., & Susman, D. (2021). The big five personality traits. Retrieved from

      Ferguson, E., Semper, H., Yates, J., Fitzgerald, J. E., Skatova, A., & James, D. (2014). The ‘dark side’and ‘bright side’of personality: When too much conscientiousness and too little anxiety are detrimental with respect to the acquisition of medical knowledge and skill.PloS One, 9(2), e88606. 

      King, Raymond & Retzlaff, Paul & Orme, Daniel. (2000). A Comparison of US Air Force Pilot Psychological Baseline Information to Safety Outcomes. 21.

      Siem, F. M., & Murray, M. W. (1997). Personality Factors Affecting Pilot Combat Performance: A Preliminary Investigation, 

      Sinclair, S., Beamer, K., Hack, T. F., McClement, S., Raffin Bouchal, S., Chochinov, H. M., & Hagen, N. A. (2017). Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences.Palliative Medicine, 31(5), 437-447.

      Walmsley, Philip & Sackett, Paul & Nichols, Stephen. (2018). A large sample investigation of the presence of nonlinear personality‐job performance relationships. International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 26. 145-163. 10.1111/ijsa.12223.

      Why scoring high on some personality traits is not always desirable Read More »

      Managing response bias in personality assessment: introducing an alternative to flawed ‘social desirability’ scales

      Image by Sanna Jågas from Pixabay 

      Managing response bias in personality assessment: introducing an alternative to flawed ‘social desirability’ scales

      Most of us, at one point or another, have taken a personality test. It could have been a trait-based assessment using the big-5 personality traits, or a type-based assessment like the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test or just a pointless ‘which superhero are you like?’ quiz that a friend shared with you on Facebook back in the day. It could have been completed as part of a job application process, team development, for academic purposes or just out of sheer curiosity. If you think back to it, do you happen to recall whether you tried to answer the test as honestly as you could or whether you understood exactly why a particular question was being asked and altered your answer accordingly? If you can relate to the latter, which I know I’ve been guilty of on many occasions, then that is something that falls under the general term of response bias.

      What is social desirability?

      Response bias in itself is an umbrella term comprising of various types of biases, one of which is social desirability, which is a major concern in relevance to self-report questionaries. Social desirability has been defined as “the tendency to endorse items in response to social or normative pressures instead of providing veridical self-reports” (Ellingson, et al. 2001, p. 122). While initially it was believed to be a unidimensional construct, according to the most recent research of Paulhus (2002), social desirability has two dimensions namely impression management and self-deception. Impression management refers to an intentional adaptation of their image by an individual to be viewed by others in a favourable light while self-deception is an unintentional favourable misrepresentation of self i.e. people positively believe in how they have described themselves, however, it is not accurate. The key effect of social desirability is that it tends to increase a candidate score in areas that are either positively related to job performance or the areas that candidates believe to be positively related with job performance while reducing scores in areas that are or are believed to be negatively related with job performance.

      The effects of social desirability are a genuine concern in relevance to personnel management and rightly so as it is backed by research conducted in multiple countries, the results of which indicate that job applicants actually do intentionally distort their responses on personality tests in comparison to non-applicants (Birkeland et al., 2006).

      Detecting response bias

      Numerous Social Desirability measures/scales have been developed to detect such possible distortions in order to more accurately assess personality. In a review of personality inventories used in candidate selection, Goffin and Christiansen (2003) found that 85% of such personality inventories included a measure for social desirability and while 2 of the more commonly personality inventories include a mechanical “correction” to trait scores based on an elevated SD score, the vast majority of inventories did not include a mechanical correction. These measures test for distortion in responses by using items where, in a normative sample, the desirable response is relatively infrequent. Multiple infrequent and desirable responses result in a higher score, which is taken as an indication of distortion. This is then followed by either subjectively or mechanically (using a mathematical formula) adjusting the scores of an individual on the personality inventory.

      Several concerns have been raised over the years concerning the use of Social Desirability Scales. One of which, as noted by Ones and colleagues (1998), is that when the scores of a personality inventory are ‘adjusted’, it results in the modification of the construct validity of the inventory. In other words, the adjusted scores may fail to correspond to the respondent’s actual personality characteristics. In the case of subjectively adjusting the scores of a personality inventory, the approach is also nonviable depending on the size of the candidate pool as it requires an individual examination of each profile for adjustment.

      The problem with social desirability scales correlating with traits

      Another major concern with using social desirability scales is their corelation with the traits being measured. Ideally, it should be absolutely unrelated to any of the traits being measured so that a high score on the scale can only be indicative of distortion. If such a correlation exists, it becomes unclear as to what a high social desirability score indicates. Has there been an intentional attempt to distort responses or does the respondent actually have a stronger trait in the direction of the correlation? A meta-analysis (Ones et al., 1996) of the correlation between the five-factor model and social desirability scores found positive correlations with agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. This is in line with findings from Mosaic Assessments own recent research in which social desirability items correlated with the big-5 personality traits. What this means is that the questions did not identify social desirability.

      Specifically, in the context of personnel management, this becomes more problematic when there is a positive correlation between the social desirability score and the traits that tend to be positively related with the job. In this instance, respondents who would actually have the right personality traits for the particular job profile could end up being flagged for distortion due to a high social desirability score. On the other hand, distortion of responses due to social desirability is a genuine headache for any recruiting team in particular.  In addition, for coaches and learning professionals who are trying to help leaders and employees to develop their personal skills may be faced with an ‘inaccurate’ picture of the individual. In other words, it seems you can’t live without social desirability scales but you can’t live with them either!

      Is the answer ipsative items?

      A different approach is to use scales comprised of forced-choice items (ipsative measures) where a participant is presented with groups of 4 statements about personality and are required to select a statement that describes them the best and one which is the least appropriate. The basic assumption of forced choice measures is that if the items with similar social desirability are grouped, then the final response of an individual will not have been affected by social desirability and will be a better indicator of their personality characteristics. However, findings from recent research (Christiansen et al., 2005) suggest that forced-choice scales are just as susceptible to distortion as normative scales. Additionally, over the years, concerns about the limitations of this approach in relevance psychometric properties, reliability and questions about whether or not this approach can be used to draw a comparison between individuals have been raised (Meade, 2004; Johnson et al., 1988).

      The Alternative – Self-Perception!

      As Mosaic Personality Tasks collects both self-report data through a short questionnaire and objective personality data through online tasks, they are able to offer a unique solution to this problem.  Instead of relying on a social desirability scale in the questionnaire, Mosaic identifies a “self-perception” score by comparing how the individual has scored on Mosaic’s objective behavioural tasks relative to their personality questionnaire answers. As well as an ‘overall’ self-perception score individuals are also alerted to particular facets where there is a discrepancy between the two scores.

      Mixing tasks and self-report
      Image showing how self report score are combined with task scores

      This “self-perception” score can be “low” i.e. the person has consistently rated their personality attributes lower on their self-report questionnaire than the behavioural tasks suggest is really the case. In other words, they have been too self-critical when answering the questionnaire. In a recruitment setting, they may tend to undersell themselves and potentially miss out on opportunities. In a development setting, perhaps the person has more to offer than they realise. I’m sure we all know people who underplay themselves and this ‘low’ self-perception score is potentially critical information in helping to challenge this issue and to help in identifying potential competency strengths.

      Conversely, this score can be “high” i.e. the person has consistently rated their personality attributes higher on their questionnaire than the behavioural tasks suggest is really the case. In other words, they have oversold themselves, either deliberately or perhaps they genuinely just see themselves that way. In a recruitment setting in particular this is key, and offers a stronger and more robust alternative to the usual social desirability scale option. With this score identified, interviewers are armed with a much clearer understanding of the questions they need to ask and the specific personality facets to probe more thoroughly on. In extreme cases interviewers may want to triangulate with other sources of evidence such as references.  In a development setting, the ‘self-perception’ score opens up a whole realm of opportunity for discussion and understanding.

      In common with social desirability scales, this self-perception measure only “flags up” those scoring at the extremes. Over 90% of people score somewhere in the middle: rating themselves neither too highly nor too self-critically.  Those scoring right in the middle perhaps know themselves very well indeed.  Of course, on any particular personality scale, there can still be a difference, a blind spot in relation to just that particular personality attribute E.g. seeing oneself as more selflessly helpful than is really the case.


      This article was written by Prithvi Godi who was in his final year of Psychology at Stirling University. Prithvi has a strong interest in Occupational Psychology and has been on a student placement at Mosaic Assessments Ltd. Please connect with him on linkedin.

      You can find out more about Mosaic Personality Tasks at If you are interested in reading more articles on personality as well as receiving updates on Mosaic Personality Tasks please sign up to our mailing list below.

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      Birkeland, S.A., Manson, T.M., Kisamore, J.L., Brannick, M.T. and Smith, M.A., 2006. A meta‐analytic investigation of job applicant faking on personality measures. International Journal of Selection and Assessment14(4), pp.317-335.

      Christiansen, N. D., Burns, G. N., & Montgomery, G. E. (2005). Reconsidering forced-choice item formats for applicant personality assessment. Human Performance18(3), 267-307.

      Ellingson, J. E., Smith, D. B., & Sackett, P. R. (2001). Investigating the influence of social desirability on personality factor structure. Journal of Applied Psychology86(1), 122.

      Goffin, R. D., & Christiansen, N. D. (2003). Correcting personality tests for faking: A review of popular personality tests and an initial survey of researchers. International Journal of Selection and assessment11(4), 340-344.

      Johnson, C. E., Wood, R., & Blinkhorn, S. F. (1988). Spuriouser and spuriouser: The use of ipsative personality tests. Journal of Occupational Psychology61(2), 153-162.

      Meade, A. W. (2004). Psychometric problems and issues involved with creating and using ipsative measures for selection. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology77(4), 531-551.

      Ones, D. S., Viswesvaran, C., & Reiss, A. D. (1996). Role of social desirability in personality testing for personnel selection: The red herring. Journal of applied psychology81(6), 660.

      Paulhus, D. L. (2002). Socially desirable responding: The evolution of a construct. The role of constructs in psychological and educational measurement49459.

      Managing response bias in personality assessment: introducing an alternative to flawed ‘social desirability’ scales Read More »

      The importance of being broad-minded

      The importance of being broad-minded

      On a podcast last year on ‘The Safety of Work’ David Provan and Drew Rae had a very interesting discussion about whether ‘blame’ following an incident lessened the ability of the organisation to learn from failure. There are two extreme positions. At one end there is never any blame for the individual involved at the sharp-end of an incident (just learning for the organisation) and at the other end there is accountability and blame for the individual. It is acknowledged that many organisations try to sit somewhere inbetween where there is a fair accountability based on some sort of ‘Just Culture’ process. A question that is often posed in relation to Just Culture is ‘who draws the line between what is acceptable or not acceptable?’

      However, even if the line is drawn fairly then it still requires someone or some people to apply the process. Therefore,  another important question is who applies/administers the just culture process? Investigations and associated Just Culture processes are unlikely to be clear-cut objective exercises where you can easily fit people into a box with everyone agreeing on the outcome. They involve people interpreting what happened and bringing their own meaning based on their own views, perspectives and biases. On reflecting on this discussion my mind turned to the impact of personality on this process.

      What is Broad-mindedness?

      Along with my two colleagues at Mosaic Assessments Ltd we have been developing an objective personality test called Mosaic Tasks. As well as measuring personality objectively through online tasks we are also measuring self-perception and comparing these two measures in order to identify blind spots. Last year we had been discussing and testing work-related questions to measure a scale called ‘broad-mindedness’.

      Essentialy, broad-minded people are open in their outlook and are comfortable challenging traditional work views. They are less likely to see things as black and white. People who are high on this trait are often also sympathetic and with this combination of traits are much less likely to blame and more likely to be able to understand and feel the emotional pain of others.

      In developing this ‘broad-minded’ scale we tested quite a few options for questions and the initial results were quite interesting. The following graphs (from rejected questions) show some of the responses we got. Please note that these initial enquiries were based on a small sample size of 96.

      On the face of it people in our sample seem quite broad-minded. For instance, most people (over 60%) like to see themselves as not jumping to blame others when things go wrong.

      In addition, most (65%) believe that there is usually an explanation for poor behaviour. All good so far.

      However, when you start putting some more realistic scenarios (something that people can perhaps imagine readily) in front of people things start to change. For instance nearly 50% of people agree thet employers are too tolerant of those who do not contribute their fair share.

      When we look at some very safety specific questions that relate to how people are treated following people breaking rules and causing injury people become less broad-minded and sympathetic. Although no information is given in these examples about how things happen and the context of the behaviours about half of people (or 68% for those that break important rules) are able to make up their mind that there should be punishment for those involved. 

      Are people generally broad-minded?

      Faced with real scenarios people are probably less broad-minded and sympathetic than they think they are. They may have blind spots regarding their personality in this area. More and more, society (social media in particular) encourages us to put our best foot forward. Therefore, people start to believe they have a preference for behaving in certain ways when in reality they may not. We can all observe that when an incident occurs (such as the ship getting stuck in the suez canal) there is a clamour to point the finger and to blame an individual without knowing the context.

      Knowing and understanding your personality and the personality of those who are responsible for making such decisions is key and should align with the approach that the company is setting regarding just culture. That is why we, at Mosaic Assessments Ltd, were keen to make a personality assessment that was objective, but also enabled a comparison with self-perception so people could reflect on any differences. In addition to personality, the other thing to consider is whether your Just Culture approach allows for such a wide variety of interpretations.

      Research conducted by BP (Bitar et al, 2018) has shown that by asking the administrators of the Just Culture process to answer 8 carefully ordered questions about the context of the incidents they can more clearly highlight the causes of behaviours linked to the underlying system issues. They identified that in 90% of occasions it is indeed the case that there are underlying system issues. As David and Drew highlighted in their podcast, avoiding the unnecessary blaming and punishment of individuals for their behaviour will enhance a variety of learning behaviours such as speaking up and reporting near misses. So, its crucial to get this process right.

      Johnny Mitchell is an Occupational Psychologist and a Director of Mosaic Assessments.


      Fawaz K. Bitar, Diane Chadwick-Jones, Marcin Nazaruk, Chan Boodhai, From individual behaviour to system weaknesses: The re-design of the Just Culture process in an international energy company. A case study, Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, Volume 55, 2018, Pages 267-282, ISSN 0950-4230,


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      The importance of being broad-minded Read More »

      2018: Mosaic Tasks presenting in Hong Kong and Singapore

      As part of launching Mosaic Tasks we will be out presenting at conferences around the world. We are starting off in Hong Kong and Singapore where Alan Howard and TK Wu will be presenting to the Division of Industrial-Organizational Psychology (DIOP) in Hong Kong. To book a place and see more about the Hong Kong event click here and for the Singapore event click here.

      Personality Tasks – An Alternative To Personality Questionnaires

      Utilising recent advances in technology, personality assessment can be revolutionised so that one no longer needs to rely solely on questionnaires, which routinely suffer from distortion such as social desirability responding. (Birkeland et al 2006).

      The alternative approach – Objective Personality Tests or OPTs – builds on the research of Cattell (e.g. Cattell and Warburton 1967). OPTs rely on measuring task performance – but it is the way people complete each task, rather than how well they do on it, that reveals their personality traits. Participants are unaware of which aspects of their personality are being assessed. The tasks are typically short e.g. 5-12 minutes, completed online and resemble puzzles or challenges that are applicable to all ages and levels of seniority.

      In this interactive session, the speakers will share their own research into the validation of multiple OPTs using self-report ratings of personality and biodata.

      2018: Mosaic Tasks presenting in Hong Kong and Singapore Read More »