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Organizational Psychology – Individual Differences: Challenging our Assumptions

Answers the Question

How do mistaken assumptions affect conclusions regarding the explanations and predictions regarding individual differences of performance?

How it Began

Individual differences contribute collectively to performance. Ackerman and Humphreys (1992) developed the  theory of individual differences offering “objective quantification” of individual differences. Different individual differences have been offered by several researchers: mental ability, temperament, and motivation (Ackerman & Humphreys, 1992), cognitive ability, personality orientation (values and interests) and affective dispositions (Murphy, 1996), cognitive ability, personality, interests and physical ability (Schmitt & Chan, 1998).

Individual Differences

Ackerman and Humphreys offered three types of individual differences: inter-individual differences, and two types of intraindividual differences.  For interindividual differences to be effective, diversity in the applicant population or the assessment of general abilities is required. Or rather, individual difference measures of a particular characteristic within a population may not assist in determining the best applicant. A more diverse population or general characteristic possessing greater variance may be required.

Intraindividual differences change over time. For example, technology has changed our differences in competency with the advent of personal computers. Tasks formally performed on typewriters, machines in which people were competent, changed to personal computers beginning with zero-competency, but changing to the competency level equal or beyond that of the typewriter. Differences between attributes of an individual could include differences in verbal and analytical skills. Individual differences also encompass knowledge, skills, abilities and other orientations (KSAOs).

Key Terminology

Individual differences – classification of the characteristics of people for purposes of selection, training, placement, and evaluation in the workplace.

Interindividual differences – differences between individuals.

Intraindividual differences – differences experienced over time, and “differences between attributes of an individual”

Knowledge – declarative and procedural knowledge, which serves as the basis to build abilities and skills are built.

Skills – psychomotor skills and abilities to cognition or cognitive ability.

Other orientations – personality and motivation characteristics important for the performance of more contextual tasks (Schmitt & Chan, 1998).

In Brief

The organizational environment is changing at a rapid pace, including technological advances, outsourcing, use of temporary or part-time workers, downsizing, globalization and the privatization of government activities. These changes indicate that changes in the way organizations conduct business will lead to changes in the requirements of employees by more closely focusing on individual differences that could critical to how business operates (e.g. teams) and organizational success.

Traditionally ability has been an important factor in performance. Changing organizational environments will not only sustain but also increase the importance of ability as organizational requirements continue to change. Personality also has been an important focus of individual differences that will become more important in the future as organizations focus more on contextual performance. Together personality and ability and applicable knowledge and skills become the critical individual differences that need to be measured in the rapidly evolving organizational environments (Motowidlo, Borman & Schmit, 1997; Motowidlo & Schmit, 1999).

Theory of Individual Differences

What does this mean for Organization Development

Proficient task performance is essential to organizational performance, thus, success. It is also important that to recognize the importance of contextual performance. Both Task and Contextual performance contribute to organizational effectiveness;  Task performance, based on some prescribed role or function that is guided by particular knowledge, skills, abilities and other orientations (KSAOs), contributes directly to the core business of the organization, whether it be producing a product or delivery of a service.

Contextual performance, indicates the extra initiative and/or effort that an organization member is willing to provide and supports the core business by contributing to the environmental concerns whether it is organizational, social, or psychological. By not being guided by requirements contained in job description or other job requirements, members who engage in contextual performance do so because they have chosen to do so on the organization’s behalf. Unlike task performance, contextual performance does not necessarily vary with the different jobs.

While proficient task performance remains important in selection, development, succession planning and performance, it is important for organizations to consider the benefits of including contextual performance when considering employee performance and people development.

Contextual dimensions in a work environment will set the tone for task performance in the organizational environment and

jobs will change through job enrichment (Schultz & Schultz, 1998). Based on the need for team-based environment, jobs will change by learning additional tasks that cross traditional boundaries. The team approach provides the organization with the tools through which to respond to dynamic environments by having team members versatile in a variety of tasks.

Contextual task ability includes:

1. Helping and cooperating with others

  • Working as a team member: good interpersonal and conflict resolution skills
  • Emphasis on customer service: internally and externally versus merely product or service delivery

2. Endorsing, supporting and defending organizational objectives

  • Essential for decision-making reflecting endorsement and support of organizational objectives.

3. Motivation to perform outside of job requirements

  • Initiative and willingness to take on more responsibilities

4. Self-development and flexibility

  • Adaptability, flexibility and openness to different methods of operating and willingness to learn new skills

The role of performance evaluation can serve several purposes not the least of which is to provide feedback on performance to individual employees. However, a performance evaluation system can also indicate changes that are needed in the form of additional declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and skill, and motivation.  Employee performance measure should include both task elements and contextual elements for example;

  • Job-specific task proficiency
  • Non-job-specific task proficiency
  • Written and oral communication task proficiency
  • Demonstrating effort
  • Maintaining personal discipline
  • Facilitating peer and team performance
  • Supervision/leadership
  • Management/administration


  • Ackerman, P. L., & Humphreys, L. G. (1990). Individual differences theory in industrial and organizational psychology. In. M. D. Dunnette, & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, vol. 1 (pp. 223-282). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  • Borman, W., & Motowidlo, S. (1993). Expanding the criterion domain to include elements of contextual performance. In N. Schmitt, & W. Borman (Eds.), Personnel Selection in Organizations (pp. 71-98). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Campbell, J., et al. (1993). A theory of performance. In N.Schmitt, & W. Borman (Eds.), Personnel Selection in Organization (pp.35-70). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Motowidlo, S. J., Borman, W. C. & Schmit, M. J. (1997). A theory of individual differences in task and contextual performance. Human Performance, 10 (2), pp. 71-83.
  • Motowidlo, S., & Schmitt, M. (1999). Performance assessment in unique jobs. In D. Ilgen & E. Pulakos (Eds.), The changing nature of performance (pp. 56-86). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (1999).
  • Murphy, K. R. (Ed.). (1996). Individual differences and behavior in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Schmitt, N., & Chan, D. (1998). Personnel Selection: A theoretical approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.
  • Schultz, D. & Schultz, S. E. (1998). Psychology & work today: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology. (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Whatley, S. L and Lee, C. Linking individual differences with performance improvement  The Ohio State University