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Research Translation on Person-Centered Research

Hannah Valley, Brianna Camacho, Amanda Kellaris, Maxwell Cain, & Jeff Conte, San Diego State University

This research translation is for professionals with backgrounds in I-O who would benefit from being aware of and understanding an important development (person-centered research) in our science. A growing trend in psychology is to take a holistic view and focus on the whole person using an approach called person-centered psychology. In contrast to the prevailing paradigm in psychology that focuses on variables and relationships among variables, the person-centered approach focuses on people and attempts to identify profiles or groups of individuals who are similar (Conte & Harmata, 2023; Woo et al., 2024). In this research translation, we summarize studies in four distinct areas (burnout, personality, commitment, emotional labor) in which person-centered research has been examined in recent years. In each of these areas, we describe a few research studies that used the person-centered approach, and then we discuss potential applied implications of these person-centered studies.

Burnout

Burnout, a state of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy, is a pervasive issue in workplaces today (Maslach et al., 2001). Burnout affects not only individual employees’ well-being but also organizational performance (Schaufeli et al., 2017). Although traditional, one-size-fits-all approaches to addressing burnout have been implemented, their effectiveness has been limited. By shifting focus from a general understanding of burnout to individualized experiences, the person-centered approach offers valuable insights into the diverse ways that individuals cope with burnout. Research by Mäkikangas and Kinnunen (2016) and Kinnunen et al. (2019) highlights the significant variations in how individuals respond to stressors and resources, leading to distinct burnout profiles and trajectories. This understanding underscores the need for interventions and strategies tailored to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of each individual. The limitations of traditional approaches are further emphasized by Ahola et al. (2014). Their research suggests that generic interventions may not effectively address the varying underlying factors contributing to burnout. This highlights the need for I-O/HR practitioners to move beyond standardized solutions and embrace a more personalized approach. Gameiro et al. (2020) provide a compelling example of this person-centered approach by proposing a novel interpretation of the job demands-control model. This model is reinterpreted through a person-centered lens, allowing for tailoring interventions based on individual differences in job demands, perceived control, and coping resources.

The importance of identifying vulnerable groups within specific contexts is another crucial aspect of the person-centered approach. Sandrin et al. (2022), for example, examine the unique challenges faced by fire station workers and the specific ways burnout manifests within this population. Similarly, DeFreese and Smith (2020) explore the dynamic relationship between burnout and stress in athletes across a competitive season. These studies demonstrate the vital role of considering the specific occupational demands and individual vulnerabilities within different groups to effectively address burnout.

Equipped with this knowledge, I-O/HR practitioners can implement a range of strategies to foster individual well-being and mitigate burnout. Conducting person-centered assessments is the first step. This involves utilizing tools and techniques to identify individual differences in burnout experiences, personal vulnerabilities, coping mechanisms, and resilience factors. By understanding these individual profiles, I-O/HR professionals can then develop targeted interventions tailored to address specific needs. These interventions might include mindfulness training to enhance emotional regulation, cognitive restructuring to address negative self-talk, or skill development to encourage effective coping with stress. Furthermore, facilitating personalized support plays a crucial role in addressing burnout. This can be achieved through coaching or mentoring programs that provide individual guidance and support in managing burnout challenges. By taking these initial steps and embracing the person-centered approach, I-O/HR practitioners can drive significant change within organizations. By transitioning from generic interventions to personalized solutions, I-O/HR professionals can create a more supportive and sustainable work environment that fosters individual well-being, optimizes performance, and ultimately contributes to the overall success of the organization. By recognizing the unique experiences and needs of each employee, I-O/HR practitioners can move beyond limitations of traditional frameworks and create a future where burnout is not simply managed but effectively prevented and ultimately overcome.

Personality

Utilizing personality measures has been a common practice for selecting candidates in organizations (Cascio & Aguinis, 2018; Sackett et al., 2017). Popular personality measures often use the five-factor model, which categorizes personality into five factors: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and emotional stability. By shifting focus from the traditional variable-based approach to the person-centered approach to personality, this may help I-O/HR practitioners to view personality in a more holistic way. This approach allows researchers and practitioners to identify shared attributes of individuals in a group or work setting and categorize them into groups of people who share these similar personality traits/characteristics. Previous researchers have utilized the person-centered approach to personality to discover how categorizing individuals into personality profiles may be able to predict specific outcomes.

Researchers have used the person-centered in the organizational context to predict work-related outcomes. For example, Honkaniemi and colleagues (2013) used the person-centered approach in a sample of job applicants. They identified four personality profiles in the sample. After identifying these personality profiles, the researchers investigated how each profile related to perceived fairness in the job selection process. The personality profiles labeled as “resilient” and “bohemian” had higher perceptions of fairness compared to the others. Conte and colleagues (2017) used the person-centered approach in a sample of U.S. Army recruits in an attempt to categorize individuals into personality profiles and predict job performance and attrition. Five personality profiles were identified in their sample, and those in the resilient profile demonstrated higher job performance and lower attrition rates than those in the overcontrolled and undercontrolled profiles.

The studies discussed above provide empirical evidence that personality profiles are associated with work-related outcomes. Utilizing a more holistic approach allows for better understanding of personality and implementation in the work environment. For example, consider an organization that is interested in utilizing the person-centered approach in their selection system. I-O/HR practitioners may assess job applicants using a personality measure and identify possible personality profiles identifiable in the sample of job applicants. After identifying personality profiles, practitioners may assess which personality profiles may be preferred or more useful for the specific open role. In a similar way, this approach could be utilized for selecting leaders or developing teams of individuals.

Personality profiles may additionally provide insight into the performance of existing employees at an organization. If existing employees are assessed and determined to be categorized into high-achieving personality profiles, this could assist I-O/HR practitioners in identifying top performers who may be likely to be promoted or possible candidates to add to their succession planning. Alternatively, individuals may also be categorized into lower or average-achieving personality profiles. This could assist I-O/HR practitioners in identifying potentially low-achieving individuals and recommending appropriate training programs to increase performance. An additional intervention that could potentially use a person-centered approach of personality is team building. For organizations that structure cross-departmental teams for long-term projects, it may be beneficial to identify specific personality profiles that work well with one another. After identifying possible personality profiles, practitioners can identify individuals from various departments who fall within these profiles to recruit for the existing teams and projects.

Commitment

Commitment, a psychological and emotional attachment that an individual feels to an organization, plays a crucial role in driving productivity and fostering team cohesion (Meyer et al., 2002). In recent years, there’s been a notable shift toward leveraging a person-centered approach to understand organizational commitment better. This innovative approach is rooted in the belief that commitment mindsets (otherwise called the three-component model, such as affective, normative, and continuance commitment along with commitments to various entities like the organization, occupation, supervisor, or team) can manifest differently among individuals (Meyer & Morin, 2016).

The primary aim of the person-centered methodology is to pinpoint subgroups within a given sample that showcase shared configurations or profiles concerning these commitment mindsets and targets. Once these subgroups are identified, researchers can further analyze them on various factors, including those believed to influence or result from commitment. This holistic perspective allows for a deeper understanding of the complex interaction among different commitment mindsets and targets—a complexity that might remain overlooked when using more traditional, variable-centered approaches (Meyer & Morin, 2016; Meyer et al., 2013).

Previous studies have focused on finding and analyzing different combinations of mindsets and targets, and ultimately concluding with evidence that can be beneficial toward both the organization and the individual. More specifically, Meyer et al. (2019) examined teachers based in Canada and identified five different profiles in the sample. The five profiles were a mix of commitment mindsets, two targets (occupation and organization), as well as the level of commitment toward the target (weak, moderate, and fully committed). They found that teachers grouped in the first profile (having continuance commitment toward the organization and weak continuance commitment toward the occupation) had feelings of being trapped in school and the occupation, resulting in negative outcomes. Another profile, which had individuals who were fully committed to the organization and the occupation, had the highest levels of positive affect, job satisfaction, and engagement, as well as the lowest levels of burnout and negative affect.

Similarly, when Meyer et al. (2015) examined the commitment toward the organization and supervisor, they also discovered five distinct profiles and similar mindset patterns in three of the five profiles, suggesting that supervisors are frequently perceived as representatives of the organization. Additionally, employee perceptions of organizational support and supervisor support significantly influenced their commitment profiles, with positive perceptions of organizational and supervisor support being associated with a stronger commitment to both targets. Moreover, profiles with a stronger commitment to both organization and supervisor exhibited lower voluntary turnover rates. 

Based on the above findings, I-O/HR practitioners may be able to leverage a person-centered approach in the organizational context to more accurately predict work-related outcomes. Results from the person-centered studies indicate that employees with different commitment profiles may respond differently to organizational initiatives, changes, and leadership styles (Meyer et al., 2013). Meyer et al. (2019) suggested that managers could provide tailored support to their employees instead of a universal fit approach, considering that employees with profiles that suggest weak commitment could benefit from different interventions compared to employees with profiles that suggest strong commitment. Moreover, Meyer and Morin (2016) recommended that instead of using traditional performance evaluations, managers can conduct more comprehensive assessments that consider employees holistically and that if managers and supervisors can identify subgroups of profiles, they will be more likely to better tailor strategies to help those subgroups.

Emotional Labor

Emotional labor is something most customer-facing employees have to deal with daily. For example, emotional labor occurs when a situation forces an employee to display emotions that they may not naturally display or feel. A specific example of this could be expecting employees to smile and say “Welcome to our store!” whenever customers enter a door. There are generally two ways an employee will display emotional labor, either through deep or surface acting (Gabriel et al., 2023). Deep acting occurs if the employee tries to feel those positive emotions, so their outward appearance matches the company’s expectations. Surface acting occurs when an employee displays the expected emotions and masks their true feelings. Generally, these two approaches are viewed as mutually exclusive, with surface acting having more negative work outcomes, whereas deep acting is associated with more positive work outcomes (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015).

With the advent of person-centered research, emotional labor has been examined from a new perspective. A traditional take on emotional labor had surface and deep acting being diametrically opposed, with employees using only one method when presented with emotional labor. Gabriel et al. (2015) first attempted to see if surface and deep acting truly were separate techniques using latent profile analysis. They sampled multiple occupations and found five separate profiles: nonactors, regulators, low actors, surface actors, and deep actors. Surface and deep actors reinforced the idea that some people use mainly one technique. However, discovering the other three profiles provides interesting insight into why person-centered research is useful. Nonactors and low actors used either no or few emotional labor techniques, respectively, and regulators used both methods quite regularly. These findings were replicated by Nguyen and Stinglhamber (2020), further supporting this five-profile model.

These five profiles have some distinct work outcomes associated with them. Deep actors and nonactors showed higher job satisfaction, affective commitment, and lower turnover intention and emotional exhaustion than the other three profiles (Nguyen & Stinglhamber, 2020). These findings line up with common thinking that if an employee must use an emotional labor technique, then deep acting is preferable. Alternatively, organizations could lower the expectations of displayed emotions for employees so they do not need to use emotional labor. The findings become interesting because surface actors and regulators were the two generally worst profiles regarding work outcomes, with their associated outcomes the opposite of deep actors and nonactors. Given that regulators use surface and deep acting, this challenges the notion that if someone uses deep acting, they benefit from the positive work outcomes it brings (Nguyen & Stinglhamber, 2020). As such, this finding helps broaden our understanding of emotional labor. 

An extension of the previous two studies, Burić et al. (2021) used deep acting as well but split surface acting into two separate dimensions: faking emotions and hiding feelings. Faking emotions is the part of surface acting in which an employee fakes the desired emotions, whereas hiding feelings is the act of suppressing their actual emotions. This study was conducted with a sample of 2,002 teachers and found similar findings to Gabriel et al. (2015) and Nguyen and Stinglhamber (2020). The main additions to those two studies were the identification of a new profile in true deep acting and the finding that the suppression of true emotions (faking emotions) was the true detrimental aspect of surface acting.

Investigating emotional labor using a person-centered approach can help provide specific practical advice for I-O/HR practitioners. For example, one takeaway from using this approach is to be clear with employees that they should only be using deep acting when they may have been using both deep acting and surface acting. The Burić et al. (2021) study also found that suppressing emotions is the most hurtful aspect of acting. Minimizing this aspect might entail starting meditation classes to reduce the emotional load of work. It also may entail lowering emotional labor expectations if poor work outcomes are to be avoided and the job does not require such emotional suppression. An organization could also inform employees that suppressing emotions can be detrimental to their overall work.

Overall, research using the person-centered approach is still relatively new, but this approach provides promising and innovative ways to investigate and apply I-O psychology expertise in the workplace. We hope that this research translation on the person-centered approach provides alternative ways of thinking about I-O research and how that research might be applied to the workplace.

References

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