Does Your Personality Match Your Nursing Specialty?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


January 29, 2015

In This Article


Personality theories are interesting. Some people believe strongly in them, to the point of stereotyping nurses who work in different areas, or describing nurses in such broad categories as "type A" and "type B," or "day shift" and "night shift" personalities. None of these characterizations are useful in helping nurses find the niches within the nursing profession where they will be successful and experience the most job satisfaction. We should dispense with non–evidence-based stereotypes and use validated and reliable personality assessment instruments, such as those used by these researchers, to expand the evidence base about the personality traits of nurses in the contemporary healthcare environment.

Kennedy and colleagues have found evidence of differences in personality in nurses working in different specialty areas, especially critical care, oncology, and the emergency nursing. But how important is this? Is it a problem if nurses change jobs when they find that they don't mesh with the type of work they have to do, the type of patients they have to take care of, or the personalities of the colleagues in the specialty with whom they must interact every day?

With the enormous cost of orientation, especially nurse residencies, most people would probably agree that trial and error is not an ideal way to choose a nursing specialty. The newly trained nurse is committed to the new specialty area for a specified period of time to "pay back" the unit for the training he or she has received, so even if both sides agree that the nurse doesn't have the right "personality" after all, economics usually dictate the course of action. The new nurse will finish his or her time on the unit and then move on through the revolving door. If a personality test could be administered at the time of application to a nurse residency program, the results could be used as part of the selection and assignment process, along with interviews and other factors, and retention will likely be improved.

At this point, we don't have enough evidence to say whether personality testing will play a strong role in improving the career trajectories of nurses. It would be interesting to assess and compare personality traits from specialties that have not been studied to date to see whether the personalities of nurses in critical care differ appreciably from those in pediatrics, psychiatry, surgical care, or ambulatory care, for instance. We might find that they do not, or we might find potentially useful differences between these nursing groups.

Kennedy and colleagues have done some recent work suggesting that intriguing differences exist, at least in emergency department nurses, compared with population norms. This research team recently completed a study[2] of personality characteristics of Australian emergency department nurses using a tool based on five broad domains of personality: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, each of which is composed of six facets.

They found that emergency nurses scored higher than population norms on facets within the domain of openness to experience, suggesting that these nurses are broad-minded, tolerant of others' lifestyle choices, aware of their own feelings, and willing to challenge social, political, and religious values. Emergency nurses scored higher than population norms on two facets of agreeableness: altruism and modesty, which are associated with being thoughtful and considerate, and doing whatever is necessary to assist others. A few other differences were higher scores for impulsiveness and competence, and lower scores for vulnerability, suggesting an ability to function well in emergency or stressful situations and make effective decisions under stress.

A growing evidence base about personality traits among nurses in different specialties has other potential benefits. It could permit research into links between nursing personality traits and measures of job satisfaction, work-related stress, retention, turnover, and perhaps even patient outcomes. It certainly seems to be an area worthy of more exploration. As more opportunities open up to nurses in an expanding and increasingly specialized healthcare environment, it will be a win-win for nurses and healthcare employers if nurses are able to select areas of specialization, or even career paths within a particular field, that are more suited to their personalities.



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