Why do people do what they do?

Dr. Murray Barrick, Paul M. and Rosalie Robertson Chair in Business, Mays Business School, Texas A & M University

Dr. Barrick is a distinguished professor, chair of the Management Department, and the Paul M. and Rosalie Robertson Chair in Business at the Mays Business School at Texas A & M University. Professor Barrick’s research focuses on the impact individual differences in behavior and personality have on job performance and on methods of measuring and predicting such differences. He also studies work team success, examining the role of team composition, interdependence, and processes on team performance. Finally, he has examined the influence candidate self-presentation tactics have on the interviewer during an employment interview. The author of more than 50 referred articles, Barrick has contributed research into publications including the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes among others. He is currently serving as the chair, HR division of the Academy of Management Program. The Beebe Institute was honored to host this esteemed guest!

Theory of Purposeful Behavior, Why do People do What They do?

Beebe director Todd Maurer and Dr. Murray Barrick

The following is taken from Dr. Barrick’s research and information presented at the Beebe Institute event.

Explaining why people do what they do at work has been the goal of behavioral scientists for nearly 100 years. Although there are many different ways to address this complex question, ultimately, any answer includes a discussion of individual characteristics such as motivation and ability and situational factors such as job characteristics. This research focuses on the motivational processes resulting from the joint effects of personality traits and tasks or social characteristics in explaining work behavior. The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior integrates principles derived from the Five-factor Model (FFM) of personality and the expanded job characteristics model to explain how traits and job characteristics jointly and interactively influence work outcomes. The theory posits that when the motivational forces associated with personality traits and job characteristics act in concert, individuals experience the psychological state of meaningfulness; in turn, experienced meaningfulness leads to purposeful, goal-directed task-specific motivational processes that influence work outcomes.

The FFM Structure of Personality is based on five factors:

  1. Extraversion – Sociability and Surgency
  2. Agreeableness – Cooperativeness and Consideration
  3. Conscientiousness – Dependability, Planful, Hardworking, Achievement Striving
  4. Emotional Stability – Calm, Resilient, Self-Confident
  5. Openness to Experience – Cultured and Creative

Lecture participants

From a practical perspective, a manager cannot change the person’s fundamental personality. Instead, they are better served by simply knowing their subordinates’ personality to understand where the employee’s fundamental goals originate. Yet, because the way the task and social characteristics designed at work can be altered and manipulated, the present theory provides a practical guide that can inform how to more optimally design work to better align with their personalities and goals, thereby enabling the employees to strive for what they want, based on who they are. Focusing on those job characteristics or social attributes that match what the person values or sees as meaningful will result in an employee who will be highly motivated, energized, and persistent at work. Thus, when an employee has the ability to redesign his or her own work, the Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior can provide a way to clarify which task or social characteristics to emphasize changing given their own standing on the personality traits (and higher-order goals).

The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior could also be used to improve career planning and even performance management systems. For example, individuals may use self-assessments of personality and these fundamental goals to help them identify which occupations may be most rewarding for them to pursue, or given a choice between two organizations with a position with the same specific job title, which job to choose. That is, an applicant who is highly conscientious would likely be happier and more productive as an engineer in the company that allows current engineers more feedback from the job and greater task identity.


Information for this article was taken from a paper Dr. Barrick co-authored with Michael K. Mount and Ning Li and is titled, The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior. This paper was presented by Dr. Barrick at the Beebe-sponsored speaker event.