Particular personality characteristics will ensure some individuals are more effective nurses than other, but a variety of factors come into play, says Geoff Trickey.


Some people seem to have a natural concern for others – not just at work – but in every aspect of their lives.


However, stories of inadequate care in hospitals and care homes suggest that caring for others does not come easily to everyone. The call is for more compassion, but it is as simple as that?


Compassion is not confined to the approachable, engaging stereotype; it is just one aspect or personality, People who are not immediately likeable, even downright objectionable, may be compassionate. Compassion alone is not enough to ensure a sympathetic reassuring bedside manner.


Research shows that, for any personality characteristics, mot people cluster around the average mark, with relatively few at the upper or lower characteristics, or the absence of it becomes more obvious.

A small minority is likely to have a high degree of compassion and the same is true of most human characteristics. The implication of this is that there is a limited amount of natural compassion in any population. If nursing had to be made up solely of those with naturally high levels of compassion, it would be impossible to staff our care services.


Fortunately, innate compassion is not the only route to considerate and professional nursing.


There is a distinction between compassion and altruism – compassion is a natural disposition, whereas altruism is a moral principle.


This is something of a nature versus nurture distinction implying that altruism can be nurtured and cultivated in individuals and the profession. Since not everyone can be inexhaustibly compassionate, providing a consistently professional and caring will depend on altruistic values being a part of the code to which nursing aspired. This will have been instilled early in some, but will need to be reinforced through training professional commitment and the culture or nursing institutions.


Compassion and altruism influence behaviour, but bear in mind that while empathy and the desire to help others is essential it is not enough to guarantee professional nursing standards. It is equally necessary to have the required skills, follow professional guidelines, make good decisions and embrace professional ethics.


These qualities will be strongly influenced by personality. Personality is a driver for competency in this demanding environment and those who do not have a natural disposition for nursing are more likely to find the job more difficult. Personality plays a large part in aiding or impeding performance in any role.


We can link the primary elements of personality – extroversion, agreeability, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness – to competencies and identify the kind of personality that helps someone to do their job. We also know that the fit between the employee and his or her role is what leads to engagement, fulfilment and high performance.

Orignially published in Nursing Standard. 28, 27, 63-63.