BIG FIVE Workplace Personalities

Recognizing employees’ traits makes it easier to inspire and engage

Understanding the association between individual personality traits and employee engagement is the premise of an academic paper authored by Ilke Inceoglu and Peter Warr.

Of course descriptions of workplace personalities come in all kinds of different packaging (red or blue? owl or eagle? amiable or assertive?). When you tear away the wrapping what’s left is a core of basic traits. Sixteen personality traits make up the Myers-Briggs test. Initially conceived during WWII to help women who were newcomers to the workforce, and had no idea what kind of job might suit, Myers-Briggs became a popular model for businesses.

But with changing times come changing approaches. Every couple of years, new iterations of personality tests surface. Organizations buy into the latest psychometric, behavioral, and neuroscience trends. Employees fill out forms, attend learning sessions, find out where they fit and how to deal with other workplace personalities. Return to their jobs. And a few days or weeks later it’s all forgotten. For their study, Inceoglu and Warr used the “Big Five” personality traits, a peer-reviewed and approved resource that’s widely supported in scientific and academic circles.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the Big Five, their sub-factors and the occasional tip about how and where these characteristics best fit in the workplace. Keep in mind personality traits are correlated, they’re not independent of each other.

Agreeableness: concerned with cooperation and social harmony, getting along with others; high scorers are considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise however, agreeableness is not useful in situations that need tough or objective decisions. Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others; can make excellent scientists, critics or soldiers. Sub-factors include:

  • Trust – Assumes that most people are fair, honest, and have good intentions.
  • Morality – Low scorers believe a certain amount of deception in social relationships is necessary, are guarded, less willing to openly reveal the whole truth. People find it easier to relate to straightforward high scorers who are candid, frank and sincere.
  • Altruism – Doing things for others is a form of self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice.
  • Cooperation – Dislike confrontations, willing to compromise. Low scorers are more likely to intimidate others to get their way.
  • Modesty – Don’t like to claim they’re better than others which may come from low self-confidence or self-esteem. Those willing to describe themselves as superior tend to be seen as disagreeably arrogant.
  • Sympathy – Tenderhearted and compassionate. Alternatively, low scorers pride themselves on making objective judgments, are concerned with truth and impartial justice.

Conscientiousness:  the way we control impulses. High scorers avoid trouble and achieve high levels of success through purposeful planning and persistence can be compulsive perfectionists and workaholics, often viewed as stuffy or boring. Conversely, impulsive individuals can be colorful and fun. Occasionally time constraints need snap decisions – acting on the first impulse can be effective – however, impulsive employees ignore options, may socialize excessively and are easily distracted; accomplishments are scattered and inconsistent. Sub-factors include:

  • Self-Efficacy – High scorers believe they have the intelligence (common sense), drive, and self-control necessary for achieving success. Low scorers do not feel effective.
  • Orderliness – Organized, like routines and schedules, keep lists and make plans. Low scorers tend to be disorganized and scattered.
  • Dutifulness – Strong sense of moral obligation. Low scorers find contracts, rules, and regulations confining and are often seen as unreliable.
  • Achievement-Striving – Driven to be successful, strong sense of direction (may be single-minded and obsessed with work). Low scorers are content to get by with a minimal amount of work, seen as lazy.
  • Self-Discipline – Persist with difficult or unpleasant tasks until completed. Those with low self-discipline procrastinate and show poor follow-through.
  • Cautiousness – Think things through, take time when making decisions. Low scorers often say or do the first thing that comes to mind without deliberating alternatives.

Extraversion: enjoy being with people, full of energy, often experience positive emotions. Conversely introverts tend to be quiet, low-key, deliberate, and disengaged; independence and reserve is sometimes mistaken as unfriendliness or arrogance. Sub-factors include:

  • Friendliness – Genuinely like other people, make friends quickly and form close, intimate relationships easily. Low scorers don’t reach out to others and are perceived as distant and reserved.
  • Gregariousness – Find the company of others pleasantly stimulating and rewarding, enjoy the excitement of crowds. Need for privacy and alone time is much greater for low scorers.
  • Assertiveness – Like to speak out, take charge, and direct the activities of others, tend to be leaders. Low scorers are quiet and let others control group activities.
  • Activity Level – Lead fast-paced, busy lives; move about quickly, energetically, and vigorously. People who score low on this scale follow a slower, more leisurely, relaxed pace.
  • Excitement Seeking – Easily bored, love hustle and bustle, likely to take risks and seek thrills. Noise and commotion overwhelm low scorers.
  • Cheerfulness – Typically experience a range of positive feelings, including happiness, enthusiasm, optimism, and joy. Low scorers are not as prone to high energetic spirits.

Neuroticism: Emotionally reactive, anxious, unable to cope with stress, often in bad moods, diminished decision-making skills. Conversely low scorers tend to be calm, emotionally stable, more composed and less reactive. Sub-factors include:

  • Anxiety –  Often feel tense, jittery, and nervous. Employees low in anxiety are generally calm.
  • Anger – Sensitive about being treated fairly. This scale measures the tendency to feel angry; whether the employee expresses annoyance and hostility depends on the individual’s level on Agreeableness.
  • Depression – High scorers lack energy, feel sad, dejected, discouraged, have difficult initiating activities.
  • Self-Consciousness – Easily embarrassed, fear others will criticize or make fun of them; their awkwardness may make these fears a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low scorers, in contrast, do not feel nervous in social situations.
  • Immoderation – Difficulty resisting strong cravings and urges, oriented toward short-term pleasures rather than long- term consequences.
  • Vulnerability – Experience panic, confusion, and helplessness when under pressure. Low scorers feel more poised, confident, and clear-thinking when stressed.

Open to Experience: enjoy variety and change; are curious, imaginative and creative, intellectually curious, appreciative of art, sensitive to beauty, individualistic and nonconforming. A facility for thinking in symbols and abstractions may take the form of mathematical, logical, or geometric thinking, artistic and metaphorical use of language, music composition or performance, or one of the many visual or performing arts. Low scorers prefer the plain, straightforward, and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle; are conservative and resistant to change. Research has shown that closed thinking is related to superior job performance in police work, sales, and many service occupations. Sub-factors include:

  • Imagination – Low scorers are more oriented to facts than fantasy.
  • Artistic Interests – Low scorers lack aesthetic sensitivity or interest in the arts.
  • Emotionality – Awareness of feelings. Low scorers are less aware of feelings and tend not to express emotions openly.
  • Adventurousness – Eager to try new activities, travel to foreign lands, and experience different things; find familiarity and routine boring. Low scorers are uncomfortable with change.
  • Intellect – Open-minded to new and unusual ideas, like to debate intellectual issues, enjoy problem solving. Low scorers prefer dealing with people or things rather than ideas.
  • Liberalism – A readiness to challenge authority, convention, and traditional values. Conservatives prefer the security and stability brought by conformity to tradition.

Understanding workplace personalities – what motivates people, what makes them successful, what kind of work feeds into their personality strengths – helps managers make tremendous employee engagement inroads.

If you’re wondering what Inceoglu and Warr’s research found: Highly engaged employees tended to be emotionally stable, socially proactive, and achievement oriented. Emotional Stability and Conscientiousness independently accounted for most of the variance in job engagement.

“In addition to possible enhancement of engagement from improved job design,” the scholars write, “typical engagement levels can be increased through personnel selection procedures that focus on the identification of emotional stability and activated forms of extraversion and conscientiousness. In addition, information about those traits can be valuable in the development of job engagement through person-focused task assignments and the setting of targets that build on specific individuals’ own strengths and energies.”

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