The big five model of personality

If we accept the idea of personality as a kind of psychological immune system then the next question to ask is: how do we explain why people are different? Wiry does one specific stressful event, let’s say having to give a presentation to an audience of SOO colleagues, send John off the scale with anxiety, while James would relish the same event?

Like many words, personality has a common, day-to-day meaning (“she has a great personality!”) as well as a technical meaning.

When psychologists talk about personality they are generally referring to our individual and enduring differences in thinking, feeling and behaving. Over the years, psychologists have come up with different models to explain personality. The most widely accepted model currently is the big five model, or more correctly, the five-factor model of personality (McCrae & Costa, 2006; Soto et al., 2015).

According to the big five model, our personality is made up of five factors, which are enduring patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that remain stable across our life span. The five factors are:

  • • Extraversion,
  • • Neuroticism,
  • • Openness to experience,
  • • Agreeableness,
  • • Conscientiousness.

We all have greater or lesser ‘amounts’ of these factors. This isn’t quite how it’s done, but imaging giving yourself a score from 0-10 on each of the factors, and the resulting scores would provide a crude ‘map’ of your personality. Our scores are on a continuum, so we can be high or low or somewhere in between. There are many online tests you can do that will give you an approximation of your big five personality structure.

No value judgement is attached to being high or low on any of the factors. Being high or low on, say, openness, brings both advantages and disadvantages.

The five factors can be remembered easily using the acronym OCEAN. I’ll describe them in the following sections.

(O) Openness

Openness describes how open to new ideas and experiences a person is. People high on openness are intellectually curious, they enjoy new experiences and they actually like change (remember James in the earlier example). In a work setting, being high on openness is valuable as long as it is combined with high conscientiousness. This is because the conscientiousness ensures that the creative ideas generated by high openness get channelled into concrete activity and outcomes. If a person is high on openness but low on conscientiousness, they have the ability to generate creative ideas but then get easily distracted, and so nothing comes of their creative ideas.

It’s easy to see that a person who is high on openness would be vulnerable to burnout in a very ordered, constrained and rule-driven organisation. Some highly rule-driven organisations have developed sections that accommodate and make the best of their high-openness employees. For example, the police force has detectives and undercover officers, and the army has Special Forces regiments.

(C) Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness describes a person’s tendency to work hard and be reliable. A person high on conscientiousness has the attitudes and behaviours that are compatible with achieving goals. It is the personality factor that best predicts the difference between potential to achieve and actual achievement. There are two main parts (or facets) to conscientiousness: industriousness and orderliness. Industrious people work hard and orderly people like their life to be ordered - ‘everything in its place and a place for everything’.

High conscientiousness is generally a positive characteristic to possess. However, like all personality factors, it has a downside. When highly conscientious people are placed under a lot of external stress, they can easily turn into anxious, micro-managing workaholics.

People low on conscientiousness, meanwhile, are life’s laidback ‘surfer dude’ characters. These folk plod on not achieving much, and they’re pretty much impervious to stress and anxiety. However, when stress gets too much for them, their behaviour can easily descend into complete chaos where even the basics don’t get done.

(E) Extraversion

People who are high on extraversion are really interested in other people and get a lot of their energy from being around others and interacting with them. Think of it like this: if a person is interested in stamps, they pay attention to them; if not, they are bored by them. Similarly, if someone is interested in people, they pay them a lot of attention and are fascinated by them. On the other hand, people who are low on extraversion, aren’t that interested in other people and don’t need others around them to maintain their energy. They are reflective people who enjoy their own company and their own thoughts. To use the above example, they are happy with their stamp collection (or whatever their interest is), thinking about things and daydreaming.

Like conscientiousness, extraversion is one of the personality factors that predicts success in most types of work. Extraverted people, as you might imagine, are good at building positive relationships.

The two main parts to extraversion are enthusiasm and assertiveness. Extraverted people bring a high level of energy to what they do and are assertive - in other words, they find it easy to express their opinions. Again, it sounds like it’s a positive thing to be extraverted. It can be, but in the wrong work environment it can be a disaster. If the extraverted person isn’t kept busy (think of James), they can be a bit like a boisterous puppy, always demanding a lot of attention. They become the annoying person who wanders around the office wanting to chat to everyone and distracting others from getting on with their work.

The person low on extraversion is best described as being shy, and they will quietly get on with things without having to be constantly reassured or chased. However, if a person like this, is suddenly put into a role where they have to interact a lot with other people, then their anxiety levels will rise. They will start to feel somewhat uncomfortable. If you are a person who is low on extraversion, you will eventually find that being around too many people, too often, will be exhausting.

This situation sometimes happens when a person who is low on extra-version is promoted to management or a supervisory role. The reason for the promotion is that they were very good at their job, which may have been quite a solitary job. In other words, they were technically excellent. Because of this, they are offered promotion to a supervisory role - maybe a team leader. This new role involves lots of contact with other people. They have to attend and speak at meetings. They might be asked to set career development goals for people in their team and performance manage other people. If you are not particularly extrovert, all these tasks can feel very stressful and exhausting. This is the situation that faced John in the example above. People lacking in extraversion often make poor line managers because they either retreat to their previous ‘technical’ job, or conversely try their best to make a go at being a good line manager, but quickly find that they become so tired and stressed, they just can’t do it, and end up leaving or going off sick. The France Télécom example above, is a good example of what can happen if the person is assigned a role that conflicts with their basic personality make up. It can be disastrous.

It’s easy to see how both high and low levels of extraversion can result in vulnerability to burnout in a stressful work environment. However, like everything in life, nothing is black and white. For example, consider a highly extraverted bank clerk who enjoys chatting to customers. If he is told that the queues at his counter are getting too long at the bank and he has to stop the chitchat with customers and hurry things up, he will be unhappy. One of his main motivators, flowing from his personality, has just been removed and his journey to burnout has begun. This also works the other way, with a shy bank clerk who is asked to be a bit friendlier with the customers.

(A) Agreeableness

In everyday language, agreeableness is synonymous with being friendly and likeable. While people high on agreeableness do tend to be friendly and likeable, in personality theory the term is used more literally to mean the tendency to want to agree with other people. People high on agreeableness are very good at rubbing along with others and creating high levels of coherence in teams. Those low on agreeableness can be antagonistic and a bit cantankerous. Agreeableness is made up of two parts: politeness (perhaps a better word is respectfulness) and compassion.

People high on agreeableness are great to work with and increase the positive energy in a workplace. However, they are also highly prone to being influenced by other people and can seem wishy-washy in their opinions. On the other hand, people low on agreeableness will stand their ground in a dispute and are seen as straightforward characters who speak their mind.

Those who are high on agreeableness become very anxious in a highly stressful or conflict-ridden workplace. Also, because they are compassionate people, they have a tendency to prioritise other people’s needs above their own. This can lead to their taking on tasks that they don’t have the time or skills to finish, because they struggle to say no. The result may be overwork, feelings of resentment and sometimes passive-aggressive resistance. Conversely, if a person low on agreeableness has to work in an organisation that does not tolerate conflict then they will become very anxious, resentful and angry. There are two main types of organisation that can’t tolerate conflict: one that is beset with chronic niceness, with the conflict just bubbling away beneath the surface, and one that has a highly buttoned-up, controlled environment where even the mildest dissent is stamped on.

(N) Neuroticism

Neuroticism, or emotional adjustment as it is sometimes called, predicts how well a person copes with life’s ups and downs. It is the personality factor most associated with risk of burnout. People high on neuroticism are prone to experiencing high levels of negative emotion, particularly anxiety and despondency. These are associated with thoughts of being under threat. There are two parts to neuroticism: withdrawal and volatility. People high on neuroticism live much of their life in flight-or-fight mode. They cope with high levels of stress in the environment by either withdrawing and avoiding the situation or becoming volatile - touchy, angry and hostile. They are life’s worriers. It’s easy to see why such people are very vulnerable to burnout.

How can people who are high on neuroticism contribute much value to an organisation? Well, they can add a lot of value, because they have an almost supernatural ability to sniff out potential trouble before anyone else even sees it coming. If more people with higher than average neuroticism had been working for Lehman Brothers, Barings and RBS, the 2008 banking crisis probably wouldn’t have happened. People high on neuroticism make excellent lawyers, compliance officers and health and safety officers. The world needs people who are sensitive to threats. Sometimes, it’s right to be worried.

People who are low on the personality trait of neuroticism, are probably the group who are at least prone to suffering burnout. They tend to be emotionally stable, grounded and even tempered. They tend to take high levels of stress in their stride, and find it relatively easy to switch off at the end of the day. Generally speaking, being a person who is lower in neuroticism is a positive attribute. The only downside to it is that such people can sometimes be too overly optimistic, trusting and may be Pollyanna-ish. Charles Dickens character Mr Micawber from David Copperfield is a good example of a person who is low on neuroticism.

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