Your personality plays a big role in the career you choose, how well you do your job, and how comfortably you fit into your workplace. Recognizing personality traits in others can help you hire the right people, and appropriately influence, reward, or motivate employees and colleagues.
So, which of the Big 5 personality traits describes you best?
What are the Big 5 personality traits?
This personality traits model has been around for 70 years and is a recognized approach to describing the five most important aspects of personality. These traits form part of our basic characters; usually they don’t change dramatically over time or by situation.
The personality traits that make up the Big 5, which goes by the acronym OCEAN, are:
What does each trait mean?
You can certainly exhibit more than one trait, and rank high, medium, or low for each. Here’s how to recognize each of the Big 5 personality traits:
Openness: You’re a bit of an original, imaginative with a lot of intellectual curiosity. You’re open to new ideas and new things and you like change.
Conscientiousness: You like being organized and are good at it. You’re usually on time and dependable, and you are systematic in your approach. You prefer careful planning to spontaneity, and you are self-disciplined with an eye on achieving your goal.
Extraversion: You’re the life of the party, a lover of attention and have lots of friends. You are outgoing and talkative; you like socializing and find meeting new people easy.
Agreeableness: You’re cooperative with everyone around you and trust people. You enjoy helping others and have compassion and empathy. You’re a trusting, warm person, who is tolerant and kind.
Neuroticism: It’s hard for you to remain emotionally calm. You tend to stress easily, worry a lot, and basically feel anxious. This can make you temperamental, so you’re often irritable, moody and depressed. Other negative feelings like anger and jealousy affect your emotional balance.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of learning which traits you have or recognizing those of your coworkers. That’s easy enough to ascertain. For example, you can take the Big Five test at The SAPA Project, a study by the the Personality, Motivation and Cognition laboratory at Northwestern University.
What’s really useful about that knowledge is that it can help you with two things: choosing a career and working well with colleagues.
Read more: Why Working Women Struggle With Burnout
How can knowing personality traits help?
If you scored high on extraversion as a personality trait, then you know you’d probably do well in a sales career, where you’d meet new people all the time, persuading and influencing them. You’d also know that you’d probably be miserable as an accountant, although if you had scored high on conscientiousness, you would likely do very well in a career requiring such attention to detail.
Using that Big 5 knowledge is smart business, too. Research shows that “it's important to recognize personality traits and pair employees with the duties that fit their personalities the best. This can lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction, helping your organization to function more efficiently. Personality can be seen as the motor which drives behavior.”
Plus, if you know the personality traits of a colleague, you’ll know what strengths and weaknesses to watch for and how to strategically position a person for best results.
Using strengths and directing weaknesses in personality traits
Organizational psychologist Dr. Shahrzad Sherry Nooravi tells us how this might play out with a leader who has a high score on openness. This means they are creative, curious, scanning the environment for ideas, and generally open to change, which can be a great thing.
Things derail, she explains, “when the style is too strong: The leader can be sharing so many ideas frequently and introducing change without a clear plan or even rationale. This leader's style can become negative when they resist questions, suggestions, or warnings from others.”
When she has clients who are high in openness, Nooravi encourages them to connect and share their ideas with three colleagues they think are resistant to change. They should be open to detailed questions on their plan and willing to examine the pros and cons.
“I've rarely seen this style of high openness be unsuitable for the workplace,” Nooravi says. “It is more about helping the leader reign it back and collaborate with others.”
Self-awareness keeps personality traits from affecting our work
We asked personal and professional coach Carson Tate if a person who scores high on agreeableness wouldn’t always be the perfect hire. She tells us it depends on the situation.
“If you are high on agreeableness and due to your positivity, you are unwilling to explore the negative aspects of a situation, your decision-making may be flawed,” Tate says. “If you always jump in to help your team members and never allow them the opportunity to work through a challenge, they may interpret your behavior as you don’t trust them or think they are capable of solving complex problems. Or if you are too trusting you may not carefully review contracts or ensure that working agreements are clearly defined.”
The good thing, she says, is that “the highest performing leaders and team members are radically self-aware. They are aware of their personality traits and the impact that each of their traits has on their individual and team performance. They recognize when they are projecting their personality trait on a team member or interpreting a situation through the lens of their own personality trait, and how that can positively or negatively influence how they respond, decide, and interact with others.”
Read more: 25 Tips for Dealing with Burnout
Can a person really be too conscientious at work?
Nooravi says company leaders who exhibit high levels of conscientiousness are “structured, organized, and have a plan for everything. They are the ones who create clarity on the plan, who will do what, and by when. They bring a lot of much-needed structure to work teams and the organization as a whole. They will not want to leave meetings without knowing who needs to do what by when.”
That’s a good thing, right? You want this kind of person in charge.
To a point. “This style does bring results,” Nooravi says, “until the person becomes too structured. This leader can be in such a rush toward results and eventually wrapping up the project with a bow, that when new evidence or information emerges that shows a need to change the plan, they may actually disregard these clues.”
Is there some kind of workaround?
Absolutely. “A good partner for this style is the opposing style that is flexible and very open to emergent information,” Nooravi says. “With a colleague who has their eyes and ears on new information, the high conscientious leader may have an opportunity to take a step back and re-examine the plan.”
Read more: How (& Why) to Help A Colleague In Distress
Is there anything positive about scoring high on neuroticism?
Actually, psychiatrist Grant Brenner at Psychology Today writes that neuroticism in moderation is desirable. It’s a “unique ingredient which mellows with age,” and a “superpower not everyone wants to have too much of.” The intelligence and humor associated with neuroticism are made especially palatable if the person also exhibits other positive personality traits like agreeableness.
However, neuroticism can certainly lead to lack of focus and even job-hopping. When you’re prone to worry and anxiety and find daily life extremely stressful, it’s hard to settle down and be satisfied at work. Still, the fact that they obsess ceaselessly can make neurotic personalities valuable employees who work very hard and anticipate potential problems, so that project outcomes meet deadlines and are successful.
It’s not just the personality trait that matters, then. It’s how high you rank in each trait, and how those traits complement each other. Being aware of the interplay and how you can change your behaviors can make all the difference.
Nooravi puts it this way: “Oftentimes, when a leader has a score on one end of the spectrum or other, it is a strength that aids the person in contributing with natural energies, which is favorable for their work and for the company. When their style is so strong, it can also become an overplayed strength that can start hurting the leader and the organization. As an executive coach, I support leaders in maintaining their style in the strength zone and modifying and adding new behaviors and mindsets to keep it there when the style is negatively impacting others.”
About our sources
Dr. Shahrzad Sherry Nooravi is an organizational psychologist, executive coach and CEO of Strategy Meets Performance. She helps companies strengthen their culture and leadership through executive coaching, training and facilitation. Her current area of focus includes facilitated sessions on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), Resilience and Mindfulness and Women's Leadership. She has been named Citizen of the Year, Trailblazer of the Year and A Voice To Listen To for her community work and original research.
Carson Tate is a speaker and personal and professional coach. She is founder of Working Simply, a business productivity consulting agency, and author of Own It. Love It. Make It Work: How to Make Any Job Your Dream Job.