The ‘Big Five’ Personality Model

This blog-post is aimed at non-psychologist colleagues and HR contacts who have an interest in personality assessment in the workplace. There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in this article, but if you are not familiar with the Big Five, or you want to refresh your thinking, it should prove interesting and informative. Share this post by all means, but please only link to the original.

Personality Assessment

Organisations have been using personality questionnaires when selecting employees for a long time, so you’d think by now that some sort of consensus would have been reached on what works and what doesn’t.

Well, there is a consensus… sort of.

The problem (so it seems to me), is that the multi-million dollar psychometric business is like a streetlamp for moths; everyone sees the moon. There are more theories of personality than I care to mention, and each one seems to have fifteen different questionnaires. There are traits, types, pictorial, colour-coded…

I’ve written about the main formats of personality profiling previously (see: Normative, Ipsative, Nipsative), but when it comes to the actual theories, each new version reckons to be the best thing since Hippocrates in ancient Greece, who came up with his own ‘Four Temperament’ model of personality.

However, the model I want to talk about in this post is ‘The Big Five’, simply because of all the variations I’ve looked at, this seems to be optimally suited to the world of work, and especially for selection. The Big Five model can be used in other areas too, but there are probably better (more specific) tools for use in Clinical and Educational psychology. For Occupational use, however, where we generally assume the population to be within the normal range, The Big Five model seems perfect. It has the added bonus of being backed by mountains of research.

russian-doll-5The difficulty is where to start, so I’ll take you back to my early years as a Business Psychologist, before the Big Five model was generally accepted… I’m going way back, back to 1992…

16PF (Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire)

I have a fabulous book on my bookshelf, published in 1981. It’s called ‘Interpreting 16PF Profile Patterns‘ by a guy called Samuel E. Krug. It’s not very often that I refer to the book these days – it is a little dated after all – but when I first started using 16PF (yes, in 1992!) it was in my hand almost every day.

Krug’s work examines the personality traits in 16PF, which at the time was the cornerstone of personality assessment in selection. He organised the primary traits into a taxonomy of higher order factors. The four dimensions he came up with were:

  • Extraversion: For example, Warmth, Boldness, Group Dependence, etc.
  • Anxiety: Tension, Emotional Instability, Guilt, etc.
  • Tough-Poise: Detachment, Practicality, Objectivity, etc.
  • Independence: Dominance, Self-Sufficiency, etc.

He then allocated a score to each of these scales: 1, 2 or 3 depending on whether a person scored Low, Average or High, and ended up with a ‘taxonomy’ of 81 separate patterns (3x3x3x3 = 81). He then analysed each pattern to give it some kind of meaning.


!! Before going any further, consider the number of separate patterns in Krug’s work. Eighty-one! That’s a HUGE number, especially when you consider it alongside some other popular measures of personality (some of the ‘type’ questionnaires, for example, offer only 16). The scale and complexity of Krug’s work impressed me then and still does today. The sheer number of profiles is a great starting point for exploring the variety in human personality.

I don’t want to dwell on Krug’s research, but I thought it would be amusing to give you a taste of some of his descriptions. This segment is from Pattern #1312:

“… the kind of person who requires a great deal of support from others. … neither the inclination nor the resources to try to control events, to try to set high goals, or to reach them. Dependency needs are… quite evident … emotional needs seem more strongly emphasised. Insecurity and generally poor personal adjustment are prominent features.”

And here’s another from Pattern #2233:

“… indicates great emotional detachment and a strong need for autonomy and control. … aggressiveness and hostility are likely to be routinely manifested in this person’s behavior.”

You get the idea. It really is a fascinating piece of work and it taught me an awful lot. Anyway, this taxonomy by Krug provided a broad framework for personality profiling.

The Big Five Personality Factors

It turns out that the Big Five model had actually been ‘discovered’ even before Krug’s work was published. At the time, however, the model had not been proven or accepted. It took some complex statistical work by numerous separate and independent researchers to properly validate it (if you’re interested, you can read much more detail about the history of the Big Five here). Nevertheless, ultimately, the Big Five became pretty standard in the assessment of personality in occupational settings.

So, what are the Big Five?

There are simple descriptions of the five factors below. However, before you review them, remember that these are not personality traits; rather they are ‘factors‘, and each factor comprises a number of separate traits. I’ll explain what this means in a little more detail afterwards. Also, bear in mind that there is no inherent ‘right or wrong’ (or ‘good or bad’) in these descriptors; they are simply differences.

Here are the five factors:

  • Agreeableness (you can view this as a scale, Low – High: Competitive, Challenging, Questioning, Critical vs Patient, Humble, Mild-Mannered, Trusting.
  • Neuroticism (Low Anxiety – High Anxiety): Stable, Relaxed, Composed, Self-Assured vs Moody, Impatient, Anxious, Insecure.
  • Extraversion (Introversion – Extraversion): Insular, Detached, Cool, Reserved vs Outgoing, Friendly, Enthusiastic, People-Oriented.
  • Conscientiousness (Low Conformity – High Conformity): Impulsive, Flexible, Spontaneous, Casual vs Persistent, Disciplined, Reliable, Thorough.
  • Openness (Pragmatic – Creative): Realistic, Factual, Practical, Hard-headed vs Imaginative, Intuitive, Intellectual, Original.

These five factors have been given acronyms, although there doesn’t seem to be any consistency. Some call it OCEAN and others call it CANOE, but you can go with my own version if it appeals:

A New Employee Comes Onboard

In any event, these five factors have been shown to be reliable, valid and stable between genders and across cultures, and (certainly from my perspective) they offer the most practical and sensible way of describing people in the modern workplace.

Subtlety

Going back to what I said earlier; these are personality factors, not personality traits. I don’t want you to get the impression that scoring high or low on any of the Big Five factors condemns a person to having ALL of the traits associated with that factor. For example, just because someone describes him/herself as Introverted, it DOES NOT necessarily mean that they are Insular AND Detached AND Cool AND Socially Shy. Personality is much more subtle than that.

Similarly, an Extraverted person may be Outgoing, Socially-oriented, Group-focused BUT they could still be Emotionally Distant.

So, even within the Big Five scales, there are subtle aspects of character and temperament that will influence behaviour. My approach is this: Look at the Big Five dimensions first, and then explore the primary traits that underpin the broad dimension.

What does all this mean for Assessment?

I’m going to keep this astoundingly simple:

There are personality questionnaires which use the Big Five model.

There are other questionnaires which do not.

When it comes to selection assignments in the workplace, I have found no model of personality better than the Big Five model. There are a number of questionnaires on the market which address measurement of the Big Five. Here are a few:

  • NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI)
  • Big Five Inventory (BFI)
  • 15 Factor Questionnaire (15FQ+)

In my own practice, I have been using 15FQ+ for a long time, simply because this instrument offers enormous range and depth in its reporting options.

For example, a standard assessment not only covers the Big Five, but will look at Team Roles, Leadership and Subordinate Styles, Influencing Styles and Career Themes. Additional extended reports can look at Emotional Intelligence, Derailers and Competency Profiles. We can also use Ideal Profiling facilities to match individuals to Job Roles, and generate Coaching / Development frameworks.

The versatility of 15FQ+ seems endless and it is particularly well-suited to key organisational roles. It’s not the only measure of the Big Five, but it is a strong one.

Conclusions

So, to round up…

  • This article is a minimal introduction / refresher to the Big Five model of personality.
  • The Big Five model has been replicated many times by independent researchers, and there is no reason to think it won’t stand the test of time.
  • Whilst there is a general consensus that the Big Five factors are robust, valid and possibly even universal, many other models and theories exist which don’t have the same degree of evidence or research.
  • I would argue that when it comes to selecting people for the workplace, it makes sense to utilise a normative personality instrument which draws on the Big Five model.
ducks-in-a-row-narrow
Big Five – Get your ducks in a row.

If you’d like to talk to us about personality assessment, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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