Saturday, January 10, 2015

Big Five Personality Traits and Employee Behaviour: The OCEAN of Challenge in Organizational Development

“We value our people” is the almost universal averment of all progressive corporations. To give benefit of doubt, corporations and the leaders who espouse this corporate value are sincere to the statement. In day to day recruitment, performance management and talent development, however, there tends to be an in incredible emphasis on recruiting good candidates, rewarding good performance and helping employees become better, respectively. A number of behavioural tools are adopted to enable individuals better understand themselves and contribute to their improved individual performance and logically therefore better corporate performance. Firms also go to significant lengths to define the desirable characteristics in the context of the business the firms operate in. Over the years, the concept of team as being the overarching concept took root but the emphasis on individual has not faded, rightly so. 

Over the years, businesses have become more complex with competition for scarce resources and yearning for extraordinary growth. Businesses have also become more globally networked with pressures for multi-cultural outlook and compulsions for global competitiveness. The traits one looks for success in, and through, individuals have become a legion making one wonder whether organizations have started looking for super-humans as managers and leaders, if not as employees. There is, of course, the other view that if the company has clearly articulated goals, robust strategies and plans to work to, and a relentless focus on execution, all with clearly defined structures and processes, individuals as well as teams would deliver. Several models are popularized to drive team and individual performance at a firm level. This blog post proposes that all of these expectations and models work only if the Big Five personality traits are recognized and encouraged at the firm level.

Exciting diversity

Prior to delving into the subject further, it is apt to appreciate that life is actually made more interesting by the variability in human behaviour. If everyone were to think and act exactly like each other, life would be robotic. As we cruise through our schools, colleges and organizations, we are able to perceive, see, feel and appreciate substantial differences among our friends and colleagues. Such variability introduces a rich diversity of culture and lifestyle into a society. A principal reason why a foreign national, or even an Indian, gets both flummoxed and excited about India is the rich cultural tapestry across the States and the varied behavioural nuances amongst the individuals of different regions. It is sobering to think that no amount of education or indoctrination can morph the behavioural approaches of varied population. This, for example, is as natural as a Japanese not thinking or acting like an American, and vice versa. Yet, successful business gets done between culturally differentiated nations.   

That said, when organizations are established with specific objectives of focused performance for shared goals, it is necessary that inter-individual differences are kept within certain tolerance levels, much like a product characteristic is measured and reviewed in statistical quality control. Also, the behavioural volatility within an individual must operate within an acceptable amplitude for organizations to work in a harmonious yet exciting manner. All the theories of management, despite their elegant constructs, do not provide an authentic basis for understanding why employees behave as they do. An understanding of the structural basis of inter-individual and within individual differences in human behaviour and cognition would be necessary. Such an understanding would help organizations and leaders neither dismiss such differences as ‘noise’ nor accept them as ‘destiny’.


In scientific circles, neuroscience has emerged as an important branch of study which can help identify variability in perception, thought and action between individuals and within individuals. Methods that provide measures of brain’s neural activity (such as functional MRI or fMRI, electroencephalography or EEG, positron emission topography or PET and magnetic resonance spectroscopy or MRS and diffusion tensor imaging or DTI) have been used to study the neural bases of individual differences in cognition. Journals dedicated to neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry routinely carry several scholarly and research based articles on how such methods can identify the structural basis for inter-individual differences. For example, one of the critical parameters of leadership is decision making capability. In decision making, fast decisions in most cases come at the risk of reduced accuracy. This phenomenon of speed-accuracy trade-off as well as the switch between cautious and risky behaviours have been studied in neuroscience wth fMRA studies of certain brain circuitry.

Neuroscience offers explanations why certain individuals would have more specialized skills than others. It even explains why grey matter in a physiological sense is important (rather than joked about) for determining various cognitive capabilities of different individuals. While neuroscience may offer great clues to explaining human behaviour patterns it is unlikely to be of any real time help to corporate leaders in understanding and managing individual and organizational behaviour. MRI scans cannot obviously be the recruitment filters; nor can MRIs be installed to select members for collaborative or competitive team formations. Just as psychological assessments of human behaviour have their limitations in assessing managerial potential even the more diagnostic neuroscience studies can help select employees who could possess the desired cognitive capabilities. That said, neuroscience studies may throw light on the personality and intelligent traits that could be of relevance in specific organizational contexts.

OCEAN of Big Five

While there exist over 100 personality traits in management literature, the Big Five Theory of human psychology hypothesizes that five core traits make up human personality. These five traits are used by psychologists to describe the fundamental dimensions of personality traits. These comprise four positive traits and one potentially negative trait. The four positive traits are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness while the negative trait is Neuroticism (together referred by the acronym OCEAN). Research has shown that each of the traits correlates with certain anatomical dispositions of different regions of the brain. Psychometric questionnaire inventory seeks to quantify the level of each of the fundamental dimensions and more recent research is attempting to establish a correlation between results of questionnaires and results of brain imaging studies. While the research is welcome, the enormity of task in relation to multitudes of international cultures and billions of individuals makes it a practical impossibility if universal applicability is desired. Rather, it behoves organizational experts to define them in organizational context, and help employees appreciate their traits in terms of individual amplitude and inter-individual variability with a view to harmonize for individual and organizational effectiveness.

Extraversion (or extroversion) is the trait of being lively and confident and possessing the quality of enjoying being with other people. It is characterized by sociability and talkativeness as well as assertiveness and excitability. Extroversion is seen as a key leadership enabler. Conscientiousness is the quality of taking care to be able to do things carefully and correctly. It reflects dutifulness and self-discipline. Openness is the quality of being honest and not hiding information or feelings. It is also about the quality of being able to listen to, think about and accept other people and other ideas. Agreeableness is the quality of being pleasant and easy to like. It reflects a tendency to be empathetic and cooperative. Neuroticism is a core trait with shades of negativity like being worried and being prone to experience and express unpleasant emotions easily (like anger, anxiety, depression and vulnerability). If an employee needs to be successful the positive four traits of emotional stability and affinity must be strongly displayed and the negative trait of emotional instability must be minimized.

Big Five Challenge

The challenge of maintaining a beneficial balance between the positive four and the negative one traits is that the life is so stressful and competitive that constantly the positive traits are suppressed and the negative trait stoked by people, events and processes. As the rewards and recognition systems in organizations are governed, by and large, by the final outcomes with little to differentiate on which traits worked for the winners, the tendency is to adopt personality traits that provide winning outcomes. With the proliferation of ‘trait theories’ there is also a greater emphasis on visible and surrogate traits rather than the fundamental traits. It is important that conscious and persistent efforts are made by individuals and their stakeholders (be they parents, friends or teachers) to instill (or enable the ability to enhance) the positive traits and minimize (or instill the ability to moderate) the negative trait. As one’s consciousness increases with age and education, focus should be laid on the importance of the Big Five traits.

The biological origins of the basic personality traits cannot be ignored. Research has shown how the grey matter in various segments of the brain correlates with the level of each of the five fundamental traits. This, however, is a biological reality for an individual. What one can do, however, is to be cognizant of the traits and work on them. Literature suggests several methodologies to do that. Observation and introspection are the universally applicable methods that are simple yet effective. These, however, require some of the basic traits themselves. For example, without being open one cannot introspect. Without being extravert, one may not have the people group to observe at all. If one is not agreeable as a person, one may not receive feedback at all. By the same token, if one is neurotic, one would miss the perspectives of objectivity and analysis. The importance of constantly working on the five core traits in life’s progression is self-evident.

Ancient Indian science

To circle back to where we started, organizations do value people. However, it is to be understood that people are valued, in a true sense, for the positive traits they display and stand for. All outstanding leaders are epitomes of positive traits (besides, of course, technical, scientific or professional competencies that are called for). While an individual is, by and large, responsible for his or her own development, organizations can gain a lot by creating ecosystems that promote positive traits in employees. What the typical organization seeks by way of competitiveness can be achieved only when it has employees who are open, conscientious, extraverted and agreeable and non-neurotic. This blog post demonstrates that rather than get diffused over multiple traits, it would be sensible for individuals and organizations to focus on these five core traits to reflect upon and develop. 
While modern science has provided imaging and neuroscience as two potent aids to understand individual traits and intra as well as inter individual differences in traits, they are still confined to research domain; they are also too expensive and too impractical to be of use on a routine basis. Fortunately, ancient Indian science has provided a much simpler and more universally deployable methodology to develop one’s traits positively. Yoga and meditation are established to be of help in shaping the Big Five traits with positive bias. Enlightened organizations have, therefore, started giving importance to yoga and meditation. The recent Gyan Sangam, the high level two day meet of India’s top bankers in Pune, was flagged off with a session on yoga and a leadership lecture by Swami Sukhabodhananda who is well known for his coaching on value based leadership. This initiative may be symbolic but is a powerful one at that!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on January 10, 2015            



1 comment:

Ramadhurai K said...

Completely Agree - with the multitude of tools and theories, there is no coherent articulation of what creates/drives performance and OCEAN addresses that important gap... These five traits form the bedrock of behaviour which forms the base, from which the job specific skills are deployed. If this base is weak, no amount of technical skills would be enough, except perhaps in individual-contributor technical jobs.

While a tool that enables the organizations to deploy the OCEAN would be helpful, I wonder if it will add to the confusion...