Personality and Hiring: Introducing the Big Five

How important is personality in the workplace? Think about how much time you spend at work. This is somewhere in the vicinity of a third of your time during the work-week, so yes, personality is important in the workplace. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but a survey by digital learning designer Hyper Island found that 78% of respondents place personality at the top of what they’re looking for in a candidate – way above technical skills (only 39%), but too far ahead of cultural alignment (53%). This finding begs the question, what role should personality play in the hiring process?


The survey went on to ask what exactly were the personality traits that they were looking for. What came out on top were creativity, drive, and flexibility. Why those? Interestingly enough, one could argue that they’re all essential for dealing with what leadership guru Peter Vaill termed the “permanent white water” of the business and organizational environment today – increasingly rapid, surprising and volatile change. Having a personality that can cope with that would be better than any specific set of skills. That’s all well and good, but how in the world would you screen for those in a hiring process? Or would you even want to?

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All through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s researchers tried to validate whether various personality measures could predict performance in the workplace. Unfortunately, none of the efforts paid off. It was thought that the reason for this is that the various personality traits have never been very well organized into meaningful categories. There was no way to know what mix of traits might really have an impact.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, previous efforts towards a more meaningful taxonomy of personality traits were re-examined, resulting in the following five categories, often referred to as the five-factor model or the Big Five: Extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. But what do those mean, and how might they relate to the workplace?


Sometimes also called surgency, this one includes such traits as being sociable, talkative, assertive, gregarious, active, showing initiative, and ambition. In terms of the Hyper Island survey mentioned above, this is where that drive would seem to fit in the taxonomy.

Emotional Stability

This is where you get such traits as being anxious, depressed, angry, insecure, embarrassed, emotional, and worried.


Also referred to as likability or friendliness, this is about being good-natured, courteous, trusting, cooperative, soft-hearted, forgiving, tolerant, and flexible. Here is the flexibility mentioned in the Hyper Island survey.


There is less agreement among psychologists about what goes into this one. Some say it’s mostly about being dependable, responsible, thorough, and organized. Some say there’s an element of will-to-achieve in here as well, such as being persevering, achievement-oriented, and hardworking. This would also be a place where the drive mentioned in the Hyper Island survey fits in nicely.

Openness to Experience

This one is probably the vaguest of the five, and sometimes it is called intellect or culture. I think the openness to experience captures it nicely. It’s about being imaginative, inquisitive, curious, broadminded, original, intelligent, and artistically sensitive. This would be the one where the creativity mentioned in the Hyper Island survey fits in.

It’s important to note that in the above descriptions, all of them are from the positive perspective except for emotional stability, which is described from the negative perspective. In other words, the traits displayed in each category can fall anywhere on a spectrum from positive to negative. The reason emotional stability is described in the negative here is because of its assumed impact on workplace productivity. In other words, it’s clear that conscientiousness (dependability) would have a positive impact on the performance of any job. By the same token, being on the negative end of emotional stability is probably going to get in the way of just about any job.

This was just a quick introduction to the concept of the Big Five personality model. Stay tuned for future articles that go deeper into personality and the hiring process – there are some real pitfalls to avoid, and some strengths to leverage as well.

January 28, 2015   Updated :March 14, 2015   Big Five, hiring, personality, recruiting   

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