helpingI was reading an excellent book recently when I came across the concept of the “Big Five” personality traits. I’d never heard of these before but I found them fascinating. You’ve probably taken personality tests in the past—the Meyers-Briggs test is a popular one. The Big Five are more often used in scientific circles for personality research, so I think they’re handy to know.

I also enjoyed reading about the implications these could have for managers or anyone in charge of groups of people (teachers, sports coaches, even parents).

I’m fairly confident everyone can benefit from understanding how the Big Five work and paying attention to the personality traits of ourselves and those around us, so I’d like to share what I’ve read about the Big Five and some suggestions for using them to your advantage.

What are the Big Five

In the 1970s, two groups of personality researchers independently came to the conclusion that most personality traits can be boiled down into five broad categories, now known as the Big Five. They are:

  1. Openness
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Emotional stability (or Neuroticism)


I first read about these in an essay by Geoffrey Miller in the book I mentioned earlier. He explained that each of these traits acts like a scale, where everyone falls at some points along the scale between high and low. I’ve actually written about the scale of extraversion and introversion before, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was part of the Big Five lineup.

If you’re curious about these, you can try this online test to see how you score. Here’s what my results looked like (though I’m not so sure I believe this is me!):

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 3.14.17 pm

Another essay in the same book, by Helen Fisher, explored “Temperament dimensions,” which are very similar broad categories to those above, excluding extraversion. One important note to make about both of these models of describing personality traits is that they are very broad, general categories. They came from patterns that emerged from large amounts of research data, so they can’t pinpoint your exact personality. They can be used as a helpful guide, but not a hard-and-fast rule set.

Let’s explore how each trait presents itself in our personalities:

Openness: Those who score high for this trait tend to enjoy adventure and be open to new experiences

Conscientiousness: High scorers for conscientiousness are generally organized and dependable

Extraversion: Those who are high on this scale draw their energy from being around others, so they tend to be more sociable (not to be confused with outgoing!)—read more about this trait in my previous post.

Agreeableness: High scorers for this trait are often trusting, helpful and compassionate.

Emotional stability: People with high scores for this trait are usually confident and don’t tend to worry often (this may be tested as neuroticism, in which case high scorers would be prone to worrying and anxiety).

Geoffrey Miller’s essay emphasized how each of these works as a scale, or really a bell curve, with all of us falling into the range somewhere. I loved this point he made, which really put things into perspective for me:

One implication is that the “insane” are often just a bit more extreme in their personalities than whatever promotes success or contentment in modern societies—or more extreme than we’re comfortable with.

Although these traits are genetically heritable and mostly stable throughout our lives, Helen Fisher’s essay emphasized the fact that people are malleable:

We are not puppets on a string of DNA.

Thus, if you tend to score high on a trait you’re not especially keen on, you can work on this. It takes work, though. Helen also made the point that while we are capable of acting “out of character,” this is exhausting and we can’t keep it up for long. Small increments are generally best to create lasting change.

Now that we understand what the Big Five are and how they present in people, let’s take a look at why this information is useful to us.

Again, Helen Fisher has an excellent point to make on this:

… we are social creatures, and a deeper understanding of who we (and others) are can provide a valuable tool for understanding, pleasing, cajoling, reprimanding, rewarding, and loving others.

I couldn’t agree more. In particular, I think this information can help us to understand and help our employees even better.

Building a better team using personality traits

Whether you’re looking for a way to build a more cohesive team with the people you already manage or you’re hiring, like Buffer, you can put these personality traits to work if you understand them well.

1. Take note of the personality traits you need before hiring

Before you hire for a new role, you’ll probably put together a job description. This helps you to understand what kind of person you’re looking for: what skills and experience they’ll have, and what they’ll be able to bring to your company.

Using the Big Five, you can put together a rough blueprint of the personalities you already have in your team and make a note of which personality traits would best fit into the new role.

2. Look for personalities that will fit into and compliment your company culture

We’re big on culture at Buffer, and this is something I think we could add into our hiring process to make even better decisions about who will fit in best.

Understanding the personality traits that suit the role you’re hiring for is important, but how personalities fit together can make a big difference as well. Working out the personality traits most suited to your company’s culture can help you to keep an eye out for them and spot people who will fit in more easily.

3. Pair new employees up with team members who suit their personality type

When new employees come on board it’s fairly standard for an existing employee to show them the ropes. If you’re buddying up new employees for a while, taking personality types into consideration could make your employee on boarding process smoother.

Do you have any other suggestions for using personality types in hiring or bringing your team together? Let us know in the comments.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like Why positive encouragement works better than criticism, according to science and 22 Tips To Better Care for Introverts and Extroverts.

Image credit: Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • Jen

    Link to take the personality test is broken.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Whoops, good catch! It’s fixed now.

  • I would love to take the test, but the link doesn’t work.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks for letting us know and sorry for that, Gail! The link is now fixed–go take the test and share what you get with us. 🙂

    • Thanks, Courtney. I googled it and found it online!

      • Courtney Seiter

        Excellent! I love online personality tests. Glad you found it. 🙂

  • Good read! Thanks for sharing this. I think the test was pretty accurate for me. Especially when I read “You probably have a messy desk.” Yes. Yes, I do. 🙂

  • Heather YamadaHosley

    Great post, Belle! 🙂 Extremely interesting to think how people’s “scores” of these traits influence the way they interact with others and how you can adjust your behavior to better communicate with people based on their traits. Thanks for another thoughtful, educational post!

  • Samantha Owens

    My results were rather accurate. I’ll share them: I wasn’t really surprised by any of them, but it could be an interesting thing to test for. Obviously, it doesn’t tell in a complex manner what an employee is going to be like, but it does give a good snapshot for making a decision when you don’t have a chance to get to know the person.

  • Lucas E Wall

    Great article. I remembered what I was told back in the day when taking career guidance tests. Personality is not behavior. One might be an introvert, but act in a very extroverted way given the circumstances. In other words, do not let your traits but your will define you.

  • Sofía Aché

    If you found this interesting (which it is) I suggest you look into a new way of assessing personality (especially in the workplace) called Discovery Insight. All the big personality models come from Freud and his classic psychoanalysis, he differentiated between psychotic personality and neurotic personality, then Eysenc added the extrovert-introvert in his personality assessment (just like we understand it today) and redefined what Freud called the psychotic trait (how well you inhibit your impulses) and the neurotic trait (more related to emotional stability). And after that the Big Five came along, and a bunch of others, like, Insights that is really popular in big organizations, inspired by Jung’s psychoanalysis. It assesses your energies in this moment in your life, he defined four major energies: blue (analytic), red (action), yellow (people-person, like an extrovert) and green (comprehensive person, tolerant). It’s really cool because the test you take is just a bunch of adjectives and you have to choose which ones define you the most, and the results of the test are very accurate to your personality. Hope my comment wasn’t too long!!!

    • That was a really interesting comment, Sofia! Definitely not too long. At least, not in my opinion. I’m totally going to look into this now. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’d love for a more up-to-date personalty assessment that deals with actual underpnnings in brain chemistry and cognitive neruoscience. like how often is the reptilian part of our brain in control (fight or flight) and how strong are the frontal-lobes when it comes to preventing reactionary behavior.

      have you done any research on this? I think its rather modern since we haven’t had the tech o be able to measure the brain in as deep detail as we do now (all the computer games means we have GPUs that can literally analyze this stuff in real-time thanks to fMRI).

  • Samir Nooristani

    how does the five trait relate to how you work in team? if someone can answer this will great thanks