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The Big Five model: Overview, origins, and use in human resources

February 2, 2024

The goal of understanding the human mind has always been a priority for people. Psychologists have been researching and studying for centuries to try and make sense of the brilliant, beautiful mess that we call our brains.

One of the theories that stemmed out of this is the Big Five model, which is still considered one of the most scientifically robust. But what is it? How do the Big Five personality tests work? And how do the Big Five personality traits predict work behaviour? This article will answer these questions and more.

The Big Five model

What is the Big Five model?

The Big Five model, sometimes known as ‘the five-factor model of personality’ or ‘OCEAN’, is a psychological theory asserting that there are five clusters of traits that explain individual differences in personality, and that these are true regardless of differences in culture. These can provide employers with insights into an applicant and inform their recruitment process.

The Big Five traits

You might be asking — how can personality be categorised into only five traits? We all know how complex it is, and there’s no doubt that human personality contains many more attributes than can be counted on both hands, let alone one.

The Big Five model doesn’t argue that there are only five traits that comprise the human personality, but rather that these many many attributes can be organised into five buckets, or ‘clusters’. These are:

  • Openness: The spectrum between inventive/curious and consistent/cautious
  • Conscientiousness: The spectrum between efficient/organised and extravagant/careless
  • Extraversion: The spectrum between outgoing/energetic and solitary/reserved
  • Agreeableness: The spectrum between friendly/compassionate and critical/rational
  • Neuroticism: The spectrum between sensitive/nervous and resilient/confident

It’s also important to note that, according to the Big Five model, people don’t either possess or not possess a trait, but rather exist somewhere on the spectrum between the two ends of it. So, for example, for the trait of openness, one end of the spectrum would be ‘highly open to new experiences’, whereas the other end would be ‘highly closed to new experiences’. An individual would score somewhere on that spectrum, rather than be either open or closed off.

How did the Big Five model emerge?

As previously mentioned, people have tried to study the human mind for centuries, even millennia. However, the modern use of psychology and psychometrics — assessments that try to measure psychological elements — started to boom with the World Wars of the twentieth century, when suddenly masses of people were drafted and had to be assessed for their competency as soldiers.

During this time, military psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal narrowed the traits down to five primary qualities, and their theory formed the basis of Lewis Goldberg’s Big Five personality model.

In simple terms, the Big Five personality test was established by trying to identify an array of adjectives that are used to describe personalities, across different forms of literature and different cultures. From this, the researchers managed to recognise the five clusters of personality. It is based in linguistics and latent factor modelling (for our purposes, this means 'finding clusters of grouped-together adjectives'), which makes the phrasing and language used in the assessment critical to its accuracy. However, when designed properly, the assessment is accurate across different populations and cultures, making it ideal for fighting unconscious bias in hiring.

Further reading: The origins and future of psychometrics

How does the Big Five personality test work?

The Big Five assessment is taken in the form of a rating scale questionnaire. This can be by requesting an individual to input how much they agree or disagree with a statement, or asking to score different statements against each other. For example:

Source: Thrive

The Big Five personality assessment is different from other tests in that it does not divide individuals into groups. For example, the MBTI will classify an individual as ‘The Architect’ (INTJ) or ‘The Campaigner’ (ENFP). The Big Five model, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on predetermined categories of personality, but aims to score each desirable trait separately, creating a unique snapshot of an individual. So, instead of getting a ‘box’ that you fit in, the Big Five assessment results will look something like this:

However, the results won’t usually only comprise of the Big Five traits, but other relevant traits too. Some assessments that rely on the Big Five model won’t even directly measure these specific domains, but rather more specific traits within each of them. The Thrive assessment, for example, measures the traits Supportive, Cooperative, and Empathetic, rather than Agreeable — these are all facets of the agreeable cluster.

Source: Thrive

The Big Five method of scoring each trait on a spectrum, rather than boxing people into types, enables a far more accurate picture of a person — it’s more scientifically reliable — and is therefore extremely useful, especially in business situations. It also brings an added value, as it allows organisations to give more or less weight to specific traits, making the tests highly tailored to individual companies and even roles. 

The Big Five model in the workplace

Because of its robustness, the Big Five model is particularly useful for the workplace. It can help mitigate bias, improve employee development, and prevent bad hires.

How do the Big Five personality traits predict work behaviour?

Organisations have always tried to find a method to predict the performance of candidates. When you have to hire someone without having them do the job first, you must be able to distinguish between someone you like, and someone who fits the role and the culture. Psychometric assessments generally, and especially the Big Five personality assessment, are an effective and highly reliable method of predicting performance.

Each personality attribute will impact your work in one way or another, and understanding these before you hire someone can not only ensure you’re asking the right questions in interviews, but also that you’re not missing out on a great candidate because of bias.

For example, in the Thrive platform, you’ll first be asked to choose a role. Whether it’s an Account Manager or a BDR, our occupational psychologists have carefully chosen the traits that can make or break a successful candidate, tailored to the specific role they’re interviewing for. You can also choose additional traits that are particularly important to your team or culture.

By sending out the assessment to applicants, you can get a picture of their personality according to the highly reliable Big Five model. Using this data, you can make your interviews better and your decisions more informed.

So, how does each trait affect employees?

Further reading: Learn how ibLE cut 15 minutes per interview yet still got higher-quality candidates

Openness at work

Candidates with a high openness score are more likely to enjoy learning new skills and tools, be better at problem solving, and be happy to try different methods.

Candidates with a low openness score are more likely to avoid change, be great at one thing (but not have many talents besides it), and prefer practical conversations to abstract ones.

Read more about openness at work >>

Conscientiousness at work

Candidates with a high conscientiousness score are more likely to be adamant to get the job done, hit deadlines, and be independent in their work.

Candidates with a low conscientiousness score are more likely to require external motivation for completing tasks, treat their work more flexibly, and need more focus to get the job done.

Read more about consciousness at work >>

Extraversion at work

Candidates with a high extraversion score are more likely to flourish doing teamwork, actively participate in social and work activities, and be excellent public speakers.

Candidates with a low extraversion score are more likely to prefer working alone, insist on a quiet environment for their work, and opt for tasks that don’t include much contact with clients or colleagues.

Read more about extraversion at work >>

Agreeableness at work

Candidates with a high agreeableness score are more likely to avoid confrontation, learn from feedback, and cooperate and collaborate easily with others.

Candidates with a low agreeableness score are more likely to make decisions that are free of personal emotions, confront others, and prefer to work alone.

Read more about agreeableness at work >>

Neuroticism at work

Candidates with a low neuroticism score are more likely to remain positive in difficult situations, focus on the tasks at hand rather than worry about the future, and communicate clearly and logically.

Candidates with a high neuroticism score are more likely to struggle dealing with crisis or stress, require validation for their work, and act erratically.

Read more about neuroticism at work >>

Should you use the Big Five model in recruitment?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is yes, if you’re using the right assessment in the right way.

The right assessment

Even though psychometric assessments are widely used in recruitment and selection, there’s little to no regulation around it. That means that a psychometric provider can claim pretty much anything they want without it being properly scrutinised. In other words — you need to scrutinise them yourself.

It’s not enough to ensure that the assessments you use utilise the Big Five theory. You also need to check whether they’re applying it properly, how reliable it is, and how valid. To learn more, check out our guide to purchasing psychometric assessments.

“It seems instinctive that something so important, which impacts the financial wellbeing, mental health, and career success of individuals, as well as the performance of companies, should be legally regulated. Strangely, this is not the case with psychometrics. A company can splash a huge "bias free hiring" banner on their website, or make claims that their assessments genuinely predict job performance, without being subjected to any independent review as a legal requirement.”

-Charlie Taylor, Thrive’s CEO

Read the full quote in our white paper

The right way

Psychometric tests such as the Big Five assessment should never be used in isolation — it has to be fully implemented into the process. You shouldn’t use it as a gatekeeper; a low score doesn’t necessarily indicate anything bad. For instance, an accountant might not need high scores in openness or extraversion to get the job done.

However, even low scores in relevant traits should be understood in context. Nobody is perfect, and we all have weaknesses — the question is how we deal with those weaknesses. The assessment should inform the interview to allow you to ask specific questions about how the applicant approaches their weaknesses, how they develop skills to combat them, and how they contend with situations that may present a challenge. The Thrive assessment provides you with these questions, but if your provider doesn’t, we recommend taking the time to craft questions that rely on the assessment.

The benefits

  • Understand your employees better: Assessing your employees and candidates can help you understand them better. What motivates them? Will they get along? How do they learn and develop best?

  • Build better teams: Assessing your employees and candidates can improve your teams. Can these people work together? Do they have traits that complete each other? What's missing from our team?

  • Increase diversity and performance: Assessing your employees and candidates can help you combat unconscious bias and optimise performance. Are you hiring the best candidate or your favourite candidate? What are the tangible elements you're looking for in a candidate? Are you communicating in an effective way with this individual?

Want to learn more about the Big Five-based Thrive assessment and how it can optimise your performance? Book a demo with us today.

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