In our quest to make the best decisions for ourselves, our teams and our organisations it’s essential that we understand how our personality shapes our approach. If we can understand our innate decision-making preferences, we can identify our strengths and also our blindspots. This allows us to challenge ourselves to be better or invite others who can mitigate our weaknesses so that we avoid costly mistakes.
The latest research on individual differences and personality provides extremely useful insights into how we assess and process information, our attitude to risk, and our openness to innovate. There are a wide variety of assessments that measure different aspects of our personality. In this chapter, we’ll explore what psychologists call the gold standard of personality assessment; the Big 5 traits and how those 5 traits influence our decision-making approach. The big 5 measures five major dimensions of our personality; Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN). At the end of this article, we’ll signpost you to a free website where you can take the test and start your journey to self-awareness and ultimately, give you the decision edge.
Each of these OCEAN dimensions is viewed on a continuum. We all have some level of these five traits represented in our personality and all of these traits have an influence on our decision-making style. There is a big debate as to whether our traits are due to nature or nuture. Studies of the Big Five have found that our genetic heritage accounts for between 40% to 60% of the individual variance in traits.
First, let’s explore the research on Agreeableness. People who score highly on agreeableness are naturally empathic and would rather collaborate than compete with others. These interpersonal skills make them valuable contributors to participatory decision making. Agreeable people don’t like to be pushy and impose their views on others and are often willing to compromise their interests in exchange for harmony. This can hold a group back if an agreeable person has a different but important perspective to the rest of their team. If you score high in agreeableness you have to be willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone and advocate for your idea, even at the risk of upsetting others. Those high in Agreeableness also need to be mindful of how pressure influences their behaviour. Research finds that people who score high in both agreeableness become less effective decision-makers under pressure, or ‘choke’ as the researchers crudely put it (Kaileigh A et al.2015). Group dynamics are also influenced by the number of members that exhibit Agreeableness. They found that if you have a number of members with high Agreeableness it moderates risky decision making (Wang et. al 2019).
If a person scores low in agreeableness, it often indicates that they place self-interest above getting along with others. They are generally unconcerned with others’ well-being, and may not naturally feel empathy towards the people their decision impacts. The impact of their decision on others will often have to pointed out to them before they take adaptive action. This blindness can lead to a lack of buy-in from others. People low in agreeableness tend to view others as selfish and believe they are only out for their own interests so may miss out on opportunities for win-win decision outcomes. A subdomain of Agreeableness is cooperation, a low score means that a person is more likely to intimidate others to achieve their goals. This can often result in achieving your goals in the short-term but over the long term people just think it’s easier to go along with your idea. Low agreeable often leads to a predisposition to criticise others and to identify opportunities to do so, rather than taking the time to praise a person’s work or their effort. In a group setting this can lead to team members watering down their ideas for fear of having them criticised. This leads to lower quality solutions and less innovation.
We all worry about things from time to time. But for people who score high in neuroticism, worrying is a more regular, intense part of life. They are also more likely to be prone to mood changes and we’ve already discussed how this can influence decision making. It’s important that they are able to identify the mood they are in. Neuroticism often causes people to feel insecure and sensitive, and focus on the negative aspects of a situation. A person high in neuroticism is likely to perceive everyday situations as threatening and therefore more likely to overreact to the actual danger. Intense emotions such as anxiety, anger or depression diminish our ability to think rationally when we make decisions. Although it is good to be sensitive to the potential dangers of a situation, if it’s not managed there is the risk that it can be crowded out amongst all the other ordinary situations which are perceived as threatening. If you are aware that you score highly in neuroticism you can take proactive steps to manage your stress or anxiety levels if you know a difficult decision is coming up. Higher scores in neuroticism have been associated with reduced risk-taking. Although neuroticism is linked with impulsive behaviour, the sense of danger that comes from making a mistake can lead to avoiding making the decision altogether. If you do score high in neuroticism, there are benefits that will support your decision making. It’s likely that you are self-aware and less likely to overinflate your abilities. Your hypervigilance means that if you are executing a decision, you will be constantly scanning for potential pitfalls and navigating your way through them. Therefore, it’s good to be checking the potential dangers that you observe with your colleagues to gauge their potential risk.
If you score low in neuroticism you are likely to be exceptionally calm and don’t tend to stress in difficult or stressful situations. Being composed under pressure increases the likelihood that you are able to remain rational when making decisions. However, this strengths be an obstacle as it can make it challenging if you have to handle people who are experiencing negative emotions. So if your decision is adversely impacting people, it can be difficult understand why this is creating negative reactions in others. This can make it more challenging to empathise with the people affected by your decision and make you less likely to adapt your approach or communication with them.
The term “extraversion” was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). He used it to describe how people orient themselves toward the external world – whether they are focused on other people or prefer solitude. The opposite of extraversion is introversion: people who are more inwardly focused and reserved. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert dictates where you get your energy from – either from within yourself or from others around you.
People who score highly in extraversion are often enthusiastic, action-oriented and full of energy. They tend to be individuals who are likely to be drawn to opportunities for excitement. Extraverts like to think as they talk and assert themselves. Research has found they are more likely to experience positive emotions which affects our level of optimism when making decisions.
While extraversion is a very useful trait when it comes to interacting with others, it can hinder situations where you need to stay focused on one thing at a time. The deep focus that is required from working through a difficult problem doesn’t always come easily. People who are more introspective (i.e., they don’t like having attention drawn to them) prefer small group interactions over larger ones; they may need a little more time to make decisions due to their need for self-reflection when faced with new situations. This doesn’t impact the quality of the decisions and often the extra time taken can lead to a better thought-through decision overall.
Two factors of extraversion are gregariousness and friendliness. A high score in these indicates that a person finds the company of others stimulating and rewarding and can form close, intimate relationships fairly easily. This means that should you or your team be faced with a difficult decision, an extraverted person will often be able to call upon the resources of a wider range of people who can provide support or expertise. It’s important to be mindful that extraversion significantly predicts overconfidence in our decision making. People who score high in extraversion are very likely to be involved in riskier decision-making because they are more excitable and optimistic and this influences our perception of risk (Sartori et al., 2017, Alam et al., 2020)
Conscientiousness is the ability to plan ahead, follow through, and be organized. It’s about hard work and achieving your goals. A conscientious person is dependable, responsible and achievement focused. They forgo the pleasures of the moment, in return for increased security and opportunity in the future. The research literature consistently finds that conscientious individuals attain higher levels of performance through purposeful planning and persistence. People who score high in this also score strongly in life satisfaction. Some psychologists argue that if you live a conscientious life, across time you build an orderly, predictable and stable environment around you. This means there are often fewer things to be anxious about reducing the likelihood of negative emotion. If you score low in conscientiousness, then you are more prone to impulsive behaviour. Impulsive behaviours can diminish your effectiveness in significant ways often resulting in small, scattered, and inconsistent accomplishments. If you are prone to acting impulsively, this often stops you considering different options, some of which would have produced a better outcome than the original impulsive choice. Being impulsive can take you off course when you should be executing a decision and sidetrack you. This is not to say impulses are always bad; you will sometimes find yourself in a situation that demands a quick decision, and acting on our first impulse can be an effective response. However, it’s about identifying when is the right opportunity to act upon our impulses and not using it as our default setting.
A fascinating study found a link between the conscientiousness trait and guilt. Conscientious people are prone to feeling guilt, this guilt drives them to overcome any reluctance to begin an unpleasant task and stay on track despite the inevitable distractions. (Fayard 2012). This in itself means their level of output is naturally higher. Orderly people are more likely to have an aptitude for process management so they will naturally be good at applying a rigorous and thorough approach to their decision-making process. As with all strengths, there is a cliff edge if you over apply it. It can result in people becoming compulsive perfectionists. This means when information is ambiguous or incomplete they can fall into analysis paralysis, not able to move forward. If you score low in Conscientiousness, then you are less prone to being so cautious which can be a benefit in certain circumstances. When someone scores highly in this trait they tend to have the ability to control their urges and not rush into decisions. If you are low in conscientiousness, you may have a tendency to skip the smaller details that can make the difference between success and failure. However high scoring Conscientiousness people have to constantly be vigilant not to get bogged down by the details, at the cost of speed.
Openness to Experience
Do you find that you’re curious about new ideas, gaining new experiences and exploring your imagination? If so, then you might score highly on openness to experience. Openness to experience identifies creative people who are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to art and beauty and willing to try new things. It is concerned with a person’s willingness to try new things and think out of the box. This often manifests itself through an increased appetite for risk. If someone scores low in this, they tend to prefer routines, traditions, and familiarity. They tend to have a preference for keeping things simple and practical rather than complex and innovative. Consistency can be a strength if you have found an effective way of doing things. However, in a constantly evolving world it often results in approaching new things with caution. This preference for consistency can often lead to finding it difficult to cope with change, therefore remaining closed minded and considering less options when new opportunities arise. Their reliance on information that is familiar and conventional can make them appear rigid or steadfast in their own beliefs (John, 1990).
If you score high in openness to experience it’s important to be mindful of how sensitive you are to new information and therefore how prone you are to changing your opinion quite easily. You can easily be influenced by the latest new shiny idea and this can be frustrating to colleagues if you’ve already made a decision. High scores in Openness to Experience can often lead to a more intuitive approach, therefore just doing what you feel is right. This intuitive approach has the propensity to serve you well. However, it’s important not to be too ruled by the excitement of a new idea at the expense of data and analysis.
It’s clear that personality traits can have a significant impact on our decision-making approach. There are other individual factors such as our level of maturity, experience and ego strengths (the way you deal with stress and maintain stability).
As a next step, we recommended completing the free Neo 5 Factor Tool yourself. There is a valid and reliable tool that you can do free of charge. You have a choice between completing the long or short version (the long version is the most reliable version but takes 40-60 minutes to complete!). It’s best to complete it when you are in a relaxed state of mind preferably not during a busy day at work. Just click on the link to get started!
If you would like to speak to us about your results, you’re very welcome to get in touch and we’ll help you make sense of them.