The Big Five

Woody Allen
Woody Allen photo courtesy of

Tony Alessandra, PH.D, is the author of Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success. His book discusses ways to increase your personal magnetism, or charisma. His theory is that there are several components of charisma, all of which we possess to one degree or another.  We can also improve our command of all the components.

It’s probably no accident that Alessandra’s components of charisma include the same elements that psychologists use to describe personality.  Known as “the Big Five,” the components of personality can be measured and be used to predict how effective people will be in varied situations or on the job.

The Big Five traits include: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness,  and neuroticism.  (Follow links for official definitions form Wikipedia.) All of us possess these traits on a spectrum of “very” to “not at all,” and it’s the variety that makes us all unique and human nature so fascinating. Unlike the components of charisma, these traits are hard wired into our personalities, and are not generally something you can simply decide to change.

Openness is about curiosity and being open to new experiences.  Some of us thrive on new and interesting experiences and some of us are simply more cautious and resistant to change. If you’re wondering how to learn this quickly about a new acquaintance or team member, ask them about food. In my experience, this is the perfect litmus test of how open someone is to change and new environments.  I have never met a person whose food style did not match their curiosity factor.

When you meet someone who says “I’m really just a meat and potatoes guy,” he’s really telling you that he’s most comfortable when things are the way they’ve always been.  That’s not a bad thing, unless you’re a change agent looking to shake things up.  The way we eat is the way we think. Show me someone who’s experimenting with Moroccan cuisine this year (after mastering Korean last year) and I’ll show you someone who is a risk taker and not afraid to try new things in other aspects of her life.

Conscientiousness is about structure versus spontaneity.  How likely you are to follow the rules and desire to achieve goals is determined by your score on this trait. Employers often test for this for that reason; psychologists have discovered that workers who score lower are less likely to follow safety guidelines and other procedures.

Extraversion and introversion are well understood, and I’ve written about them in business before. We can all exhibit signs of extraversion and introversion at times, and the Big Five models allows for a more nuanced spectrum of behavior instead of simply putting you in one category or the other.

Agreeableness is one of those concepts that we always understand intuitively and are surprised that someone takes the time to study and define. This is the “niceness” factor, and there really are places in the U.S. where people score higher in droves.  Midwesterners and southerners do indeed score measurably higher on this trait, according to researchers. And make no mistake about it, this score will affect your ability to get and keep a job. You may not give a darn what people think, but they give a big darn about the fact that you don’t.

Finally, neuroticism, a trait that has made as many careers as it has ruined (Woody Allen and almost every comedian, actor and writer you’ve ever heard of.) For average people, it’s a little harder to leverage your neuroses into promotions. We’ve all got an inner Woody Allen, but how much you let him run the show is going to have a big effect on how well you work and play with others. Your level of neuroticism is related to chemical reactions in your brain, and yes, the same study found that the eastern states, including New York, have higher scores in this trait.

I suspect Woody Allen has issues with openness, too.  He’s credited with saying, “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

4 thoughts on “The Big Five

  1. There is a book out called “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain that may help introverts and extroverts in the workplace. Since it is the yin to the yang of one of the “Big Five” traits, I thought I would share


  2. […] “neophobes,” as opposed to “neophiles,” who seek out change and new experiences. I’ve written in a previous post about what are called “The Big Five” personality traits. Openness (to new experiences) is one […]


  3. […] “neophobes,” as opposed to “neophiles,” who seek out change and new experiences. I’ve written in a previous post about what are called “The Big Five” personality traits. Openness (to new experiences) is one […]


  4. […] I’ve written about the Big Five personality traits before.  The one in charge of your reaction to “what if” questions is Openness. In psychology, openness is a combination of six facets, or dimensions, including active imagination (fantasy), aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. Both artists and scientists tend to score higher in openness on psychometric assessments. Openness factors in your creative life, of course, but it’s also part of what you should look for when hiring for your team. […]


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