The Big 5 personality traits include conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion. The goal of the Big 5 was lofty—to distill all the possible personality traits into a cohesive, manageable set of factors.
The research signaled that five was ideal, although it could have been more (and some less popular models do have more than five). The selection of five was to ensure that the factors were distinct and comprehensive, such that the factors covered the vast majority of “variance” across all possible personality traits.
The Big 5 has undergone plentiful and robust construct validity analyses and has been included in all sorts of models, making it a solid approach to evaluating how personality traits relate to different types of organizational behavior. More specifically, if the goal is to understand the degree to which a personality trait (e.g., openness to experience) correlates with an outcome of interest (e.g., creativity), the Big 5 is a wise choice.
The challenge with the Big 5, however, is that’s it’s not inherently “practical,” which is the goal in applied settings. The Big 5 is built for research, where the goal is to incrementally advance theory. In applied settings, however, the goal is to facilitate behavior change. This requires a slightly different approach. The factors of interest are still grounded in evidence and have also undergone construct validity analyses. However, the selection of factors (also called dimensions) is based on user utility. Further, the way the assessments are constructed, scored, and reported is more appropriate for those interested in making day-to-day behavior changes. Below, I offer more detailed explanations of these differences.
The first difference is variability. For example, even though conscientiousness is one of the strongest predictors of performance, the mean-level across populations is relatively high. Without variation, it doesn’t add much value to applied settings. Applied, trait-based assessments, such as the dimensions of DISC, 16 types, Enneagram, and Instinctive drives, are built for ensuring that variability exists so that we can glean more specific insights on how the factors show up in work settings.
The second difference is neutrality. The applied, trait-based assessments, for the most part (if done correctly), are purposefully neutral (i.e., they are not “good” or “bad”). Several of the Big 5 have negative connotations—neuroticism in particular. Low levels of agreeableness (i.e., disagreeableness) and low levels of openness to experience (i.e., being close-minded) do as well. Again, although these are clearly universal and important traits, they don’t work well in applied settings. Participants don’t want to be told they are innately flawed. Further, negatively worded assessment questions introduce social desirability bias (i.e., we want to present ourselves to colleagues and supervisors as better than what we really are) and/or inflation bias (i.e., we are biased to think we are better than we really are).
The third difference entails the approach to assessing behavior. The Big five looks at one trait at a time and asks whether you are low to high on that trait through a series of questions. This is the best approach for research settings when you want to evaluate one trait at a time (and statistically “control” for all other traits). This is ideal for incremental science, but not for applied conversations.
Applied assessments look at a factor of interest and then evaluate the poles of that factor. The extroversion trait of the Big 5 does this, with its opposite being introversion, but the others don’t have the same degree of polarity. Being low on neuroticism doesn’t inherently suggest that you are emotionally intelligent, for example (although some have tried to prove that this is the case).
With DISC there is a two-by-two of factors that look at how you view your environment (factor 1 = favorable or unfavorable) and how you approach your environment (factor 2 = aggressive or passive). With 16 Types, the factors cover categories such as “perception” (either sensing or intuition) and “judgment” (either thinking or feeling). Overall, these pole-based approaches ensure that the insights are neutral (not good or bad, just different), people self-rate without bias (no one likes to admit they are neurotic or disagreeable, for example), and those insights can be delivered regardless of where one falls on the factor of interest.
Also important, the personality trait assessments on the Cloverleaf platform do overlap with some of the Big 5 dimensions. In particular, extroversion-introversion is covered in 16 types, and agreeableness is covered, to some degree, in the D vs. I scores of DISC. In my opinion, those are the two most practical factors of the Big 5 in applied work settings.
I’ve heard several academics suggest that using anything except the Big 5 to assess personality is incorrect. This is oversimplified. If the goal is to advance science with respect to personality, the Big 5 is the most suitable. But this is because that is what the Big 5 was built for.
If the goal is to change behavior in applied settings, Cloverleaf’s personality trait assessments—DISC, 16 types, Enneagram, Instinctive Drives—are not only suitable, they are ideal. Academics assume that these practitioner-focused alternatives haven’t undergone construct validity analyses. This is untrue—they just don’t have the data to conduct these analyses. The assessment providers offer some analyses, independent academics have conducted analyses and published the findings in peer-reviewed outlets, and I have conducted our own analyses on our user database. The findings are sound.
In summary, the Big 5 is amazing, especially if you’re conducting research. But as of today, we are focusing on incorporating personality trait assessments that offer as much practical utility as possible.