Unit 04: Neuroticism, Openness, and Agreeableness in the workplace

Working in the health insurance industry has given me the opportunity to meet hundreds of interesting people from all walks of life – customer service, doctors, patients, teachers, motivational speakers – you name it and they all have individual differences. Individual differences include personality, motivation, intelligence, and biodata (PSU, 2019). In any setting, it is always tricky to learn someone’s personalities and adapt to them. Over the years I have become more self-aware of parts of my own personality that may be difficult for others to deal with around the time when I moved from New York out west while I was in high school. My priorities, sense of humor, and interests were different than those around me in this new small town and I needed to do a lot of self-reflection to realize not everyone was like my friends back home. I think the experience of me moving around a lot has allowed me to become not only aware of my own image but also other people’s personalities. This brings me to one person in particular and my ongoing experiences with her. Since personalities can play a key role in how a work environment is perceived and run, they should be reviewed and monitored to see if adjustment is needed.

I have had the “pleasure” of working with a supervisor in particular that I will call Lucy. Lucy has been in the insurance industry for approximately 15 years and while does have a large amount of knowledge and background in the field, I feel as if her personality can sometimes get in her way. The Five-Factor Model of Personality reviews five traits of personality including conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. The first thing that comes to mind is her neuroticism. Lucy can get pretty hostile when she doesn’t agree with someone and will impulsively send out disrespectful emails.

During one my employee’s first few months dealing with Lucy, they disagreed on how the business should a certain matter. She thoroughly explained my stance, provided supporting documentation, consulted with their peers, and covered all the bases. Lucy was overheard saying that she couldn’t believe someone so new to the position (not the company) would question her and was cursing under her breath. She fired back an email to my employee, copying my up-line and hers, belittling their opinion, experience, and the research on the topic. I was shocked! I had been warned this may happen but didn’t think this would even warrant such behavior. Differing opinions can allow for learning and innovation for any organization, however, that’s not what happened here. Eventually, the employee’s stance was heard and later adapted by the organization.

Lucy went on to tell other leaders about this employee’s poor work ethic and bring up this situation over the next few months during random times. Lucy also would include any other professional disagreements and personal opinions about their style. I can’t say for certain if this kept them from getting promotions but I’m sure it didn’t help. Eventually this feedback got back to me and I knew I had to have it addressed. Her abusive behavior to the employee was unethical because it was creating a hostile work environment and harming them. It seemed as though she was was using her power as a supervisor to try and scare them into agreeing, but also punish them if they did not.

I would also say the Lucy would fall low on the agreeableness and openness scales. Agreeableness is defined as being able to trust others, be accepting, and having the ability to conform (Northouse, 2016). Lucy did not show these personality traits in this example and the countless others that happened after it. Lucy failed to accept anyone else’s ideas and adapt to change. While my employee would be more described as having the openness trait, Lucy also would not have this. Openness to experience is a way learn, grow, and adapt, however, Lucy refused to do any of these. Lucy was stuck in the way the company did this 15 years ago and did not want to even talk about the possibility of changing how it handled a certain situation. Counterproductive workplace behaviors correlate higher with those who are less agreeable and are more neurotic (Joy, 2018).

While Lucy is not a psychologist, I still rated her behavior against the APA Code of Ethics. Principe A Beneficence and Nonmaleficence comes into play here because of the harm she was doing to another employee, damaging their reputation, and overall badmouthing them just for disagreeing with her when it was done it a completely professional way. This lead her to misuse her influence as a member of management. Principe E was also violated as it says, “respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination” (APA, 2010). Lucy would have been considered as breaking code 3.04 Avoiding Harm and 2.03 Maintaining Competence. I thought Maintaining Competence was an interesting one to apply here because of how Lucy failed to see the situation from another side that was more relevant to the times and was stuck in an old policy that had been outdated. The employee’s policy, in the end, ended up implemented and if Lucy had been open to the new ideas, she could have been park of that success.

Lucy’s inability to overcome her negative personality traits led her to make decisions that were unethical, including creating an unhealthy work environment for her fellow co-worker. Her impulsiveness, inability to be open, and her lack of agreeableness ended up making her an example of what a team player doesn’t look like, resulting in her being put on steps for her behavior. Her need to be right should have been outweighed by her desire to remain open and learn. Thankfully, Lucy is no longer in a position of power and has since transferred to a separate department. In the workplace, it is crucial that one tries to work as a group or a team to create success for the company.

 

Reference:

American Psychological Association. (2010, June 1). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 amendments.

 (Links to an external site.) Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/

 

Joy, D. C. (2018). Exploring the relationships among leader personality, leader social intelligence, and follower distress (Order No. AAI10684844). Available from PsycINFO. (2020527129; 2018-09131-106). Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/2020527129?accountid=13158

 

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

 

PSU. (2019) PSY Unit 04: L08 Individual Differences and Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/u04-overview?module_item_id=25808466

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Ultsch March 25, 2019 at 12:35 AM #

    Hi Jessica,
    Isn’t interesting that the first thing that comes to mind is neuroticism. If extraversion is the factor most highly correlated to being a successful leader, why does it feel like neuroticism is? In fact, conscientiousness and openness have a higher correlation than neuroticism (Northouse, 2019). Take that agreeableness! I guess. The answer to these questions is due to, at least in part, the particulars of the situation. Depending on the situation, a different factor may have a stronger correlation. I think your example illustrates this well. In your situation, the neuroticism played the strongest correlation to being an effective leader. If it were just the email, we could call it a behavior. However, It was more than one specific behavior. The behavior continued in email, conversations, etc… to the point where it has become Lucy’s trait. This trait contributes to the factor of neuroticism in the five factors model to form Lucy’s personality (PSU, 2019; Northouse, 2019).

    I worked for someone like Lucy at two points in my career. They truly challenged a personal belief that you can learn something from anyone. I suppose I learned a few things not to do. Since you can work on and improve personal traits, what do these leaders need to do to change, or more pointedly improve their neuroticism results in the five factors model? This should lead to more ethical behavior. Birkman uses a simple three step process for success. In order of completion, they are self awareness, self regulation, and managing relationships (Birkman, n.d.). By order of completion, I mean you need to complete step one before proceeding to step two. For example, if you do not know what behavior you need to regulate, take one step backward and see self awareness. Now, how you would make Lucy aware of her neuroticism is the challenge here. It will take leadership, which has many tools at the ready; routine employee surveys, anonymous surveys regarding the leader, a crucial conversation, etc… This period of change is usually a good time to change departments since it’s easier to create a positive reputation than turn a bad one around. I wonder if that’s why Lucy left, to build a new reputation now that she is in the self regulation zone. Or perhaps, Lucy is aware of her behavior and chooses not to regulate it, through some flawed justification. Here is where ethics plays a critical role. It shouldn’t be hard to find a code of ethics, core value statement, or business plan to point to, to show Lucy how her behavior does not meet your organizations expectations. Again, how this is done is the real challenge. A critical conversation will likely play a key role in the behavioral change.

    In summary, I really enjoy the topic of leaders leading leaders, particularly when it involves correcting behaviors that contribute to ethics violations. When looking at the five factors model we note extraversion has the highest correlation to effective leadership. However, the situation may warrant different factors being more highly correlated to effectiveness. In this situation, neuroticism likely had the highest correlation to effectiveness. I attempted to take this problem and propose a framework, using the Birkman method, to be used to correct the negative behavior.

    Resources

    Birkman (n.d.) Retrieved from https://birkman.com

    Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L09 Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/modules/items/25808487

  2. Holly Johnson March 24, 2019 at 9:36 PM #

    Jessica, thanks for sharing this interesting case study, although I’m sorry you had to go through the experience that produced it. Working with the Lucys of the world can be very stressful!
    Without knowing Lucy, I would still wager that your assessment of her personality along the five-factor model was probably spot on. As I read, however, I wanted to peel the onion one more layer to discover what else lurked beneath those personality traits, or perhaps the motivations that accompanied them.
    For example, though her neuroticism was on full display, what hidden aspects of her psyche contributed to the neurotic behaviors? Was she deeply insecure and so terrified of looking bad that she felt the need to hostilely defend herself? Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, was she so overconfident that she was blind to her own faults?
    Did she badmouth others because she grew up in a volatile home in which such behavior was normal, or did it spring from a motivation to get ahead by pulling others down?
    We seldom know such deep personality factors about our coworkers, but it fascinates me to think about how biodata, experience, personality variances, and motivations mix together to form a truly unique cocktail in each person. It’s important to examine these within ourselves to know our own weak spots. Like the vices we examined earlier in this course, we all have particular areas in which we may be more prone to unethical behavior, but being aware of these is the first step in avoiding it. In Lucy’s case, while having a higher level of neuroticism isn’t unethical, it opened the door for the unethical behavior related to it that you described. May we all know ourselves well enough to avoid these pitfalls in the future!

  3. Russell Cender March 24, 2019 at 1:24 PM #

    Hi Jessica,

    I enjoyed reading your blog post about the example of dealing with a difficult personality you and your team had to routinely encounter and deal with at the office within the health insurance industry. You made an interesting statement of since personalities can play a key role in how a work environment is perceived and run, they should be reviewed and monitored to see if adjustment is needed. I do not disagree but would love to have heard your views or ideas on how that could be implemented. In previous discussions I have brought up the use of survey’s (though I admit I am not entirely sure of their effectiveness) and we have also learned in the lectures and case studies about the use of psychological assessments. Of course, it all depends on what the assessments are looking for. Even in the case of neuroticism there could be benefits. Neurotic behaviors can be helpful in certain situations such as in threat or crisis situations that require a leader to react to those conditions in a way that will protect the organization (PSU, 2019). I understand Lucy was a supervisor and it was not entirely clear to me if there were team members who may have (albeit hard to believe) that felt she was agreeable to work with. I have in my own experience dealt with leaders from other organizations that were feared outside their organization but admired within it.

    “Lucy” I would think with all her belligerence, hostility toward new ideas, and attempting to undermine your staff’s ability to progress should certainly come through and be rendered negatively on an assessment of personality. Keep in mind people who do not exhibit a clear predisposition to a single factor in each dimension are actually considered adaptable, moderate and reasonable, yet they can also be perceived as unprincipled, inscrutable and calculating (Wikipedia, n.d.). This sounds a lot like your “Lucy”.

    Based on your description and examples of Lucy’s actions I think she may not be just high on neuroticism, low on the agreeableness and openness, but she may also come out high on extraversion. With Lucy’s approximately 15 years’ experience in the health insurance industry I bet you are correct at times her personality would get in her way. Folks that may not naturally be extraverted, with all her experience she may find it hard not to speak up and show off that experience.

    Ultimately, I totally understand that Lucy’s neuroticism and assertiveness were an ugly combination you clearly had the “pleasure” of dealing with in your organization. Also, I agree we need to be able to review and monitor and work with these types of personalities so that they do not create a toxic environment in the workplace for everyone else.

    Thanks for sharing your story on the blog,
    Russell.

    References
    PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L09 Five-Factor Model of Personality. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l09-five-factor-model-of-personality?module_item_id=25808491

    Wikipedia.org. (n.d.) Big Five personality traits. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

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