Picture the O.C.E.A.N.: Learning from the Big 5 to Support Safety

Learning from the Big 5 to Support Safety



By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Want to be a better safety leader? Picture the ocean. Not the Atlantic or Pacific but the acronym O.C.E.A.N. This stands for the Big 5 personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Before addressing each trait in the Big 5, here’s a bit of history into its development.
In the early 1900’s, Industrial/Organizational Psychology (IOP) focused on the selection and placement of individuals in organizational settings (Viteles, 1932). During World War I, IOP researchers developed and administered the Army Alpha and Beta intelligence tests to more than 1.75 million soldiers. This test was used to place enlisted soldiers in specialized areas where their talents could be best used (e.g., officer training school). Also, IOP researchers developed specific, objective criteria for job performance evaluations that were used for the selection and promotion of WWI officers. During World War II, IOP researchers focused on personnel training instead of selection and placement. Situational stress tests were conducted to better prepare soldiers for the intense distress and frustration of combat. This included flight simulator assessments with fighter pilots. Then, IOP research focused on personality traits related to organizational leadership.

The Big 5 personality traits were shown to correlate with successful leadership. Other personality traits such as motivation, honesty, integrity, self-confidence, and intelligence were also predictive of effective leadership (Cascio, 1998). Although current research now focuses more on situational factors, it’s still useful to consider the Big 5 elements as it relates to safety leadership.

Openness to experience is an important trait for leaders. Openness describes a person’s tendency to think in abstract, complex ways. Highly open people tend to be creative, adventurous, and intellectual. They also enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences. Effective leaders are flexible and open to new ideas. This open mindedness is endearing to employees who are eager to have their voices heard. Smart leaders get input from employees and consult them when making decisions.
Conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of organizational effectiveness in the Big 5. Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to exercise self-discipline and control in order to pursue their goals. Highly conscientious leaders are organized, determined, and are able to forego immediate concerns for the sake of long-term achievement. Conscientious leaders consistently show up for safety and “walk the talk.” This includes setting good personal examples for safety, responding to safety concerns in an effective and timely fashion, and reliably integrating safety into all operations as a core value.
Extraversion represents improving the frequency and quality of one-on-one conversations with employees. In this digital (and COVID) era, personal and authentic conversations are critically important. Strong leaders make it a priority to spend time in the field effectively and authentically interacting with employees.
Agreeableness represents maintaining a pleasant, cordial, and positive relationship with employees. It describes a person’s tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own and to cooperate rather than compete with others. People who are high in agreeableness are empathic and enjoy looking out for others. They are also trusting and forgiving. Agreeable leaders actively care for others and show genuine concern for their well-being. They also handle conflicts and concerns with compassion and seek solutions that work for everyone.
Neuroticism is the last of the Big 5 components. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody, anxious, angry, and jealous. These unhealthy characteristics manifest themselves in maladaptive behaviors from employees who are trying to cope with the leader’s neurotic behavior.

A few considerations:

• How high would you score on each these traits?
• Where are you currently strong?
• What areas could you improve to be a better leader?

Take a few moments and think about your Big 5. You can also take quick and free Big 5 quizzes online. Think about how you can accentuate your Big 5 strengths and improve your weaknesses to become a better safety leader.