Book Excerpt Part 3: Instinct

The Critical 50 Percent: Doing Your Genetic Inventory

Continued from Page 2


So why is any of this relevant in a business book? Well, given all this new scientific information about how our genes affect our personalities and behavior, doesn’t it make sense to understand and use your genetic background to increase the odds of your being more successful? If you were born with a predisposition to being analytical or outgoing or emotional, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of those natural strengths instead of trying to fit yourself into a mold that forces you to work against who you are?

There are five broad aspects of our personalities that scientists say are highly inheritable. Everyone has a unique combination of these traits. The terms used to describe them by researchers beginning as early as 1957 have varied: the “Big 5,” the “five-factor model,” and so on. They’re the basis for much scientific research as well as many of the personality tests often administered by human resources departments; they also inspired the Entrepreneurial Personality Quiz later in this chapter.

These traits don’t work like on-off switches. Personality is not a case of “you either have it or you don’t.” With each trait, you may have a lot, very little, or be somewhere in the middle. Each of the Big 5 traits also has multiple aspects, and you may have more or less of each one of those as well.

In each of us, those traits and subtraits combine in a unique way. Even without any environmental influences, the number of possible combinations is enormous. And when you throw in how our environments affect those genetic qualities, it’s easy to see why each of us is unique.

The Big 5 Traits are easily remembered by their acronym OCEAN, attached to them by National Institute on Aging researchers Paul Costa Jr. and Robert McCrae:

Openness to Experience: Measures how receptive a person is to new experiences and ideas. Someone who prefers buying a new car every couple of years to sticking with the old one, and traveling to new places rather than visiting familiar haunts year after year, probably would be highly Open to Experience. Innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs, even some marketers all tend to score high on Openness (some personality researchers refer to it as Intellect).

Being focused on the here and now Being imaginative and creative
Preferring the routine and familiar Preferring variety and novelty
Having few interests Having many interests
Preferring the conventional Preferring originality
Mistrusting emotion Valuing emotion
Being dogmatic Being flexible

Conscientiousness: Measures a person’s motivation and deliberate approach to accomplishing tasks. Being disciplined, organized, methodical, reliable, and persistent are hallmarks of someone who’s highly Conscientious. The accounting profession probably is filled with highly Conscientious people. (Before you say “What about recent financial scandals?” remember that in psychological terms, Conscientiousness isn’t the same as ethics. You can be extremely Conscientious in pursuing a questionable goal.)

Spontaneous Methodical
Disorganized Organized
Late Punctual
Irresponsible Dutiful
Unmethodical Self-disciplined
Unambitious Driven to achieve
A procrastinator or abandoning tasks quickly Persistent
Unreliable Reliable

Extroversion: Measures how attracted a person is to activity and people. If someone you know is always on the go, loves to party, likes to dominate the conversation, and seeks out adventure, chances are they’re highly Extroverted (salespeople are the classic example).

Being a loner Preferring groups
Being unlikely to reach out to others Being outgoing
Being a very private person Assertiveness
Not being a thrillseeker Craving excitement
Being less exuberant Being prone to positive
Preferring a relaxed pace emotions
Passivity A high energy level
  Liking to dominate

Agreeableness: Measures the ability and desire to cooperate with others and avoid confrontation. Someone who is self-sacrificing, tends to defer to authority, generally trusts other people, and hates to argue is probably pretty Agreeable (administrative assistants couldn’t do their jobs without having a high degree of Agreeableness).

Skeptical Trusting
Having a sense of superiority Modest
Guarded Candid, frank
Arrogant Eager to defer to authority
Uncooperative Cooperative
Objective, ruthless Altruistic and tender-hearted
Aggressive Disliking confrontation
Competitive Self-sacrificing


Neuroticism: Sometimes labeled Emotional Stability or Emotional Control, this measures a person’s overall tendency to feel chronic negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and hostility. Being generally pessimistic, easily upset, and anxious characterize someone who’s Neurotic (artists often are stereotyped as having a high degree of Neuroticism.)

Calm Easily upset
Fearless Anxious
Unemotional Easily angered
Resilient Easily depressed
Self-possessed under stress Vulnerable under stress
Resistant to immediate temptation Impulsive
Unselfconscious Nervous in social situations


After about age thirty, all five traits tend to stay relatively stable.16 Your behavior may change over the years as you learn skills and make mistakes, but these aspects of your personality will tend to color your perspective on the world and your automatic reactions to it. The research that demonstrates this only confirms the opinions expressed by many of the interviewees for this book. Former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce’s comment is typical of most of their answers: “I don’t think you can change your basic personality. People can cope, they can bend, they can learn to deal with things, but rarely do they change. I think your hard drive is wired, just like a computer is wired, but you can change the personal path you take.”

That’s why, regardless of whether you’re a one-person business or a leader in a Fortune 500 corporation, understanding how these traits affect performance is important—not just for you personally, but for the people who work with you. Managers have to match employees to the right tasks in order to give them their best chance for success. Looking at inherited personality traits gives managers more powerful tools in making hiring and training decisions and getting the most from employees.

Taking an individual’s genetic strengths into account doesn’t mean discrimination. Researchers have shown that the Big 5 traits function across cultural, gender, and racial lines. However, it does mean that managers may need to screen personality traits specific to a given job and recognize which aspects of personality will likely stay the same regardless of training or exposure to new experiences. Understanding the Big 5 traits can help you manage people of varying strengths and personality types. Knowing them can help you identify employees who may need extra help in specific areas, or who are likely to adapt and evolve in certain roles. And that knowledge can certainly help you understand how to manage yourself to success.

Continue to Page 4 – “BUT I’M NOT LIKE MY FAMILY!”

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Copyright © 2005 by Thomas L. Harrison

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