Dr. Michael Herbert is a Senior Vice-President with The Sinclair Group. Yesterday, he called with a question that I thought would be of general interest: how does the Big Five relate to “safety”? In other words, are there specific behavioral traits that are associated with safety? The short answer is yes. But first, we need a brief recap of the Big Five supertraits: N (Need for Stability) is a dimension that is defined by resilience in the face of stress at the low end, and reactivity to stress at the high end. E (Extraversion) is defined by a preference for minimal sensory stimulation at the low end, maximal sensory stimulation at the high end. O (Originality) is defined by a preference for the familiar at the low end, a preference for the new and different at the high end. C (Consolidation) is defined by a preference for spontaneity at the low end, for focus and discipline at the high end.
Now, to answer Mike’s question. Each of the five supertraits relates to safety behavior in its own unique way. The low end of N includes people who are typically calm and at ease, and they, according to the research, tend to have fewer accidents. In a crisis, emergency, or other moment that might panic a person higher or N, the low N will be less likely to experiencing the “fight-or-flight” response that limits one’s steadiness and access to one’s complete set of mental resources, both of which are crucial to safe performance. Steady hands have fewer accidents, and those with complete access to their mental resources are more likely to employ successful evasive tactics in the face of an imminent possible accident. Like the surgeon with the steadiest hands tends to have the fewest malpractice suits.
The low end of E includes people who typically like it quiet, even solitary, with minimal stimulation, either social or physical. This preference for less stimulation minimizes the possibility of accidents caused by a craving for greater stimulation, as in racing a car, playing loud distracting music while operating power tools, or playing a rough contact sport such as football or rugby. Like the extraverted driver is more likely to get bored driving and talk on their cell phone through an intersection clueless as to the car they’re about to sideswipe.
The low end of O includes people who typically like the status quo, preferring the familiar to the novel and different. This minimizes the possibility that one will have accidents or make errors as a result of their curiosity leading to experiments with new ways of doing things. High O’s are risk takers who try novel approaches, and novel approaches tend to result in accidents until the kinds are worked out. Like the curious (high O) two-ton press operator who tries a new hand withdrawal move only to lose the hand.
The high end of A includes people who tend to defer to the wishes, expectations, commands, and needs of others. They are generally obedient and submissive, qualities that are highly desirable in a situation that requires a high degree of safe behavior. There’s nothing quite like doing it by the book or according to the way people instruct you, for minimizing errors. Assuming, that is, that the book and/or the people are reliable. Like the low A, “my way or the highway” guy, who thinks he knows a better way to load his forklift than the one his boss has instructed, only to lose a few toes from containers shifting weight.
The high end of C includes people who are focused, disciplined, and methodical, and who eschew spontaneity—the bedfellow of accident-proneness. These folks who by temperament are prone to resist distractions are clearly less likely to make errors or have accidents. There’s nothing quite like a distraction for causing accidents. Like the parent who goes to answer the phone while changing a diaper, with the result of the baby falling off the changing table. A high C is more likely to complete the diaper changing, then go get the voice message.
So, Mike, the answer is yes. Low N, E, and O, high A and C, are optimal. However, it depends on the specific context in which safety is required. Match the task to the traits. Some tasks are more susceptible to accidents as the result of high E (such as driving), while other tasks are more susceptible to accidents as the result of low C (such as surgery). And so forth. Match the need for safety to the relevant traits. Think them through. There’s no single formula. If you don’t want to think it through, then put someone on the job with all five traits I’ve prescribed. Of course, only 1 person in every 243 fits that requirement! So unless you’re blessed with 1000s of candidates from which to choose, perhaps it would be better to think it through and find the most relevant traits for safe behavior in a specific context.