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Is it time for employers to stop being neurotic about Neuroticism?

5th February, 2019

Nikita Mikhailov



I wonder what comes to your mind as you read the word Neuroticism? It’s one of the Big Five factors of personality which is associated with a negative emotional effect.

Other factors include Extraversion (positive emotional affect), Openness (curiosity and creativity), Agreeableness (how nice you play with others) and Conscientiousness (your will power).

From a psychology perspective, Neuroticism is a part of everyone’s personality. Some of us score higher, some score lower, but we all have a bit of Neuroticism within us. At the same time, Neuroticism is just a component of our personality and not the whole thing, so we are not defined by it.

A curious observation is that the term Neuroticism tends to be avoided. So how about we shed a bit more light on this fascinating part of us all?:

There are three main components to Neuroticism:

• Negative self-construct (being hard on yourself);

• Negative emotional affect (experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, self-consciousness, anger, depression etc. more often); and

• Heightened risk perception (our more contented ancestors got eaten).

Neuroticism can be a superpower of risk perception. For me, when something happens where people did not take account of the risks, for instance if an ad campaign comes out causing a blowback, I think out loud “if only there was more Neuroticism, this may have never happened!”

From a more day to day employer’s perspective, we should be aware of the possible impact of neuroticism, here are some of the examples:

Change Management

Neuroticism has been identified as one of the factors that makes people less open to organisational changes. Therefore, saying how great everything will be after the change is not necessarily the best way forward. What helps is creating focus groups where people can voice their concerns (without interruptions) and if mission-critical risks are identified explore how those can be addressed. On a bright side, it might also bring out into the light possible issues you might have not thought of before.

Performance review

People who score higher on Neuroticism tend to be self-critical and have a negative bias towards themselves. So, if you ask them what they could have improved on during the year, they are likely to come up with an extensive list. However, because of their negativity bias, they might not be as receptive to positive feedback. Thus, when presenting someone higher on Neuroticism with positive feedback, it is important to ask them “What did you hear? Or “Put it in your own words” or “Anything else comes to your mind?” Make sure to wait up to 10 seconds for an answer as they might not respond immediately.

Navigating Neuroticism

Saying all that, there is such thing as having too much Neuroticism. This is where it starts to negatively affect a person’s wellbeing. Saying to somebody higher on Neuroticism to “be happy” is unlikely to work as you are asking them to be extraverted which is slightly different. What has been shown to be effective is Therapy, Mindfulness (with mixed results), a good amount of sleep, nutrition… maybe less coffee or it might be just me.

First of all, a person might need to realise that they need help in managing their Neuroticism. As the anecdote goes: “How many psychologists does it take to change the lightbulb? - One, but the lightbulb needs to want to change”.

Currently, I am seeing a lot of posts on how to be Happy. That is the ultimate state. There’s no mention of Neuroticism, or if it is mentioned then it is something to be avoided at all costs.

To me, that is not a healthy approach because it is so important to treat us and others as whole human beings with dark and light within us, rather than value one over the other.

It has been a while since George Bernard Shaw beautifully said: “Both pessimists and optimists contribute to society. The optimist creates the aeroplane, the pessimist - the parachute”.


Nikita Mikhailov

Nikita Mikhailov is a Psychometrician specialising in Personality Dynamics. He works with individuals and teams across a variety of settings, including startups, financial sector, charities and even a Space Agency. One of his favourite pursuits is bringing the actionable insights from psychology to a wider public, not forgetting a good dose of humour. This is why he started PsyPub!

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