Read the literature about the Big-Five Personality Theory, and you may end up baffled how those scoring highly for the trait of neuroticism are able to get through the working day. Characterized by insecurity, anxiety, irritability, oversensitivity and sadness, there is evidence to suggest that neurotics are poor team players who have a weakened ability to focus for sustained periods of time. These traits are not associated with success in the workplace.
But is this analysis correct? Is it inevitable that a neurotic will crack under pressure; that they will always be more a liability than asset in the workplace? Or might they just surprise you?
Traits of the Neurotic Co-worker
Neurotics are very sensitive to environmental stimuli. Instead of rolling with the punches, they react very poorly to the stressors in their lives. Everyone worries about work, but a neurotic will invest a lot of energy replaying conversations and sweating over the email they sent. This can exhaust their mental resources.
As a result, neurotics find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. When performance suffers, as it does under these conditions, the neurotic will grow even more anxious. That's an example of neurotic behavior that is maladaptive - it pushes the worker further away from where he actually needs to be. Which begs the question, why does any organization want to take a neurotic person on?
Why Neuroticism Isn't All Bad News
It's not all doom and gloom if you're managing a neurotic. In fact, it's quite the opposite - research indicates that moderate levels of neuroticism are actually beneficial to the workplace. Compared to people who score lower on the neuroticism continuum, neurotics are:
- Better at identifying threats in the workplace
- Less likely to take foolish risks
- More likely to assume personal responsibility
- More likely to exceed the expectations of managers and colleagues.
That last point was emphasized in a study published in the "Academy of Management Journal" which measured the impression people had of their neurotic colleagues before and after working together.
At the start of the project, participants predicted that their neurotic colleagues would have low status within the group and be a drag on the team. But after weeks of collaboration, their perceptions had risen considerably. And a second study by researchers in Singapore found that people scoring highly for neuroticism tended to come up with more creative solutions to problems after they experienced a stressful event. Turns out, our intuition about neurotics is wrong.
The explanation for these findings is fairly straightforward. Because neurotics worry excessively about disappointing their peers and superiors, they work extra hard to do good work. This leads to greater performance and creativity because they are motivated to over-prepare due to the fear they have of failing. For neurotic people, feeling bad promotes better functioning. They certainly don't need the boss looking over their shoulder to ensure they perform.
Conscientiousness, the Alpha Trait
There's another interesting twist to this story. Personality traits don't occur in isolation, and if conscientiousness is added into the mix, neurotics are more likely to be extremely successful in the workplace. (Conscientious people are known to be organized, thoughtful, dutiful and thorough. It's one of the most valued personality traits to organizations.)
Known as 'healthy neurotics,' people high in conscientiousness and neuroticism have an even greater ability to channel their anxieties into positive behaviors such as eating healthily or working harder when faced with a looming deadline. They still worry, but conscientious people may provide an additional dose of self-discipline that allows neurotics to control their stress levels while navigating life's challenges.
Somehow, the addition of conscientiousness turns negative traits into productivity and offers a high level of protection for those who might otherwise be crippled by anxiety.
Tips for Handling the Workplace Neurotic
Anxious neurotics can still thrive at work. The trick for managers is to channel that nervous energy and put their creativity to good work. Here are some strategies you might use to get the most out of your neurotic workers:
- Place them in roles that require a near-obsessive attention to detail, like positions in compliance or finance. Due to their natural caution, neurotics are very effective in assessing and managing risk.
- Give long, relaxed deadlines to avoid putting neurotics under too much pressure
- Leave them alone to get on with their work. Neurotics produce their best work when they are given the space to create without too much management.
- Encourage them to work in teams. Neurotics typically put a lot of effort into a group task, so there's significant upside potential.
- Show your appreciation by giving plenty of positive feedback. Neurotics need that level of support to feel confident about themselves.
- Don't shy away from promoting them to positions of leadership. Many organizations have been snatched from the brink of disaster by a risk-averse neurotic who shoots down the crazier ideas from her fellow leadership team. In high-stakes situations, a neurotic is utterly indispensable.
Summing It Up
Neuroticism is the only trait on the Big Five continuum that is associated with negative behavioral traits such as anxiety and sensitivity. Instinctively, we assume that neurotics will be more difficult to work with and manage because of these traits.
Yet, there's an underdog story here. People tend to underestimate the potential contributions of their neurotic colleagues but are impressed by their experiences working with them. The data is unequivocal: neurotics make great teammates.
The next time you are designing teams to do interdependent work, don't overlook the workplace neurotic. The chances are, he or she will be extremely creative and work incredibly hard in order to prevent any dangers they see ahead of them. And who doesn't want hard-working employees?