December 4, 2013

Double-Edged Openness: the Pros and Cons of ‘Open’ Personalities in the Workplace

A job applicant describes herself as “open”. That’s a good thing, right? Very positive associations: “open-minded”, “receptive”, “candid”, “flexible”. However, like just about everything else in life, “good openness” comes with its evil twin lurking in the shadows—in this case, “bad openness”, much as “childlikeness” has its less adorable twin, “childishness”.

This light-dark duality can pose stiff challenges and problems for a recruiter vetting a self-described “open” applicant. These include:

1. Generally identifying the negative as well as positive aspects and forms of being open

2. Specifically identifying the mix of positive and negative openness in the given candidate

3. Identifying the mix and degree of positive and negative openness in the employer’s corporate culture, for the purpose of identifying any trend or norm as a screening benchmark for “goodness of fit” of the candidate

4. Determining when even positive openness is a risk factor within a specific organization or job.

What is “Openness”?

Meeting these challenges and carrying out the associated vetting tasks presupposes a working concept of “openness”—specifically “workplace openness”, in both its positive and negative forms and in contrast to “closedness”.  

The following are my working definitions tentatively offered here as a basis for further refinement, consolidation and operationalization and at some variance with or askew from the creativity-and-political ideology- oriented concept of openness as defined in the “Big 5” personality test commonly used in HR testing.

Positive openness:

  • +Receptivity: This means maintaining a curious, non-aggressive, non-suspicious, non-defensive, non-competitive, non-hostile, non-guarded attitude toward people, situations, ideas and things that are new, different, whether transient or permanent. It can also be interpreted as including “stimulus receptivity”—being receptive to novel, intense or altered stimulation, e.g., social, intellectual, culinary, physical or artistic.
  • +Candor: Being candid does not mean being brutally blunt. It does however require at least being comfortable with expressing the truth as well as being receptive enough to hear it or to value it as an ideal trait. When, in addition, candor is a strongly held value, it represents a higher degree of openness. However, allowance must be made for the possibility of a certain candor-dissonance: discomfort with candor—one’s own or that of others, e.g., through shyness or diffidence, nonetheless combined with great respect for it. That represents a complex possibility that may be encountered and that needs to be further explored.
  • +Flexibility: Closed-mindedness and adaptability go together about as well as corn flakes and ketchup. On the other hand, receptivity and flexibility, a.k.a. “adaptability”, seem like a very natural match. Indeed, not only do they mix very nicely, but they may in fact not be independent of each other as psychological trait and attitude variables.

The more receptivity, the more flexibility—it’s a hypothesis worth checking out. As is the case with candor and, indeed, with all other openness traits, a distinction must be drawn between practicing and valuing flexibility, allowing that some people may not be willing or able to manifest both.

  • +High change tolerance/appetite: Open people are likely to be thought of as open to change or even thriving on it. As a minimum, openness may be expected to correlate with less dread of, anxiety about or resistance to change than a more closed personality would experience.

Here again, there is a likely empirical correlation between two openness variables—in this instance, a correlation between receptivity and change tolerance/appetite. For this to be interesting and empirical, “receptivity” and “change tolerance/appetite” must be defined independently of each other. Otherwise, any correlational discovery would simply be true by definition.

Negative Openness:

  •  -Receptivity:  How can receptivity be negative? Lots of ways: when manifested as gullibility, greed, a sense of self-entitlement, sponging, distractibility, nosiness, passivity, unoriginality and conformity, among others.

Psychoanalytically speaking, what comes to mind is [1] “oral aggressiveness”—a psychological voracity quite the opposite of non-aggressive +Receptivity; [2] “oral passivity”—akin to infantile dependency, and, again, a negative counterpart to a positive “welcomingness” in positive openness.

When negative receptivity is manifested through extreme stimulus sensitivity, there may be a high likelihood of stimulus distractibility, i.e., of being so open to so many kinds of stimulation that focus and concentration suffer. In this connection, a LSD-laced Hippie Volkswagen-van party comes to mind.

  • -Candor: “Let it all hang out!” was a happy Hippie mantra—at first. But, when co-opted by the Yuppie ruthless Gordon Gecko self-absorption that followed, it got transmogrified into a blunt beast and “tell it like it is” social scalpel in the toolbox of go-getters and one-upsmen who came to regard tact as a lame form of hypocrisy.

That kind of “openness”—blunt, often cruel—may have its place in workplace jungles where there is no time for niceties. But it is unlikely to win a place in any hearts other than the hard ones that champion it.

  • -Flexibility: In this negative form, flexibility may take the form of a lack of commitment or passion, with positive “I don’t mind” openness morphed into “I don’t care”. Another downside to –Flexibility is the risk of having a “yes” man as an advisor. That’s because those who readily adapt to situations include those who are more inclined to modify themselves and conform than to challenge the situation as a given.

Of course, flexible and adaptable personalities include those whose first adaptation is to modify their environments and situations to better suit themselves wherever this is possible, e.g., adapting to a cold cottage by looking for firewood for the fireplace.

In contrast to these more positive types, the –Flexible personality is more inclined to “go with the flow”, even when it’s not taking himself or the organization anywhere.

  •  -High change tolerance/appetite:  As a psychological or organizational attribute, extreme openness to change can take a disastrous form—especially at the management level. If you are not familiar with the catastrophic consequences of having a director who is “open” to sudden “organic”, “intuitive”, “spontaneous”, ”evolutionary” change of plan, policies, purpose, personnel or products, exercise your imagination.

Visualize not only goal posts being moved with dizzying and dismaying unpredictability, but also footballs being replaced with tennis racquets on a football field. 

However you choose to define “openness”, if not in alignment with my suggested analysis and definitions, you must distinguish a positive and negative form—and do the same with “closedness”, allowing that it may have a positive form and niche, e.g., at the NSA or CIA.

You should also include some kind of “openness-closedness” scale—formal or informal—in your vetting, as a stand-alone parameter, not necessarily only as an embedded component in a broader psychological test, such as the “Big 5” personality test, which explicitly incorporates it.

If your vetting tools already include a test that measures or otherwise assesses openness as one of its components, take a long, hard look at that test to see whether openness is characterized in neutral terms or exclusively positive terms.

Bear in mind that whether openness is a plus or a minus for an employee or an organization may be unanswerable if not considered in the context of the specific organization doing the hiring.

Anyway, all of these are just suggestions…

…that I hope you are open to.

Read more in Selection

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).