Lower Agreeableness = More Stress

Personality and Stress Management


I'll be making reference to the Big Five Model of personality (see below). But what I really would like to call attention to is one of the five factors of personality that I have long felt is overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued: Agreeableness.

Big Five Model

These are "continuous variables", that is, our dispositional tendencies may lie on any point between the polar extremes, e.g., between Extraverion & Introversion.

  1. Extraversion (vs Introversion): Warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, positive emotion
  2. Agreeableness (vs Antagonism): Trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness
  3. Conscientiousness (vs Unreliability): Competence, order, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, deliberation
  4. Neuroticism (vs Emotional stability): Anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, vulnerability
  5. Openness (vs Closed-mindedness): Fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, values

Agreeableness and Stress

Yes, Extraversion is generally associated with a healthy, adaptive approach to life, but that does not mean that those of us who are introverts are inherently disadvantaged. It's the Neuroticism dimension that is most associated with difficulties in managing stress, and it's Agreeableness that is most predictive of effectively managing stress (based on the results of a 2017 meta-analytic study).

Surprise? Maybe. But perhaps it's because of how we define the word "agreeable," especially we achievement-oriented business and professional people. We're often inclined to see agreeable as equivalent to lacking in assertiveness, courage, even moral courage. (By the way, I believe this is part of the masculine bias that colors our thoughts of what it means to achieve, succeed, thrive, and lead.)

In any case, over 20 years ago, it was Agreeableness (especially tender-mindedness) that proved to be most decisive in predicting reemployment of executives in career transition. But it was not off-the-charts agreeableness; rather, it was agreeableness that simply approximated the norms of general society. It was my doctoral research study, and the results resonated with my "clinical" experience in coaching executives.

Since then, emotional intelligence (EQ) and the proven efficacy of mindfulness have won acceptance. We've found that the calm capacity to see life as it is, to meet others where they are, enable us to engage, influence, and shape enduring outcomes. So, listen to those at home who find your intensity or impatience unhelpful. They may be a better benchmark for behavioral norms that your competitive peers in the workplace.