Applying “Big Five” to the Field of Social Work

One popular theory to describe an individual’s leadership style is Robert McCrae’s Big Five. The five factors included in his theory are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The Big Five is a good way to characterize individualistic leadership style when working in a helping industry. This multifaceted, spectrum-based approach is especially advantageous when working with behaviorally troubled children. An analysis of all five of the factors can indicate how effective a “leader” performs in certain situations. Elyse Revere is a licensed social worker who currently works at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. She has been a supervisor of a Mobile Response Agency for the past eight years that specializes in children in crisis. The program is free of charge and allows children access to vital information and can link them to necessary resources. Her approach to leadership as a supervisor in such a high stress environment is extremely interesting to analyze using McCrae’s Big Five.

Openness refers to the extent to which an individual is creative, flexible, and willing to try novel ideas. Individuals show high levels of openness tend to be those who are imaginative, curious, and do not get stuck in routines. Given Elyse’s state agency level job, she cannot portray high levels of openness. In social work, there are very standardized procedures and methods of dealing with a child in crisis. The organizational culture of the field of social work in a state agency setting is extremely bureaucratic meaning it can be difficult to solve problems or work in a creative, open-minded manner. 

Conscientiousness is the extent to which an individual displays self-discipline, impulse control, and work ethic. An individual who has high levels of conscientiousness would show increased levels of perseverance in planning and reaching goals, a high valuing of responsibility and reliability and a good sense of organization. From my conversation with Elyse, I believe she has high levels of this trait in her leadership approach. Social workers are oftentimes underpaid and overworked. For this reason, social workers must truly be passionate about the population they are helping. This leads me to believe Elyse and other social workers have a high work ethic and are willing to dedicate long working hours to making sure a child’s case is handled correctly and in the best interest of the child. The perseverance, responsibility, and true grit to ensure every child she comes into contact with is cared for shows that Elyse values high levels of conscientiousness for her team and for her clients. 

Extraversion is the extent to which an individual is outgoing, sociable, and energetic. An extraverted individual is assertive, cheerful, charismatic, action-oriented, and enthusiastic. Elyse works in a very social field. A normal day for Elyse consists of speaking to many different families and children who are going through a range of horrible situations. She must be very socially aware of the difference between speaking with a child and speaking with a parent or guardian. While I was interviewing Elyse, she stated that the first step in connecting with a child in crisis is to build a strong rapport. In order to do this, Elyse must be assertive, energetic, and sociable in her interactions with children. She also stated that her efforts to build rapports with her clients were made much more difficult during COVID as her practice transitioned to “telehealth” in which all assessments are given online. This type of interaction may make children feel less comfortable speaking of very personal details to Elyse. Given this, she is currently working on ways to try to make children feel more comfortable with this new form of communication using her high levels of extraversion. 

Agreeableness is the extent to which an individual is positive, warm, kind, and modest. Agreeable individuals get along well with others, put aside their own interests for the betterment of others, are considerate of others feelings and are compassionate and trustworthy. For obvious reasons, I believe Elyse’s leadership style correlates with the trait of agreeableness. In working with children, a certain amount of agreeableness must be shown. Elyse and other social workers must be kind and positive; however, they are not passive in their agreement. Elyse will not agree with a decision she does believe in for the sake of time or simplicity. Elyse’s agreeableness aids her in putting the best interests of others above her own. 

Finally, McCrae’s last personality factor is neuroticism. Neuroticism refers to the emotional stability of an individual. A neurotic individual tends to be highly emotionally reactive to situations and anxious. Elyse has extremely low levels of neuroticism because of the everyday nature of her work and the situations she deals with. Obviously, working with children is emotionally difficult, however her and her team manage their stress in a variety of ways so they can better help their clients. She stated, “If you cannot take care of yourself, how can you take care of others?”. One way Elyse emphasizes stress management is by promoting self-care with a Wellness Committee. This committee ensures that employees are mentally, physically, and emotionally taking care of themselves after working traumatic cases.

In sum, Elyse’s top factors are conscientiousness and extraversion. Research has shown that individuals with high levels of extraversion and conscientiousness show higher rates of leadership emergence and effectiveness. Elyse’s leadership provides great evidence to this research given the longevity of her leadership and the aid she has given to thousands of children in crisis.