What is “Openness to Experience,” and How Does it Help At Work?

Avatar by Amy Steinberg Published Apr 28, 2020 Last updated Apr 28, 2020

If you’ve ever taken personality tests, you’ve most likely run across the Big Five or five-factor personality test at one point or another. The five factors that are measured are extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. While all of the personality traits can affect you at work, one of the most interesting traits, and one that can be challenging to understand, is that of Openness, or by its longer name, “Openness to Experience.”

What Does “Openness to Experience” Encompass?

 According to Woo et. al., Openness contains a variety of different aspects that fall under two umbrellas, that of intellect and that of culture. In general, openness implies that you are willing and interested in new things, but that can come across in a variety of ways, and can be related to both thinking experiences and physical experiences. Openness to Experience includes:

  • Intellectual Efficiency: Do you process new information quickly? If you are open to new ideas and experiences, it is much easier to reframe things in your mind quickly, which is why this is phrased in terms of efficiency.
  • Ingenuity: This involves thinking outside the box and any kind of clever thinking that is not what others might typically come up with.
  • Curiosity: This involves caring about things you don’t know yet and seeking to understand them. Being curious implies putting some effort behind your casual, idle thoughts and going and finding out what might have prompted you to think.
  • Aesthetics: This is a word that means caring in general about the beauty and elegance of things; it is incredibly important in design work, but it is also important for other aspects of life, from culinary experiences to architecture to music.
  • Tolerance: This is your ability to consider and feel comfortable with different viewpoints than your own.
  • Depth: This isn’t a traditional definition of the word: depth here refers to your capacity for reflection and personal growth, an attitude of being a work-in-progress.

Why Could Openness Benefit You at Work?

One’s personality is shaped by a wide variety of influences, so to some extent, your level of openness is indeed a product of both factors in and out of your control. However, most people who have worked in any kind of innovative workplace will instantly see how having a high “Openness to Experience” personality factor could be beneficial in the workplace. Consider the following:

  • Intellectual efficiency and tolerance combine to create positive meetings where this individual understands someone else’s new idea quickly, incorporates it without feeling resistant or defensive, and can quickly begin working to either improve it or incorporate it into an existing framework.
  • Ingenuity is frequently rewarded at work, since being able to see a new path forward, perhaps one that saves resources or reduces bottlenecks, tends to be the marker of a very valuable team member. The combination of ingenuity and depth can make for a powerful individual, since they can look at their own out-of-the-box solutions and critically evaluate whether now is the time and place for a big change or whether it’d be better to strategically suggest innovations at a different juncture.
  • Curiosity, while not always rewarded if it involves seeking information that is actually need-to-know, can be very helpful in creating thorough solutions – most workplaces have experienced the frustration of someone offering “surface-level” fixes to problems when they really need to have the intensity and focus to find the root cause of a problem and fix it for the long term. 
  • A high standard for Aesthetics can be a weakness if it gets in the way of other goals. However, more fields than you might think can benefit from having someone with a developed sense of Aesthetics on the team: first impressions matter, so having a person who cares about Aesthetics look over the presentation slide deck, or the diagrams, or another design-heavy element of your project is a very valuable addition.

Three Ways to Push Yourself Toward Greater Openness

While most people have “Openness to Experience” in at least one of the 6 factors, and some of our openness may never change, there are certainly things you can do to exercise openness at work so that you grow more comfortable with it and recognize it as a strength. Here are just a few ways to make openness more of a foregrounded element of your personality.

  • Documenting things you think and feel can impact your level of Depth, and you can focus your personal reflection time on whatever area you think could be most effective for you: Would you prefer to free-write about innovative ideas? Take notes on things you want to return to because they piqued your curiosity? Have a conversation evaluating how you could make elements of your work more beautiful in their designs?
  • Get inspired by other ingenious or aesthetic individuals. If you spend more time at the art museum, read biographies of brilliant thinkers that you admire, or take the time to go to public lectures or watch TED Talks, you’ll probably find that your mind goes to these ideas faster when you are at work as well.
  • Consciously seek out communities at work that contain people who disagree with you or your field’s dominant assumptions. Try creating a weekly chat group with people whose attitudes are different but who need to understand each other, for instance, leaders in the marketing and sales departments of the company. This may not be easy if you feel like your tolerance levels are low, but by beginning in social settings rather than throwing yourself into a big work-related collaboration first, you ease yourself into a conversational setting. Most people find that even those whose ideas are very different have some things in common, which can create better communication and collaboration in the long run.