Birth order goes in and out of style in academic psychology, but is a perennial favorite in popular psychology. Time Magazine recently featured a cover story about the general implications of birth order, and USA Today ran an article about the impact of sibling structure on business leadership.
Academic research has shown that accurate predictions about personality can be made based on birth order (whether a person is firstborn, second born, middle or only child, or twin). Yet birth order is an often-overlooked variable in the workplace and is rarely considered in personnel decisions.
In his 1996 book, Born to Rebel, MIT Professor Frank Sulloway uses the framework of evolutionary psychology to explain why sibling rivalry and strategies for gaining emotional, physical and intellectual resources from parents during childhood are critical determinants of adult personality. According to this theory, sibling rivalry is the most direct kind of competition in evolution, and personalities are formed as siblings strive to occupy and defend different niches within the family in order to survive. Although Sulloway does not cite studies that focus on the business world, it is possible to make inferences based on his general findings and to find anecdotal support for these inferences.
As children, first-borns strive to emulate and please their parents, and often dominate and care for their younger siblings. Parents tend to delegate responsibility to firstborns, who identify with their parents and with authority. Therefore, relative to their younger siblings, first-born children tend to be more extraverted and confident, more conformist and conservative, more conscientious and academically inclined, and more dominant and authoritarian.
Firstborns, over represented among CEOs and political leaders, are likely to be relatively more comfortable and successful in situations where they can execute within an existing structure, leveraging their achievement orientation to incrementally build businesses and their attention to detail to ensure quality control.
An example of an ambitious and successful firstborn is Leonard Lauder of Estee Lauder, who took over a small business from his parents and used a disciplined approach to grow it into one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies.
Firstborns are likely to be least comfortable in situations that require radical change or innovation, in self-managing teams where roles and status are fluid and ambiguous, or in expatriate assignments where they need to adapt to a foreign culture.
Additionally, firstborns may be uncomfortable when they are required to work in subordinate roles. A case in point is Michael Ovitz, who did not succeed at Disney partly because he was not able to work as Michael Eisner’s number two. Because second-born children enter a family system in which the first-born niche is already taken, their incentive is to be different and to create their own niche.
Second-born children, relative to their older siblings, tend to be more flexible and open to new experiences, more empathic and altruistic, more creative and innovative, and more rebellious, liberal and interested in foreign cultures, and more concerned with justice and fairness. Gordon Moore of Intel and Lou Gerstner of IBM are two examples of later-borns who were able to challenge the industry or corporate status quo and transform their organizations in order to adjust to rapid change.
Because as children they have less to lose by taking risks, second borns also tend to be more comfortable taking risks, as was super-successful hedge fund manager George Soros who made his fortune by making bold bets, like his $10 billion bet against the English Pound in the early 1990’s. Because they are more interested in foreign cultures, laterborns are likely to be more comfortable in international assignments. Leonard Lauder’s younger brother, Ronald, sought a career outside of the family business and served as ambassador to Austria.
Middle siblings, who lack the dominance of firstborns and the higher degree of attention given to last borns are in a precarious situation and therefore must learn to be diplomatic and political in order to get their way. Relative to their siblings, middle children tend to be more diplomatic and politically skilled, and good at negotiation and compromise.
Carly Fiorina, who initially triumphed in the highly political and contentious merger of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, is an example of a successful middle-born child who was able to bring together disparate constituencies, even though she was not able to retain her leadership role after the merger.
Only children tend to resemble firstborns, and are achievement-oriented and motivated to please their parents. For example, Jack Welch often describes how pleasing his working-class parent was a major source of motivation throughout his career.
Twins are more similar to and have a lower degree of sibling rivalry with each other than with other siblings, and therefore, may resemble first-born, middle children, or youngest siblings, depending on how many older or younger siblings they have.
Also worth considering, is the respective birth order of partners or members of a team. A successful partnership might involve a laterborn who creates an innovative new vision, and a first-born who executes according to this vision. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer provide a good example of such a partnership.
There can be exceptions to the general pattern of birth order and personality. Moderating variables such as gender, temperament, physical characteristics, socio-economic class, family size, and degree of conflict between siblings and parents can alter the basic impact of birth order on personality. For example, firstborn siblings who have a high degree of conflict with their parents can rebel and take on certain attributes that are usually associated with younger siblings, and their younger siblings may take on attributes usually associated with firstborns.
Another example of a way in which birth order can fail as a predictor of behavior is if the firstborn sibling is disabled or shy, the younger sibling may take on some firstborn personality characteristics. Multiple marriages and half- and step- siblings can also have a significant moderating effect on the relationship between birth order and personality. In conclusion, there are consistent and enduring differences in personality between people who occupied different niches in their families.
While birth order may not be an infallible predictor of attitudes or behavior in the workplace, there are no infallible predictors of job performance.
For more information about the implications of birth order on business leadership, see this presentation.
I'd be interested in hearing from readers of this blog- in your experience, do you and your work colleagues fit the general patterns of birth order in the workplace?