Family Dynamics

Birth Order in the Workplace

Whether we like it or not, we unconsciously create a family environment at work.

Posted Sep 26, 2011

Shutterstock with permission
Source: Shutterstock with permission

Research shows that birth order has a lot of influence on how we behave in the workplace. Whether we like it or not, we unconsciously create a family environment at work. Sometimes it resembles our personal family dynamic, and sometimes it resembles the ideal family dynamic we never had.

In the May/June 2011 issue of Psychology Today, the Insights section covered the "Power of Birth Order." In summary: 

"Parents tend to pour their resources into the firstborn, ensuring that they have the best in life. Thus their IQ is 3 points higher than their siblings... Middle born tend to be unbiased and levelheaded, leading them to careers that involve negotiation. They are well-suited for positions in management and politics... The last born in families with three children typically are tender and altruistic, perhaps because he or she gets babied."

I study humans in the workplace and have come across many individuals that fall into the typical scenario of first-, middle-, and last-born children; however, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the science behind birth order.

I'd heard of Dr. Kevin Leman's research and decided to read his book titled The Birth Order Book. Dr. Leman spent over 35 years as a psychologist studying birth order and is a world-renowned expert on this topic. His book provided insights on how one can predict an individual's birth order. 

Having the ability to predict someone's birth order provides you with a competitive advantage in understanding how to work with the individual. For example, firstborn tend to be governed by punctuality, structure, and power, whereas the last born are more comfortable with ambiguity and tend to go with the flow. Neither is good nor bad, but it allows you to know how best to approach each individual at work.

The following will provide you with an overview of how your birth order impacts you at work. For further information on birth order, I highly encourage you to read The Birth Order Book. It's easy to read and doesn't follow the traditional academic writing style.

Firstborn (or Only Child)

Firstborn are perfectionists, reliable, conscientious, list makers, well-organized, natural leaders, critical, and serious. These qualities are typically attributed to Mom or Dad unconsciously placing the firstborn into a leadership role by saying, "You're a big boy now, and you have to look out for your younger brother"—like my mom used to say to me.

Conversely, only children are very thorough, deliberate, self-motivated, black-and-white thinkers, fearful, and cautious. Only children never have to compete with siblings for personal attention, which makes them more confident and articulate; however, they struggle with the concept of having brothers or sisters, resulting in them being self-centered.

In the workplace, firstborn and only children have strength in being known as straight thinkers, organized, and goal setters.

The Middle Child

The middle child tends to be a mediator, is diplomatic, avoids conflict, is loyal to peers, has many friends, and is independent.

At work, they are skilled at mediating disputes, willing to work things out, and can be trusted with sensitive information.

Last Born

The last born typically are manipulative, charming, and blame others. They are attention seekers, natural salespeople, engaging, affectionate, etc.

In the workplace, they are able to read others well and know how to work well one-on-one or in small groups. They are caring, always wanting to help, and are easy to talk too.

Most of what I just shared really depends on the family unit. Dr. Leman explains that if siblings are born five or more years apart, the firstborn status gets recycled. In part, it has to do with the number of years the parents had to take care of a newborn. 

He further explained that firstborn characteristics might be suppressed if a firstborn has a firstborn mother and father; as a result, the firstborn may rebel and act like a last born, and the last born may take on the firstborn characteristics.

Overall, whether we have siblings or not, the dynamics we experience as a child tend to manifest themselves in the workplace. Many studies have shown that people would prefer to make less money and work with people they like versus making more money and working with people they dislike. What do you think?