Kate Davis clicked the little smiley face at the bottom right-hand corner of her Slack window, pulling up a box with 36 of her most frequently used emoji. “I have sobbing, crying laughing, rage face, eye-roll face, disappointed face, happy face, winking face,” she noticed. “I’m an emotional roller-coaster.”
If eyes are the window to the soul, then emoji are, at best, the mail slot to one’s personality: a narrow aperture admitting only slivers of data of a very particular sort, but a lot of it. How many emoji do you send in an ordinary day, whether it’s texting your sister or replying to a coworker’s Slack message? Yet how many of them would be intelligible to outsiders? Emoji usage is designed to be wacky and idiosyncratic–the system encourages absurdity, irony, and inside joke–turning even straightforward workplace applications into an iconographic carnival of emotion and ambiguity.
Nevertheless, when I asked the personality scientists at Traitify to try to make sense of it all, they gamely agreed. The company, which makes digital tools for quickly and accurately gathering personality data, first asked two Fast Company staffers–Davis, a senior editor, and Anjali Khosla, editor of FastCompany.com–to take its 90-second “Big Five” assessment, which looks at the classic personality traits of openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and extraversion. Then Traitify’s chief psychology officer Heather Myers compared their results with the emojis Davis and Khosla use most often in our company Slack platform. Here’s what we discovered.
What That Rocket Ship Emoji Says About Your Management Style
According to Myers, Davis isn’t necessarily the emotional roller-coaster she fears she is. She and Khosla “have lots of positive emoji”–like their “frequent use of the thumbs-up and heart”–Myers points out, and both scored eight out of 10 on agreeableness, indicating that they’re both “highly agreeable, positive people despite their differences.”
Myers, who realizes we’ve set her on a slightly ridiculous mission, is careful to put things into context: Much the way no combination of emoji can tell you everything about your behaviors, no one score on a given personality trait captures the entirety of who you are and how you behave.
“Given that there are many potential benefits or pitfalls to being high/medium/low on any given dimension,” she explains, “Big Five is ultimately about measuring the combination of all these dimensions together and correlating the output with objective performance data, to know what makes for a good or bad performer in a specific role.” Khosla and Davis have similar roles, broadly speaking; they’re both senior-level business journalists for a daily news site, and both manage other editorial staff (including yours truly).
According to Myers, the best gauge of someone’s management potential is to look at emotional stability, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Khosla scores an eight, seven, and eight, respectively, on those three measures, which means she’s “liable to be more of a micromanager who is intently focused on results and is not afraid to be direct with her people,” according to Myers, who adds that “Anjali’s mentor personality type suggests she does well in fast-paced environments, which aligns with her frequent use of the lightning bolt and rocket emojis.”
“That appraisal doesn’t seem inaccurate to me,” Khosla reflects. “I think I do micromanage in that I check in with different departments and try to give very specific feedback when it’s necessary. I don’t think I just manage from a birds-eye level.” That’s true in my experience working with Khosla, but I’m personally less inclined to term that leadership style micromanaging. “I do think everyone here does know what I think,” adds Khosla–and I’d agree with her–“I try not to be too mysterious about what’s going through my head about their (mostly excellent) work.”
Davis (emotional stability = six, extraversion = four, conscientiousness = four), Myers continues, “is liable to be a little more fast and loose of a manager, more laissez-faire and more likely to give her people a little more rope, but also more even-keeled and less shaken by bumps in the road for her team members.”
Looking at her overall personality profile, Myers says, “Kate likely values high performance . . . and thrives in environments that recognize and applaud individual achievements. Her frequent use of praise emojis like ‘praise hands,’ ‘thumbs up,’ ‘100%,’ ‘check marks,’ and ‘clapping hands’ reflect her appreciation for hard work and for accomplishment–not just her own, but her colleagues’ as well.”
“I do feel that Kate is really good about acknowledging high performance,” Khosla agrees. “I see it all over Slack and in real life and meetings.” But Davis herself is more dubious. “I value high performance–but doesn’t everyone?” she wonders. “What kind of manager values low performance?” Davis also disagrees with being characterized as “laissez-faire or fast and loose. I really hate it when people miss deadlines, but I do give people space if they’ve proved themselves able to handle it.” (As Davis’s direct report, I’d second this.)
While Tratify suggests Davis and Khosla are equally agreeable, the “emotional stability” finding struck Davis somewhat disagreeably. “I don’t know what to make of being classified as not emotionally stable,” she remarked on her score of six, relative to Khosla’s eight.
Myers clarifies: “Emotional stability is about a person’s ability to ‘manage pressure.’ It concerns the manner in which . . . they control their emotions and underlying tension, in order to stay on task and cope with everyday challenges.
“Anjali has a high emotional stability score, which aligns with her frequent use of the ‘hang loose’ emoji, given people who score high on the emotional stability scale are typically more relaxed and easygoing,” Myers continues. “They tend to respond to pressure by taking everything in their stride, and the little irritating things in life do not seem to worry them.” Davis agrees that that describes Khosla.
However, says Myers, “There are both benefits and pitfalls” for every score along the emotional-stability spectrum. This was welcome context when I took Traitify’s assessment last summer–and earned a whopping four on this trait. So while Khosla may be able to keep her feelings in check and let criticism roll right off her, Myers, says, she “may not respond quickly enough, lack motivation to act . . . be difficult to read by others, [or] not ask for help when it’s needed.”
Davis, who’s closer to mid-range, might also be “even-tempered” and good at taking feedback but “may be slow to ask for help” or “distracted by others’ emotions.” Finally, folks like me might excel at tuning into others’ feelings and empathizing, but can sometimes find ourselves “swamped” by them, Myers explains.
So while Davis has more emojis “displaying negative affect” than Khosla, Myers adds, “Kate also has more emojis displaying emotion than Anjali does, which could also be reflective of her emotional stability score.” This assessment earns Davis’s measured approval. “I do feel I’m good at taking feedback (you have to have a thick skin as a journalist), I could probably ask for help more,” and, she adds, “I don’t like it when people around me are upset.”
But she’s less convinced this is all apparent in her emoji use. “Most of those negative ones, like ‘sobbing’ or ‘rage,’ are in reaction to the news, not things my coworkers do.”
Okay, But What About The Unicorns?
Myers posits a link between Khosla’s conscientiousness score and her weirder emojis, including the unicorn. “Extremely conscientious people are high achievers and want to stand out from the rest,” Myers wagers. (Khosla isn’t so sure: “I don’t think I do it to stand out? I think I do it because I like unicorns.”)
But the two Fast Company editors’ extraversion scores may be more relevant here. “While they are both ‘medium’ [on the extraversion scale], Anjali scored seven (on the highest end of medium) and Kate scored four (on the lowest end of medium),” Myers points out. “Given Anjali’s weirder and more abstract emojis, this is indicative of a more extroverted person, while Kate’s literal emojis are more consistent with a more introverted person.”
“I honestly have no clue how I would use some of Anjali’s emojis,” Kate adds, “but maybe that’s because I’m more introverted.”