Birth order: are middle children ‘agents of chaos’ at work?

The topic of birth order and how it influences the way we behave in all aspects of life has long been a subject of discussion.

Given the amount of time we spend at work with our colleagues we thought it might be fun to explore whether traditional birth order traits extend into the workplace.

And if so, how that manifests at Work Psychology Group.


Does our birth order shape our personality?

As far back as the early 1900s, Austrian doctor and founder of the school of Individual Psychology, Alfred Adler, published research into how our birth order shapes our thoughts and behaviours.

Adler believed that different positions in family birth order (such as first born, youngest and everything in between) have a specific correlation to personality. He calls this thesis the Birth Order Theory.


Birth order characteristics

In more recent times, this theory has been developed and applied to many aspects of life, including marriage, relationships and – perhaps most interestingly to us – the workplace.

In particular, award-winning psychologist and author of The Birth Order Book, Dr Kevin Leman, has explored how birth order ties into the business world.

  • First borns – According to Dr Leman, firstborns are ‘natural leaders’. He writes: “Firstborns tend to be reliable, conscientious and perfectionists who don’t like surprises.” Further research by the likes of Forer (1969) and Black, Grönqvist and Öckert (2018)
  • Only children – As stated by Dr Leman, are ‘like firstborns’, but with an even bigger preference for perfectionism.
  • Middle child – The middle child often feels like their older brother gets all the glory while their younger sister escapes all discipline. Dr Leman adds: “They can usually read people well, they are peacemakers who see all sides of a situation, they are independent and inventive.”
  • Last borns – The youngest of the family is usually very sociable and outgoing and this can be seen in the workplace too. They can also come across as charming. 

Of course, there are variables which can affect these traits. These include blended families, huge age gaps, and the order of the sex of the children.


First borns: how does this translate into our workplace?

When you start to apply some of these assumptions – such as their tendency towards leadership – in a wider context it’s interesting to note that both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are firstborns. As is Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

And it seems like here at WPG we have a team of ‘natural leaders’ too, as being the firstborn is the most common birth placement amongst our colleagues. When asked, many of us identified with the predominately positive characteristics that being the first born brings.

One first born says: “I think this is accurate. I’m pretty organised and conscientious but I think my brothers would describe me as ‘bossy’ rather than a natural leader!”.

Another said: “Being the oldest, you feel a sense of responsibility to set the example for younger siblings and to teach them which develops leadership, conscientiousness, and organisation skills early on. I think it is also common for parents to rely on older children more than younger children while growing up – which is only natural.”

Although one eldest child had an interesting alternative perspective:

“If you are a firstborn/only child, parents tend to be more protective which may result in relying on their input before making a move. I don’t think I was very reliable and conscientious as a child because my mum was doing pretty much everything for me. It’s when I moved to the UK and started being independent that I started developing those qualities, conscientiousness, being organised and reliable.”


Middle children: peacemakers who see all sides of a situation?

More often than not, middle children get a bit of bad rep. But their ability to read people, their independent nature and inventive side can make them a credit to the workplace. And these characteristics can be seen in middle born child, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.

But while they might be inventive, one of our colleagues believes middle children can also be ‘agents of chaos’. They said: “I’d argue that the eldest has to be the mediator more often; the middleborns I know are agents of chaos.”


Only child: Are they perfectionists?

They can be. Well, that’s if we look at actor and multiple business owner Leonardo DiCaprio, who is an only child and has previously described himself as a perfectionist.

And here at WPG, one of our colleagues agrees with this idea of being a perfectionist. They said: “I always wanted to please my parents, as I was my mum’s one shot at parenting success! So, I have always been quite cautious when making decisions not so confident though as I couldn’t make decisions on my own without checking with parents first.”


Last born: Are they social, outgoing and entrepreneurial?

That’s what one study would have you believe. According to researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Reading, the youngest child born into a family who are not self-employed are almost 50% more likely to take a risk of going into business. This figure increases to 65% if they are born into an entrepreneurial family.

One last born who fits this stereotype is Larry Page – a co-founder of Google.

The takeaway

“The characteristics we each bring to the workplace can be the result of a number of factors,” Dr Máire Kerrin, chartered Occupational Psychologist and one of the founding directors of Work Psychology Group says.

“But whether it’s to do with our birth order, or the way we were nurtured, a diverse and multigenerational workforce has many beneficial consequences for organisations.

“Along with greater innovation, increased learning opportunities and increased agility, you’re also bringing together a real mix of personalities, characteristics, and traits into one space. The result? A richer base of experiences to approach problem solving, bringing together a wide and varied range of ideas and solutions. And what organisation wouldn’t want that?”

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Got something to say? Do send it our way.