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Conscientiousness: Why it matters, and seven ways to develop it

a man throwing a bottle in the trash bin showing conscientiousness

As defined in Psychology Today: “Conscientiousness is a fundamental personality trait—one of the Big Five—that reflects the tendency to be responsible, organized, hard-working, goal-directed, and to adhere to norms and rules. Like the other core personality factors, it has multiple facets; conscientiousness comprises self-control, industriousness, responsibility, and reliability.”

Generally considered a major determinant of professional and personal success, people with a high degree of conscientiousness tend to be better at self-regulation and impulse control. That’s tied to better being able to set and keep long-term goals, which is obviously a core tenet of professional success -- but also ties greatly to relationship success as well. A person with high levels of conscientiousness also behaves more cautiously (as opposed to impulsively) and tends to take obligations to others more seriously. That latter element (obligations) is a core factor in building successful work teams. 

Table of contents
What are the other Big Five personality traits?
How does a conscientious person act?
What are the six sub-traits of conscientiousness?
Is there a dark side to conscientiousness?
How can you become more conscientious?
Would conscientiousness benefit you in personal relationships?
What about the benefits of professional conscientiousness?
Fingerprint for Success’ “Rules” grouping of work traits
Is being conscientious a strength?

What are the other Big Five personality traits?

Those would be:

  • extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
  • openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Researchers have found conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism to be relatively stable from childhood through adulthood -- and “The Big Five” have been shown to represent the basic structure behind all personality traits. 

We’ve covered extroversion and agreeableness before, as well.

How does a conscientious person act?

It does vary somewhat by person, but in general, a conscientious person is not impulsive. They are planners and they abide by schedules. They also do not miss bill payments, they take notes, keep their promises, and show up on time. They engage in self-care through exercise, proper sleep, and a healthy diet. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like smoking and heavy drinking.

As you would expect, this correlates very strongly with improved work performance. Professionally, those with high levels of conscientiousness tend to have high productivity,  higher earnings, good relationships, work satisfaction, and achievement. In addition, the conscientious tend to land more leadership positions. The correlation between conscientiousness and effective leadership has been shown across several studies.

Now, on that front from a leadership standpoint, there is something interesting to consider. Two of the facets of conscientiousness are believed to be “duty” -- such as a commitment to task and others -- and “achievement striving,” which is a commitment to advance yourself in different ways. Duty and achievement-striving can be at odds when you have a managerial position, and this study directly called that out: “Although helping behavior is a predictor of leadership emergence, achievement strivers help only when they perceive helping as being an in-role requirement, whereas dutiful individuals enlarge their helping role perceptions.” 

If someone is more aligned with the achievement-striving part of being conscientious, they might not make as good a leader -- unless they perceive helping others (i.e. direct reports) as an in-role requirement.

What are the six sub-traits of conscientiousness?

Each “Big Five” personality trait is associated with six sub traits. For conscientiousness, those are:

  • Self-efficacy
  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement-striving
  • Self-discipline
  • Cautiousness

“Self-efficacy” is one of those that people tend to know the least about. Broadly speaking, it refers to your belief in your ability to execute and achieve goals. It’s a self-system comprised of a person's attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills -- and it drives much of how you think about yourself, your ability to do big things in work or in life, and your general self-esteem and self-cognition. 

Most of the other sub-traits are better understood, and point to the bigger picture of a conscientious person being very task-oriented, cautious, methodical, and disciplined. 

Is there a dark side to conscientiousness?

Absolutely. As noted on VeryWellMind: 

They also can burn themselves out by overworking, become overly rigid or inflexible, and struggle to be spontaneous. In extreme cases, they may struggle with perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Some have described this professional period, especially in the context of COVID, as “an era of stress and burnout.” Burnout is generally very worrisome for organizations, because it has both a human and a financial toll in the form of attrition, lost revenue, lost productivity, and more. 

So, if you combine some of the above research on conscientious managers with their penchant for burnout, you come to a worrisome intersection: it’s possible that an organization would promote lots of people high in conscientiousness, which is logical because they display very attractive professional traits. But once they arrive in those leadership roles, they might become overly rigid and inflexible, struggle to adapt quickly to necessary pivots or urgent business needs and burn themselves out.

Now, the flip side isn’t necessarily better, because a person low in conscientiousness is usually averse to planning, and will typically be described as “laid-back” or “go with the flow.” Those types of people don’t necessarily make good managers either. The key within an organization is to have a mix -- a diversity -- of thought and approach in the front-line management ranks, because some employees will relate better to those high in conscientiousness, and some will relate better to those low in that trait. 

A mix allows for a diversity of perspectives and working styles to ideally thrive within the business.

How can you become more conscientious?

First, you could do more with friends and colleagues, especially as COVID begins to wane. Research shows that investment in activities with colleagues is associated with an increase in a person’s conscientiousness, and de-investment in the social aspects of work can in turn contribute to lower conscientiousness over time. Thus, office retreats, dinners, and drinks can help you become more detail-oriented by boosting your sense of belonging and obligation to your work community.

Coaching or clinical intervention -- more on that in one second -- can also be helpful. This 2018 article from Harvard Business Review, by two European management professors, notes: 

In only four weeks of therapy, people can experience half the amount of change in personality that they usually experience in the entire lifetime. Change is independent of symptom experience, showing that the shift in personality is not due only to symptomatic relief. Moreover, there is no evidence that the effects of interventions fade over time.

You can also align tasks with values more directly. This is a bit harder to do but can work. Many people struggling with the conscientiousness spectrum have a hard time with consistent email pings; they don’t see them as tremendously important. 

You can’t just up and say “I will be more conscientious and answer these emails faster, but in a more detailed way!” Instead, you need to look at the task -- answering emails quickly -- and figure out what values it aligns with in your life, i.e. teamwork, collaboration, being there for others, providing a sense of psychological safety on the team, etc. 

There are also micro-actions you can take to be a more conscientious person, including:

  • Set up a bill-paying schedule or use an app.
  • Take five minutes before going to bed at night, or five minutes in the morning, and plan your day. Create a realistic daily schedule, and stick to it.
  • Declutter your desk and set up up an effective filing system that allows you to quickly find the documents that you need.
  • Tackle the most difficult task of the day before 10 am.

These are micro-steps and actions you can take to become more disciplined in your habits, which will foster conscientiousness overall. 

Would conscientiousness benefit you in personal relationships?

While you need to consider some of the “dark side” discussions above, in general being a more conscientious person would benefit you in personal relationships, yes -- be they friendships or romantic. In 2017, David Brooks of The New York Times wrote an article called “The Golden Age of Bailing,” noting that:

Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, what my friend Hayley Darden calls the ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps — not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear.

A person high in conscientiousness is less likely to bail on friends. Even though Brooks is right that modern social relationships can be a bit ambiguous at times, conscientious people are less likely to participate in last-second bailing -- and that makes for stronger friendships and relationships. 

What about the benefits of professional conscientiousness?

They exist as well, in part because of a lesser-discussed problem known as “absentee management.” Consider:

However, a 2015 survey of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviors that were absent; employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do. Clearly, from the employee’s perspective, absentee leadership is a significant problem, and it is even more troublesome than other, more overt forms of bad leadership.

Research has also shown that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly.

So yes, a conscientious boss might burn themselves out, or become a micromanager. Those are definitely threats. But they are much less likely to be absentee in their relationship with direct reports -- if anything, they will be more engaged in those relationships. There’s a fine line between being too involved and not involved enough, but if you can navigate to it and see it as a personal responsibility to be a good manager, chances are that a person high in conscientiousness will uphold that duty.

The other good news? Based on 100 years of research about conscientiousness, we know this:

Evidence from more than 100 years of research indicates that conscientiousness (C) is the most potent non-cognitive construct for occupational performance.

In a broader sense, then, being conscientious is extremely important to professional success and goal attainment.

Fingerprint for Success’ “Rules” grouping of work traits

We utilize a grouping of traits and work behaviors that somewhat mirrors “The Big Five” personality traits. Ours include:

  • Assertiveness: establishing and asserting rules and values is important to you in life.
  • Compliance and responsiveness: you’re likely to appreciate creating and leading organizational values, standards and rules. You’ll find meaning and satisfaction from being a good role model and inspiring others to follow them as well.
  • Open-mindedness and tolerance: being respectful and accepting of others’ approaches in business, even if they go against what you think or feel.
  • Out of the box thinking: you’re indifferent to rules and standards being imposed on you by others, and do things your own way.

You can take any of those assessments at the links above, and the results will give you a good idea of how conscientious you might be. Because work is often a complicated mix of rules and processes, the Fingerprint for Success models include robust sections on how people deal with rules and abiding by them. As we’ve seen in this article, obviously conscientious people are stronger proponents of setting rules, following them, and wanting to see that in others. The assessments above can bear that out in individuals.

Is being conscientious a strength?

Absolutely! It’s even been called “the most successful personality trait in the workplace:”

Further research into the success and power of the conscientious has also found that these conscientious individuals tend to show the most predictable work growth, and, it has also been found that conscientious employees are less likely to be absent from work. This means that they miss fewer deadlines, attend more meeting and essentially, save the company more money.

Perhaps even more appealingly, a study by The National Institute of Mental Health found that men who display the conscientious personality trait are more likely to earn higher salaries compared to men who are not conscientious. Further studies have also shown support for this claim; finding that overall, conscientious individuals are indeed more likely to earn more money.

There’s a flip side here too, though: remember when we discussed the penchant for burnout above? There’s also a chance that conscientious individuals -- more at work than in personal life -- can be less agreeable because after a while they want to take on projects in a specific way to get them done in the way they prefer. Well, we also know from research that less agreeable men can make $270,000 more across the course of their career than agreeable men. (That study has not been replicated with women and there’s a high degree of likeliness that such a study would see different results.) 

Overall, being conscientious and general conscientiousness is a strength, of course. But there are potential traps that need to be managed around burnout, taking on too many projects and agreeableness. But in the broadest sense, having a conscientious employee or life partner is going to be a good thing.

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