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Conscientiousness: What is it and why your business should care

August 30, 2023
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The quest for hiring the perfect candidates is a vital yet difficult task, which many professionals in every possible field have worked tirelessly to perfect. How can we predict the performance of an individual before they actually start working?

Endless studies have shown that soft skills and personality are great predictors of performance, better than someone’s experience or education (the information you can easily find on CVs). Assessing these has become more common, with 80% of Fortune 500 companies using personality assessments for hiring. Today, we’re going to delve into one of the most predictive qualities — conscientiousness.

What is the Big Five model?

There are a number of assessment types popularised in the past few decades, however, the Big Five model is considered the most scientifically fit for purpose. This theory highlights five clusters of attributes as the most indicative of performance: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — also referred to as OCEAN. People exist on the spectrum of these traits; an individual doesn’t ‘have’ or ‘not have’ a trait, but rather has different levels of each of these. These categories can provide employers with insights into an applicant and inform their recruitment process.

Further reading: The Big Five model — overview, origins, and use in human resources

What is conscientiousness?

As mentioned above, conscientiousness is one of the five traits at the core of the Big Five personality theory — in other words, it’s one of the most defining characteristics of an individual’s personality. In the context of business, it has been touted as possibly the most important one — according to our psychologists, almost every role requires it!

Put simply, conscientiousness refers to self-discipline, goal-directedness, and responsibility. A conscientious person is usually methodical, industrious and meticulous: they prefer to follow a plan to a T, they are good at self-regulation and impulse control, and they like to think things through.

Conversely, an individual with low conscientiousness can be reckless. They dislike structure, find it difficult to complete tasks without external encouragement, and prefer to leave things to the last minute — procrastination is second nature to them. However, they do have some positive behaviours, too: they see the bigger picture more easily and don’t get bogged down in the details. They’re spontaneous and flexible, especially when it comes to rules and regulations. And when things are disorganised, you’re unlikely to see them fazed by it — they thrive under these conditions.

What traits are related to conscientiousness?

As you can probably tell, conscientiousness encompasses a large number of sub-characteristics that could be relevant for employers. In the Thrive platform, the main traits that relate to it are:

  • Ownership: Conscientiously sees tasks through to completion, takes responsibility, respects commitments made.
  • Achieving: Sets demanding goals and focuses on results, ambitious and enjoys competition.
  • Methodical: Prefers to be well-organised, follows the rules, and enjoys tasks that require attention to detail.

Other qualities that may fall under the umbrella of conscientiousness are:

  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Self-discipline
  • Cautiousness
  • Prioritisation
  • Detail-focused
  • Rule-abiding

On the other hand, some traits that could be associated with low conscientiousness are:

  • Disorganisation
  • Unstructuredness
  • Procrastination
  • Low motivation

How do conscientious people act in business situations?

From the information you have so far, you can imagine how important conscientiousness is for business. This is because the behaviours associated with this trait are all desired in employees — you want workers who are reliable, take ownership of their work, and smash their deadlines with no issues.

For example, a conscientious employee is more likely to:

  • Make transparent and detailed plans and schedules — and abide by them
  • Take notes in meetings
  • Show up on time
  • Go out of their way to complete tasks
  • Persevere through difficult situations
  • Set ambitious but realistic goals
  • Be organised and not require external reminders or pushes
  • Keep their workspace clean and tidy
  • Feel motivated to complete their targets
  • Stick to their word and be able to communicate changes
  • Notice details

However, it’s important to note that low conscientiousness alone shouldn’t deter you from hiring a potential employee. They can be more flexible and better under time constraints, for example, or when the work environment is less structured and more hectic.

What roles would benefit from high conscientiousness?

Different jobs require different skills. Extraversion, for example, might be important for a salesperson, but not particularly for an accountant. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a highly extraverted person would always be a good salesperson and a bad accountant (or vice versa) — but the point is that, as different roles demand different skills and behaviours, some traits are more important than others for specific roles.

When it comes to conscientiousness, though, it’s a bit different. Almost every role would be strengthened with a high level of conscientiousness. Think about it: which roles wouldn’t benefit from someone who is self-disciplined, completes tasks, and is internally motivated? This is why conscientiousness is considered the most important trait when it comes to job performance — according to Barrick and Mount’s study, conscientiousness reliably predicts job performance across various occupations. Conscientiousness is also particularly vital for leadership roles. However, it’s still important to keep track of the wellbeing of conscientious employees, as they are more prone to burnout.

While a majority of roles should look for conscientious employees, there are specific jobs that would particularly benefit from this trait, for example:

  • Air traffic controller
  • Surgeon
  • Pilot
  • Detective
  • Politician

In other words, roles that thrive on rule-following and meticulous attention to detail.

When you consider that the Big Five traits are measured on a scale, there are very few people who are 100% conscientious, so the possible negative elements of this trait (for example, being too much of a stickler for rules, or perfectionism) aren’t usually a cause for concern, other than in those with very high conscientiousness. However, there are definitely some environments where conscientious people would thrive less in — including less predictable occupations, roles that require a lot of improvisation, and jobs where you must think on your feet.

Note: Just like any other trait, while conscientiousness is a great predictor of success, it does not mean that a candidate with low conscientiousness will necessarily be a bad fit. The point of cognitive and personality assessments are to inform employers of what they need to look for in interviews (and, for successful applicants, in their everyday work) — you shouldn’t make a decision exclusively based on someone’s personality scores.

How can conscientiousness be developed?

Even though we are born with a set of characteristics, it doesn’t mean they cannot change throughout our lives, especially if we put effort into improving certain qualities. Our personality and behaviours aren’t exclusively set by nature — we can also nurture them!

There are many ways to develop a more conscientious mindset, including:

  • Focusing on goals: For every task and project, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve, how you’re going to get there, and how you’re going to measure it.
  • Practising prioritisation: Encourage yourself to ask which of the tasks you need to get done is more important and when. Consider involving your manager in this decision until you do it naturally.
  • Managing your time: It can be hard to accurately estimate how much time each task will take. Try to actually time yourself over a period and write down how long it takes you, including any obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. Use this measurement for future similar tasks.
  • Reflecting on your work: At the end of a task or a project, take the time to consider what you did well, what didn’t go as planned, and how you can improve next time.

Wondering how conscientious your employees or candidates are? Book a demo with Thrive today to learn more about how we can help you to identify this trait in potential employees and how to nurture it within your current team.

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