“Let's not mince words: Everest doesn't attract a whole lot of well-balanced folks. The self-selection process tends to weed out the cautious and the sensible in favor of those who are single-minded and incredibly driven. Which is a big reason the mountain is so dangerous.” - Jon Krakauer
Read any job advert and it will wax lyrical about the advantages of being ultra-organized, a stickler for detail, having a can-do attitude and a strong sense of purpose and direction. Of course, it’s unsurprising that employers want people who can work towards a plan in a persistent and self-assured way; which coincidentally are the very same qualities that would help get you to the top of a mountain.
It’s also true that this cluster of traits, captured by the personality dimension of Conscientiousness, is by itself the best personality-based predictor of work performance. And in terms of the overall work prediction “stakes,” second only to General Mental Ability (GMA), which is the underlying ability to absorb fresh information, learn new processes, and solve problems.
Together these generally provide a powerful way of deciding who will perform well at work. However, our bias towards those high in Conscientiousness has a downside. What happens when someone is too single-minded? Are there times when having a built-in will to complete tasks, and to follow a particular direction, can be counterproductive? Or in the case of Everest, even be life-threatening.
Like a Goose
Let’s think about the Greylag Goose for a moment. The great biologist, Niko Tinbergen, noticed that once a Greylag starts a particular pattern of behavior it has to complete it — even if it doesn’t make practical sense. For example, if an egg rolls out of a nest the goose stretches out her bill and rolls it back in. If the egg is taken away when she’s reaching for it, the goose goes through the same actions even without the egg. These are known as Fixed Action Patterns of Behavior (FAPs).
In contrast to geese we have very few FAPs, which are really innate behaviours, but we do have tendencies towards “ballistic” actions — things we find it hard to stop when circumstances change. The momentum being provided by our personality. The catch, of course, is we’re often faced with changing conditions and so sticking to a specific path can be problematic.
This means if the nature of work changes, those who are more organized are going to find it harder to switch and make decisions after the change.
Unpicking things further, research suggests the different parts of Conscientiousness act in different ways. The ballistic bit is driven by the organized, deliberate, and dependable traits; the more adaptable aspects by achievement, striving, and self-discipline. This means if the nature of work changes, those who are more organized are going to find it harder to switch and make decisions after the change.
In the groove
In terms of change there are a couple of other things worth knowing. Firstly, Conscientiousness is more predictive of performance in roles of low to medium complexity. That’s skilled/semi-skilled and customer service jobs that are routine, have obvious goals, and which are performed in well-structured and relatively unchanging environments.
This makes sense, as does the idea that Conscientiousness is less predictive in situations where work is more complex and requires people to solve unusual or ambiguous problems — the sort that are found in many managerial and professional jobs. In this way being less organized, and less dependent on routines, actually appears to be an advantage.
Alongside is the finding that Conscientiousness is a weaker predictor of performance in jobs that require higher levels of cognitive ability (GMA). This seems to go with the notion of differences due to work complexity but also suggests an interesting dynamic. Specifically, we know the predictive power of GMA increases with increasing job complexity; and that of Conscientiousness reduces. However, going the other way, the predictive power of Conscientiousness relative to GMA almost certainly increases as jobs become less complex.
Where does this leave us?
The organized part of being Conscientious is important to jobs that are structured and routine and require a consistent approach. This seems to go hand-in-hand with jobs that are lower in complexity and which often make lower cognitive demands. However, if a role requires frequent changes in direction or thought, it’s wise to pay greater attention to traits like achievement orientation and self-discipline — rather than those that concern organization.
Additionally, if GMA does interact with personality in the way people think, it’s more useful to assess Conscientiousness for low/medium complexity rather than high complexity jobs — but recognize that in high complexity jobs GMA can mask aspects of Conscientiousness that are directly concerned with results orientation. That’s things like having a plan and going about tasks in a systematic way — bear this in mind next time you interview someone!
Traitify can help you minimize bias in your hiring process by assessing candidates based on their real personalities. To learn more, connect with us!