When conscientiousness goes too far


Conscientiousness is a much-discussed topic. It is often named as the key personality trait that can predict success at work. But what is it really? And can you be too conscientious? And if you are too conscientious, what happens?

Conscientiousness is one of the five traits of the Big Five personality theory. When personality traits have been studied in relation to success at work, conscientiousness is the trait which is highlighted in most cases.

The rest of the Big Five traits – extraversion, emotional stability, openness and agreeableness – are also important. Extraversion is an important trait in the work of a sales representative, while emotional stability is exceptionally important for a policeman.

But unlike the four other traits, conscientiousness seems to be the keystone of success in almost any position.

Internalized morality

The definition of conscientiousness has a long history. According to Sigmund Freud, one group of his patients stood out from the rest: their discerning traits were cleanliness, conscientiousness, frugality and stubbornness – that is, an anal personality. According to the psychoanalytical theory, the origin of conscientiousness was strongly tied to the developmental stages in childhood.

Today, we know better. Conscientiousness is defined in a less pathologizing manner, and credible mechanisms for its emergence can be found starting in evolutionary psychology. Conscientiousness is also partly inherited. It could be called an “internalized morality”

But what is conscientiousness in practice? It is observing rules, doing your work well, staying on schedule, keeping your promises, and being reliable. The crucial factor is that the motive for upholding these behaviors arose from themselves, not simply from the desire for external reward. Hypocrisy is not genuine conscientiousness.

It is easy to think that genuine conscientiousness is an important trait in working life. But Freud was right in thinking that these traits, as good as they are, also have their flip sides.

An over-conscientious employee

The positive effect of conscientiousness is related to the fact that it provides continuity and predictability of action. It also helps you organize and plan ahead so that you don’t need to try everything on the fly. But there is such a thing as being too organized.

Pedantry, a neurotic adherence to routine and perfectionism are extreme examples of conscientiousness; things must always be done in a particular way and perfectly. A supervisor can become a painful micro-manager. In the worst case, decisions take longer, and the ability to improvise and prioritize is lost. Extreme conscientiousness can also expose you to rapid burnout.

A summary study (Le et al., 2011) published just over a year ago finally offered empirical confirmation of the hypothesis. The connection between over-conscientiousness and poor success at work was discovered. An essential factor was the complexity of the work.

The simpler the work, the sooner conscientiousness turns into a detriment. And the other way round: complex work allows, and requires, a greater level of conscientiousness. Of course, extreme pedantry also becomes an undesired trait in challenging tasks, but the point of saturation is at a clearly higher level than in simple tasks.

Partly, this discovery was explained by autonomy: complex tasks also offer a greater degree of freedom, and thus the employee’s personality has a greater impact on the outcome than in jobs based on a mechanical routine.

Conscientiousness and the realism of recruitment

The dual nature of conscientiousness must also be taken into account in recruitment. You cannot simply look at the bar length in the psychological test result and think, “more is better”. A mechanical interpretation easily leads to mistakes.

In the future, it will be increasingly important to identify the desired limits within which conscientiousness should preferably fall. These limits are essentially dependent on the work environment and the autonomy and complexity of the work. It could be said that determining the psychological requirements of work is becoming increasingly important.

Just a few years ago, scientists believed that they knew everything there was to know about conscientiousness. But as is often the case, it turned out our view of the world was still incomplete. Especially when it comes to understanding conscientiousness.

Further reading:

Le, H.; Oh, I.S.; Robbins, S.B.; Ilies, R.; Holland, E.; Westrick, P. (2011). Too much of a good thing: curvilinear relationships between personality traits and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 113–133.

Salgado, J.F. (1997). The five factor model of personality and job performance in the European Community. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 30–43

Mikael Nederström