Jobs and the Future of Work

The personality trait that predicts success

Drake Baer
Reporter, Business Insider
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From the mailroom to the corner office, conscientiousness predicts success.

“Of all personality traits, conscientiousness has been associated with strong performance and success in almost all areas of work,” write Ian MacRae and Adrian Furnham in “High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work.”

You know conscientious people when you see them: They show up on time, keep their calendars organized, set goals, and meet deadlines. They earn admirable descriptors like “hard-working,” “reliable,” and “persevering.”

They’re assets to almost any team.

In “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” psychologist Daniel Goleman points out that conscientiousness is essential at the lower levels of a company, like “the mailroom clerk who never misplaces a package, the secretary whose message taking is impeccable, the delivery truck driver who is always on time.”

It’s also crucial at mid-levels. The research finds that conscientious salespeople are more likely to set and be committed to goals, leading to higher sales volumes and job performance ratings.

It also predicts success for founders. A 2003 study of 111 people who had started their own businesses over a 30-year period found that conscientious people were the most likely to be able to lead companies that survived for more than eight years.

“The results suggest that an entrepreneur needs to evolve into a manager to shepherd a new venture to long-term survival,” wrote Mark Ciavarella, the study’s lead author and a professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology. Conscientiousness, then, is the trait most given to shepherding.

Unsurprisingly, conscientiousness is an ingredient for long-term success in general.

National Institute of Mental Health study found that conscientious men earn higher salaries. The National Institute on Aging also found that conscientiousness is linked to income and job satisfaction. Other studies show that conscientiousness is the most important factor for finding and retaining employment.

Outside of work, conscientiousness predicts happier marriages and longer lives, since conscientious people are less likely do things that aggravate marriages or get themselves killed.

However, being highly conscientious isn’t necessary — MacRae and Furnham say that a middle level of conscientiousness is “more than enough to do most jobs fairly well.”

But conscientiousness isn’t a predictor of success in every possible situation. Another way to think about conscientiousness is that it’s the tendency to follow the rules; after all, crossing every t and dotting every i is convention-oriented behavior. Recent studies indicate that when people are doing creative work, they “turn off” conscientious tendencies to decrease the filter on what they think is appropriate, thus turning up their creative output.

Like Malcolm Gladwell argues, the people who become legendary entrepreneurs pair conscientiousness with creativity.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider UK. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Drake Baer is a Reporter at Business Insider. 

Image: A worker arrives at his office in the Canary Wharf business district. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh.


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