Conscientiousness is listed as a desirable trait on almost every job description. Whether it is described as ambition, self-motivated, well organized or a “self-starter”. Everyone is looking for diligence, responsiblity and accountability. Right? Every employer seems to want conscientious employees.
And indeed, the evidence also suggests conscientiousness is desirable for many jobs. Those who are conscientious tend to perform better, achieve more, show greater improvement as a result of training and are more likely to get promoted. Conscientiousness is one of the greatest predictors of success in many careers.
So what are the advantages (if any) of lower conscientiousness? First, look at how those with lower conscientiousness describe themselves. People with higher conscientiousness would say they are responsible. punctual, organized, dutiful. Those with lower conscientiousness would say they are spontaneous, flexible, and have more fun. Both are correct.
Along with their strengths, those with lower conscientiousness have some very redeeming vices.
The first advantage of lower conscientiousness is clear. Those with lower conscientiousness are less affected by setbacks at work. The highly conscientious workaholic feels successful through professional achivement. Those with lower conscientiousness gain satisfaction from other sources like family, relationships, hobbies and diversions. This means work and career setbacks have a much less negative impact on those with lower conscientiousness. Boyce and colleagues (2010) found periods of unemployment much more damaging to the well-being of those with higher conscientiousness.
Some positions require flexibility, and the capacity to seize opportunities, change priorities and deviate from the long-term plan. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough, while the perfectionist wastes time on unimportant details. For better or worse, those with lower conscientious can be much faster at adapting to opportunities and change. The artistic and creative fields are dominated by those with lower conscientiousness. Although the connection is complex, low conscientiousness is often associated with higher creativity.
A heterogeneous, exceedingly conscientious group can be the least creative. When looking too far into the future, its possible to miss the opportunities right under your nose. Those with lower conscientiousness tend to be more focused on the current moment and situation than long-term planning. The highly conscientious often find their more spontaneous compatriots flighty, flaky or frustrating. But groups benefit from being constructively challenged by those with different points of view. The most creative and adaptable groups will combine the strong planners with the creative and the spontaneous.
It’s not that those with lower conscientiousness cannot be motivated, they are motivated by different things. Those with high conscientiousness are motivated by an internal drive, while those with lower conscientiousness are motivated by the external. That is the environment, the circumstances, the people and what’s going on around them.
Those with lower conscientiousness can work tirelessly when they are motivated by something external. This may involve drawing inspiration from those around them, or the threat of a looming deadline.
So, is it better to have high or low conscientiousness? The answer, of course, depends entirely on how conscientious you are.
Boyce, C. J., Wood, A. M., & Brown, G. D. A. (2010). The dark side of conscientiousness: Conscientious people experience greater drops in life satisfaction following unemployment. Journal of Research in Personality 44, 435 - 539.
Fayard, J. V., Roberts, B. W., Robins, R. W., & Watson, D. Uncovering the affective core of conscientiousness: The role of self-conscious emotions. Journal of Personality, 80(1),
MacRae, I., & Furnham, A. (2014). High Potential: How to spot, manage and develop talented people at work. London: Bloomsbury.