In this blog I will focus on another aspect of personality: Conscientiousness. I have chosen Conscientiousness as the theme for this blog because it is often identified as one of the best predictors for work performance. Conscientiousness could be described as the extent to which an individual is prepared to follow rules and processes, and deliver to deadline. To people who are at the high end on Conscientiousness, processes to follow can engender a feeling of security and certainty, whilst those who fall at the low end may view them as constraining and limiting.
I am focusing on extremes of behaviour, which fall at the upper or lower limits on the normal distribution curve. These are the aspects of behaviour where we are likely to be most consistent and may be associated with strengths. However, as we are less inclined to flex our style, in certain situation this may cause us difficulties. This is my perspective based on many years of giving feedback on personality assessments and these behaviours (and managing them) are more likely to feature in coaching conversations. This follows as part of a series of using personality assessments in coaching which started with Dominance.
Behavioural characteristics of a highly conscientious individuals
At the high end – that is, when there is a strong tendency towards Conscientiousness - the individual is likely to be reliable, persistent and results focused. They take responsibility seriously, and may well be professional, courteous and principled. They can be relied upon to meet deadlines and do things by the book. These behaviours help the individual fit comfortably into organisational life and explain why they are often considered so desirable (Barrick and Mount, 1991). This person may be seen as a good ‘company person’. Behind these behaviours there may be a desire for certainty, stability and security, in which events can be predicted.
Although these behaviours appear desirable, there is some debate on how appropriate they are for all jobs. There is always a trade-off between speed and meticulousness. For some positions, being fast is more important than being thorough, which underlines the importance of careful job analysis when recruiting new employees. In particular, Hough et al (1998), identified that managerial performance correlates weakly on average with Conscientiousness. Tett (1998) stated that: "Successful management, for example, often requires quick decisions based on incomplete information". This suggests that the need for predictability, for certainty, may be less desirable characteristics in a manager who is confronted by the ambiguity which is often present in decision-making at more senior levels.
A person who is highly conscientious is likely to be comfortable with the goal setting and contracting aspects of coaching. The framework this supplies will suit them. They will be diligent in completing any ‘homework’ that is required of them. They will be reliable at turning up to meetings on time. They may be uncomfortable with the unstructured and exploratory aspects of coaching, where there is less evidence of the process. They may want to be told what to do. They may be inclined to ask for advice because they will value the coach’s professional opinion. The coach may consider meeting the client’s desire for structure and process in the coaching programme. Or the coach may consider that it is part of the client’s development to provide a more challenging environment that provides less predictability and structure.
That is one of the decisions that we as coaches have to make all the time: "What serves the best interests of the client and their development needs?" Given that the initial coaching contract with the client will have taken place before the personality assessment has been completed, I would consider re-visiting the contract as part of the feedback discussion, to identify what may need to be changed given the fresh insights provided by the assessments.
Examples of highly conscientious individuals
Let us look at two case studies. Frank is a middle manager at a large company and is being considered for promotion to a more senior position. He is a very conscientious person, who is also high on Dominance (which I explore in my last blog - hyperlink). His boss thinks he is great; he always delivers on time, he is reliable and professional, and his drive and ambition have marked him out as a high flier. Frank’s direct reports have a slightly different opinion of him; whilst they value his structured and methodical approach – they always know where they are with him – they find his ‘command and control’ style somewhat oppressive. He has a tendency to tell them what to do and micromanage them to ensure that the task is completed ‘by the book’. The focus on process leaves them little scope for developing shortcuts or rule bending, even if these approaches could aid task completion without any adverse effects.
Feedback with Frank includes the advantages to the company of the way he shoulders responsibility and takes deadlines seriously.
However, a major focus of the coaching for Frank is helping him to understand that as he reaches a more senior level there will be fewer precedents to follow, and the climate in which he will be expected to make decisions will feature a much greater degree of ambiguity. Part of the coaching may involve exploring Frank’s need for the security of rules and processes and helping him to increase his tolerance for less structure. This is likely to include developing a more hands-off approach to his team. Frank’s ambition is likely to help motivate him to work on these aspects of his behaviour; he will want to make sure he is best equipped to move to a more influential position.
The second case study focuses on Claire, who is strongly Conscientious, and also a warm and friendly person, who comes across as really caring about her team. She is easy to like, and popular with both her bosses and colleagues, in that she is reliable and approachable. However, although her team like working for her, they find her somewhat maternal in her approach; she does a lot for them but they sometimes feel that they are treated like children (‘mother knows best’) rather than adults. They would like to take on more responsibility than she gives them; she takes on too much work herself. She thinks this is good for her team, in that she is relieving them of overwork; in fact, her lack of delegation not only inhibits her progress in the company but also limits the development of her direct reports’ skills and experience.
Feedback with Claire focuses on the positive aspects of her people-oriented approach in building and maintaining good relationships with colleagues, and her responsible approach to managing her team.
A major focus of the coaching for Claire is helping her to take a step back and reflect on the possibility that her style may be preventing the development of her team, and that she may be taking on too much work. This could be preventing her own development in her role. Claire’s people orientation suggests that she will want to do the best by her team, and this may motivate her to manage her behaviour differently.
Behavioural characteristics of individuals where conscientious is deemed low
I have discussed people who are high Conscientiousness, but what about individuals who are low on this particular aspect of personality? Not surprisingly, they tend to dislike external constraints on their behaviour, valuing autonomy. They are spontaneous and comfortable with ambiguity as it allows them the freedom to explore different ways of doing things. Their strengths may lie in new situations, in uncharted waters which may require an unconventional approach. They will cut through red tape – or sidestep it altogether. They have no compunction in doing something in a totally different way to achieve their objective – this may include cutting corners.
They may not necessarily deliver to deadline unless it suits them and can be unreliable. In a corporate setting they may be rebellious and kick against the system. However, they are comfortable with ambiguity, and may enjoy it. It gives them the opportunity to sidestep conventional processes and go their own way, and the approach they take may be more entrepreneurial. The sort of roles where they flourish are where there is a need for fast adaptation to opportunities and change (MacRae, 2015). The artistic and creative fields, for example, tend to be dominated by those with lower conscientiousness.
Case study example:
Let us consider John, who is low on Conscientiousness but is also highly imaginative in his role as marketing director. He is particularly effective at developing exciting and innovative marketing campaigns, and his flexible approach to timelines means that he is rarely thrown by sudden changes in priorities or direction. However, a new person has been appointed to the role of sales director, who whilst appreciating John’s creativity, finds what she sees as John’s cavalier approach to deadlines particularly frustrating. This has meant that she has been contacting him more frequently for progress reports and updates, which has led to a worsening of the relationship.
Feedback with John focuses on what he brings to the role in creative and innovative thinking, and the way he is able to respond quickly to changing demands.
Coaching will need to help John recognise he needs to compromise between producing imaginative marketing strategies and the sales director’s more operational remit for bringing the product to the customer. He may need to consider whether changes in direction or priorities, which may impact on his ability to meet the deadline, are always necessary, or whether he just enjoys them. Some degree of ‘light touch’ process, which he commits to following, may increase his effectiveness and give the sales director reassurance on John’s ability to meet deadlines.
In working with his coach, John’s flexible style and creativity is likely to help him develop innovative development strategies. However, his tendency to unreliability suggests that the coach may need to put particular emphasis in the contracting process on commitment both to the programme (for instance turning up on time and working to agreed deadlines), and to goal attainment. To this extent John’s management of the coaching process is a reflection of the development areas he is working on in his role as marketing director.
This blog has taken as its main focus the trait known as Conscientiousness and how it may interact with other aspects of personality. I have also explored whether this attribute is always a positive, particularly in more senior roles. This raises two issues:
The measurement of Conscientiousness when selecting for managerial positions (or for other roles where flexibility and speed are seen as critical); and
The role of coaching during a transition to a more senior role.
A rigorous job/person specification is vital in the first issue. The second issue reinforces the need for coaching when an individual is being promoted to a role where a potentially different approach to processes and decision-making is required. Conscientiousness is a good example of the maxim that the behaviours that get you to the top don’t necessarily serve you well when you are there!
Barrick M R and Mount M K (1991). The Big Five Personality Dimensions and Job Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, pp 1-26
Hough et al (1998, April). Personality correlates of managerial performance constructs. Paper presented in R C Page (Chair) Personality Determinants of Managerial Potential Performance, Progression and Ascendancy. Symposium conducted at the 13th annual conference of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, Dallas.
MacRae, I (2015). The benefits of low conscientiousness at work. High Potential Psychology, online article published 6/03/2015.
Tett, R P (1998). Is conscientiousness always positively related to job performance? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, Vol 36/No 1 July 1998.
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