The personality trait that guarantees success: conscientiousness

The personality trait that guarantees success: conscientiousness

Recently I was sent a blog post about conscientiousness entitled This is the personality trait that most often predicts success. The author, Drake Baer, based his blog on a new book by Paul Tough, How children succeed: grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character.

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in his book, Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism and self-control. In other words: emotional intelligence competencies.

Drake takes this one step further and argues that the only major personality trait that consistently leads to success is conscientiousness. People who test high in conscientiousness get better grades in school and college, commit fewer crimes and stay married longer. They live longer and not just because they smoke less and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s a staggering amount of research linking conscientiousness with success. Conscientious people earn higher salaries and have greater job satisfaction; conscientiousness is also the most important factor for finding and retaining employment. Research shows that showing up on time, doing thorough work and being thoughtful towards your colleagues helps people regardless of their job function or workplace situation.

Conscientious people tend to be super-organised, great planners and responsible. They work hard in the face of challenges and can control their impulses. They are better at setting goals and working towards them, as well as persisting amid setbacks. If an ambitious goal can’t be realised, they will switch to a more attainable one rather than getting discouraged and giving up. As a result, they tend to achieve goals that are consistent with what employers want. They organise their lives well and are sticklers for punctuality. They make great employees.

Psychologists classify conscientiousness as one of the ‘big five’ personality traits, with the others being agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism and openness to experience.

In the Humm-Wadsworth temperament model, conscientiousness is equivalent to the engineer. People with this component make great employees, however it can be a hindrance in a manager. Conscientiousness can make people monomaniacs; they find it difficult to multi-task. In addition they tend to focus on tasks and not on the people – and it is people skills that differentiate the successful manager. Finally there is major issue of decision making. Conscientiousness people tend to get bogged down in the detail and, therefore, often the cost of making a decision outweighs future benefits. 

The factor that determines whether someone becomes a successful leader and manager is not conscientiousness. It helps, but the two necessary Humm components are not part of the big five.

Managers need two key qualities, shrewd people skills based on empathy and the ability to take and make decisions. Conscientious people need to have these two components as part of their personality; otherwise they may well find themselves continually missing out on promotion.


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