Is Conscientiousness ALWAYS Positively Related to Job Performance?
Robert P. Tett
Wright State University
Much has been made of Conscientiousness as a predictor of job
performance. Barrick and Mounts (1991) well-cited findings show an uncorrected mean
correlation of .15 with subjective ratings of performance (value corrected for artifacts =
.26). The consistency of Conscientiousness validities across occupational groups (e.g.,
.09 for sales to .13 for managers and police, based on all criteria) prompted the
researchers to single out Conscientiousness as the one Big Five dimension that is good in
all jobs. On the surface, their conclusion makes a lot of sense not only in light of their
main empirical findings but also on substantive grounds. After all, it is inconceivable
that conscientious people could make bad employees. Or is it?
The possibility of negative relations between Conscientiousness and
(positively keyed) job performance stems from three considerations. First, published
meta-analytic results, including Barrick and Mounts, show evidence of such
relations. Second, individual studies have revealed a pattern of interpretable negative
correlations. Third, and perhaps most informatively, rational, plausible arguments for
negative correlations can be made. Each of these is discussed below in turn. Then a brief
but striking empirical demonstration is provided that encourages careful consideration of
the bases for expecting positive versus negative relations between personality and job
Meta-analysis entails averaging effect sizes across studies. Of
interest is not only the mean effect size (e.g., mean validity) but also the observed
variance of effect sizes. The variance represents a variety of reasons why estimates of a
population effect size (i.e., correlation in this case) vary from one study to the next. A
sizable chunk of the observed variance can usually be traced to sampling error, and a
smaller portion to differences across studies in reliability and range restriction in
particular measures. Other artifactual sources of cross-study variation include data entry
and calculation errors, which are untestable. Any remaining variance can be considered
evidence of substantive moderators, that is, differences between studies in method,
population, or conditions that may systematically alter the effect size in potentially
interesting ways. The traditional wisdom is that if 75% or more of the observed variance
in effect sizes can be attributed to testable artifacts (i.e., sampling error, etc.), then
little remains to be attributed to substantive moderators.
In light of the logic of meta-analysis, what would evidence for
negative Conscientiousness-performance relations look like? There will be two signs.
First, because meta-analysis entails averaging correlations across studies, co-existence
of positive and negative correlations would yield a weak overall mean. Second, residual
variance (i.e., after removing artifactual variance) should be substantial, at least more
than 25% according to the 75% rule (Tett, Jackson, Rothstein, & Reddon, in press).
Review of Barrick and Mounts (1991) findings shows this pattern
of meta-analytic results in one of their occupational groups. For police, the mean
uncorrected validity is given as .13. This is consistent with the values for other groups,
but in this case only 40% of the observed variance is attributable to testable artifacts
(values range from 64% to 100% in the remaining four groups). This suggests that there may
be some types of police performance, specified in terms of job, setting, and/or
measurement, where being conscientious, perhaps in specific ways, may be a liability.
Possible substantive reasons are discussed in a later section.
In a different meta-analysis, Hough (1992) reported an uncorrected mean
validity of .07 between Dependability (a facet of Conscientiousness) and creativity
considered as a performance criterion, based on five studies with a combined N of
268. For managers and executives, the meta-analytic mean correlation between Dependability
and job proficiency was reported to be .03, based on 22 studies representing over
3,000 people. Percentage of variance due to artifacts was not given in either case. The
weak negative means, however, are consistent with the presence of positive and negative
relations in the samples of source studies. In the very least, they give grounds to
reconsider the belief that Conscientiousness is always a positive correlate of job
Similar yet more pervasive meta-analytic evidence for negative
relations between Conscientiousness and job performance was presented at this years
SIOP meeting. Hough, Ones, and Viswesvaran (1998) provided results of extensive
aggregations of personality variables in relations with varied aspects of managerial
success, including job performance, managerial potential ratings, and managerial level.
Conscientiousness was considered as a general construct as well as more specifically in
terms of Achievement Orientation and Dependability. Consistent with the presence of
negative correlations, the uncorrected mean correlation between Conscientiousness and
overall managerial performance is .07 (based on 186 independent samples representing over
50,000 managers), and the residual variance is 77% (i.e., the 23% variance explained by
artifacts is far less than what the 75% rule prescribes). There is similar evidence in
relations with managerial level (mean r = .04, residual variance = 89%). At a more
specific level of analysis, Dependability and performance correlate .02, on average, with
41% residual variance. Most interestingly, the mean for Dependability in predicting
managerial level is .12. Further analysis of this data set based on even larger
samples is planned in light of potential moderator hypotheses (L.M. Hough, personal
communications, May 5, May 11, 1998).
All told, meta-analytic data give us good reason to consider the
possibility that Conscientiousness may not always be desirable on the job. Review of
single-sample studies leads us in the same direction. Although such studies form the basis
of meta-analytic aggregations, and are therefore somewhat redundant, it is instructive to
consider them separately to gain insight into the reasons for negative validities.
A number of studies have been published over the last few years that
report significant negative correlations between Conscientiousness facets and job
performance. Driskell, Hogan, Salas, and Hoskin (1994) showed that Prudence, from the Hogan
Personality Inventory (HPI; Hogan, 1986; Hogan & Hogan, 1995), correlated
.15 with a training criterion measure including number of modules completed and work
speed in naval electronics exercises. Hogan, Hogan, and Murtha (1992) found that
managerial performance in a trucking company correlated .34 and .18 with
"Planful" and "Perfect," respectively, which are components of
HPI-Prudence. Bunce and West (1995) reported correlations of .14 and .27
between innovation in health services and Task Orientation and Intrinsic Job Motivation,
both aspects of Conscientiousness. Similarly, Hogan and Hogan (1995) found correlations
from .37 to .42 between HPI-Prudence and various aspects of musical
performance. It also correlated .17 with artistic interests and .14 with
aesthetic motives. Collectively, these significant findings suggest that being
conscientious can interfere with performance in jobs requiring expedient completion of
numerous tasks and/or creative and artistic tendencies.
Rational Bases for Expecting Negative Relations Between
Conscientiousness and Job Performance
The findings noted above suggest plausible reasons why being
conscientious can be detrimental to performance in some jobs. Lets take a closer
look at the two sorts of situations where being planful and thorough might be ineffectual.
The first case arises in light of the fact that conscientiousness can
translate into fewer tasks getting done and/or taking longer to complete a given set of
tasks (Driskell et al., 1994). In short, its hard to be both thorough and fast.
Perhaps in most jobs being meticulous is more important than being expedient. But this is
not true in all jobs. Successful management, for example, often requires quick decisions
based on incomplete information. The time it takes to go from an acceptable decision to a
superb one may not be worth the added time when other fires are close to burning out of
control. Perhaps this is why, in the Hough et al. (1998) study, managerial performance
correlates so weakly on average with Conscientiousness (i.e., .07): its important to
be careful, but possibly just as important to be decisive. This might also help explain
Barrick and Mounts (1991) results for police, who, in emergency situations, are not
afforded the luxury of carefully planned responses. In such cases, being overly methodical
could be dangerous.
The second example pertains to the Dependability part of
Conscientiousness, which entails an appreciation for rules. Rules are a part of every job,
but less so in some than others. Findings noted above (Bunce & West, 1995; Hogan &
Hogan, 1995; Hough, 1992) suggest that Conscientiousness can interfere with innovation.
Might concern for rules serve to stifle creative talent? Here are a few jobs where being
rule-bound could interfere with productivity: artistic professions like musician,
sculptor, painter, actor, set designer, sketch writer, and choreographer; managerial
positions involving creative problem solving (i.e., "thinking outside the box"),
especially jobs like marketing manager, product development specialist, and senior
executive with respect to strategic vision; entrepreneurs, whose success depends on seeing
business opportunities where others dont; research scientists, including the absent
minded professor who, though routinely misplacing things, develops novel solutions to
classic problems. In each of these examples, productivity is cultivated more by freedom
from rules than by confinement to them.
Analysis-Paralysis: An Empirical Demonstration
One way to consider the trade-off between thoroughness and expediency
is in terms of analysis-paralysis: people who fuss too much over details are more prone to
completely missing the ball in other areas. Consider the following case in point.
I administered a 5-item in-basket exercise to 18 undergraduate students
enrolled in a class on psychological measurement. The exercise required each person to
play the role of General Manager at a hypothetical paint manufacturing plant. The scenario
was described as a Sunday afternoon and the individual had 8 minutes to catch up on some
paper work before leaving for an important meeting. The memos presented realistic problems
from subordinate managers. Most importantly for present aims, each memo was accompanied by
one or more supplementary documents designed to be relevant and detailed but to not change
the basic nature of the problem as described in the memo. For example, one memo described
a fired worker seeking union action. The background sheet was a relevant page from an
employment contract. (The hypothetical memo sender had attached it for clarification.)
Participants were told to respond to as many memos as they could within the 8 minutes.
A few weeks prior to collecting the in-basket responses, I had given
out a randomly-ordered set of items from eight self-report scales from the Personality
Research Form (PRF; Jackson, 1989) and Jackson Personality InventoryRevised (JPI-R;
Jackson, 1994) assessing various aspects of Conscientiousness. Specifically, the scales
were PRF-Order, Achievement, Cognitive Structure, Endurance, and Impulsivity (negatively
keyed), and JPI-R-Organization, Traditional Values, and Responsibility. The correlations
among the scales were consistently moderate and in the expected direction (median r
= .34) so standard scores on all scales were combined into an overall Conscientiousness
index. Scores were withheld from students until the end of the term.
In light of the main theme of this paper, it should not be unexpected
that the correlation between the Conscientiousness index and number of memos completed was
negative. It might be surprising to some, however, that the correlation was .71 (p
< .001). This result suggests that being conscientious is not ALWAYS productive.
Detail-oriented people, in spite of good intentionsor perhaps because of
themcan become bogged down in minutiae and simply run out of time.
There are some obvious concerns with this demonstration. First, the
background materials were explicitly designed to add no new and important information.
Perhaps this does not fairly represent the real world of decision making, where
attachments may contain details that critically alter the nature of a problem and the
appropriateness of a given response. Second, decision quality was ignored in favor of
quantity. Perhaps a different result would emerge in relations between Conscientiousness
and decision quality. Third, the subject sample was barely representative of real-life
administrators. Perhaps more experienced decision makers who are high in Conscientiousness
would be less distracted by the superfluous background information.
These are all potentially valid criticisms and I do not wish to
maintain that Conscientiousness is necessarily a bad thing for decision makers or for
employees in general. I do want to stress, however, that in trying to understand the
relations between personality and job performance, we need to (a) be cautious in
interpreting results of meta-analyses based on unidirectional assumptions regarding
personality-job performance relations; (b) consider more carefully the conditions under
which our expectations of positive versus negative relations are formed; and (c) develop
and test more hypotheses regarding the direction of relations between personality and job
performance. A bidirectional perspective on personalityperformance relations has
more to offer in terms of prediction and explanation than what is afforded by a simplistic
unidirectional view. Its time we started exploring this opportunity more closely.
In an effort to promote a better understanding of the role of
personality at work, I invite you to share your examples of cases where Conscientiousness
might be detrimental to job performance. If you have any experiences with this or can
think of any plausible rationales beyond those considered here, please let me know. Your
examples might pertain to entire jobs or job families, or to specific aspects of job
performance. Similarly, they might deal with Conscientiousness in general or with one or
more of its components. I can be reached at 937-775-2026, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or
in writing at the Department of Psychology, Wright State University, Dayton, OH, 45435.
Needless to say, counterarguments are welcome too.
Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job
performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 126.
Bunce, D., & West, M. A. (1995). Self perceptions and perceptions of group climate
as predictors of individual innovation at work. Applied Psychology: An International
Review, 44, 199215.
Driskell, J. E., Hogan, J., Salas, E., & Hoskins, B. (1994). Cognitive and
personality predictors of training performance. Military Psychology, 6, 3146.
Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Murtha, T. (1992). Validation of a personality measure of
job performance. Journal of Business & Psychology, 7, 225236.
Hogan, R. (1986). Hogan Personality Inventory user's manual. Minneapolis, MN:
National Computer Systems.
Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (1995). Hogan Personality Inventory manual (2nd ed.).
Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems.
Hough, L. M. (1992). The "Big Five" personality variablesconstruct
confusion: Description versus prediction. Human Performance, 5, 139155.
Hough, L. M., Ones, D. S., & Viswesvaran, C. (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.
Jackson, D. N. (1989). Personality Research Form manual. Port Huron, MI: Sigma
Jackson, D. N. (1994). Jackson Personality Inventory revised. Port Huron,
MI: Sigma Assessment Systems.
Tett, R. P., Jackson, D. N., Rothstein, M., & Reddon, J. R. (in press).
Meta-analysis of bidirectional relations in personality-job performance research. Human
Vol. 36/No. 1 July, 1998
July 98 Table of Contents