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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 Mount’s (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 Mount’s, 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 performance.

Meta-Analytic Evidence

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 Mount’s (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 performance.

Similar yet more pervasive meta-analytic evidence for negative relations between Conscientiousness and job performance was presented at this year’s 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.

Single-Sample Research

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. Let’s 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, it’s 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): it’s important to be careful, but possibly just as important to be decisive. This might also help explain Barrick and Mount’s (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 don’t; 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 Inventory—Revised (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 intentions—or perhaps because of them—can 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 personality–performance relations has more to offer in terms of prediction and explanation than what is afforded by a simplistic unidirectional view. It’s 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 rtett@wright.edu, or in writing at the Department of Psychology, Wright State University, Dayton, OH, 45435. Needless to say, counterarguments are welcome too.

References

Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1–26.

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, 199–215.

Driskell, J. E., Hogan, J., Salas, E., & Hoskins, B. (1994). Cognitive and personality predictors of training performance. Military Psychology, 6, 31–46.

Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Murtha, T. (1992). Validation of a personality measure of job performance. Journal of Business & Psychology, 7, 225–236.

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 variables—construct confusion: Description versus prediction. Human Performance, 5, 139–155.

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 Assessment Systems.

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 Performance.


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Vol. 36/No. 1 July, 1998


July 98 Table of Contents