The only major personality trait that consistently leads to success is conscientiousness.
“It’s emerging as one of the primary dimensions of successful functioning across the lifespan,” Paul Tough writes in How Children Succeed. “It really goes cradle to grave in terms of how people do in life.”
Tough says that people who test high in conscientiousness get better grades in school and college, commit fewer crimes, and stay married longer.
They live longer, too, he says, and not just because they smoke 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. A National Institute of Mental Health study found that conscientious men earn higher salaries. The National Institute on Aging also found that conscientiousness is linked to income and job satisfaction. Other studies show that conscientiousness is the most important factor for finding and retaining employment.
How do you know if you’re conscientious? Conscientious people tend to be super organized, responsible, and plan ahead. They work hard in the face of challenges and can control their impulses.
Psychologists classify conscientiousness as one of the “Big 5” personality traits. The others are agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. The other traits can predict certain workplace outcomes (extroversion is a great fit for highly social gigs like sales and openness to experience often leads to creativity), but conscientiousness is remarkable for the way it cuts across roles.
Research shows that arriving on time, doing thorough work, and being thoughtful toward your colleagues helps people regardless of their job function or workplace situation. “Being on top of deadlines is almost universally a good thing,” one industrial psychologist told us. Having the external awareness of being “other-focused,” as well as the motivation of being intentional and narrowing focus toward the creation of a goal, are behaviors influenced by creative tension (the relationship between the current reality and the desired outcome). In fact, the more one is fluent in these traits, the more conscientious they tend to act.
Within the creative process, we find the narrower traits of self control and “grit,” which University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found to be more integral to children’s scholarly success than IQ.
“Highly conscientious employees do a series of things better than the rest of us,” says University of Illinois psychologist Brent Roberts, who studies conscientiousness.
To start, they’re better at goals: setting them, working toward them, and persisting amid setbacks. They are “wanters” who are good at knowing what’s important, and then knowing which activities and decisions are most significant to creating an alternative future. If a super ambitious goal can’t be realized, they’ll keep investing in new action and making adjustments – much like a boat pilot blown off course.
Rather than getting discouraged and giving up, the conscientious individual uses opposition to step up their efforts, become resourceful, and try new responses and experiments until the learning leans toward new capacities and support the creation of the goal. As a result, they tend to achieve goals that are consistent and reliable. They don’t compromise midway, they have a lab mentality as if everything is practice, and instead of taking things personally during setbacks, they look to the external and find what activates them on behalf of adjusting their course of action.
Roberts also attributes success to “hygiene” factors. Conscientious people have a tendency to organize their lives well. A disorganized, non-conscientious person might lose 20 or 30 minutes rooting through their files to find the right document – an inefficient experience conscientious folks tend to avoid. By being conscientious, people sidestep stress they’d otherwise create for themselves. They get organized to create what they want.
Being conscientious “is like brushing your teeth,” Roberts says. “It prevents problems from arising.”
Conscientious people also tend to follow rules and norms. You can spot the conscientious kids in the classroom. They sit in their chairs, don’t complain, and don’t act out — which also, of course, contributes to earning good grades from teachers. While conscientiousness doesn’t correlate with high SAT scores, it does predict a high GPA.
To spot conscientious people, Roberts says to look for punctuality. If someone shows up on time, that’s a great clue toward conscientiousness, since a punctual person has to be organized enough – and care enough – to arrive on time.
The bigger (and less visible) indicator is how people deal with setbacks… Do they give up or redouble their efforts? THIS IS HUGE IN HIRING INTERVIEWS. Asking for examples of these comebacks and figuring out puzzles, conscientious behavior implies a different type of commitment to a job well done. Managing emotional tension is key here. A more conscientious person stays tuned to the most important goal, and sees working towards the creation of that goal as its own reward.
Both of these traits – punctuality and methods of dealing with setbacks – are recognizable early. They can be indicators of potential even among young people or inexperienced, entry-level employees because they require a kind of conscientiousness that is self-generated and pervasive throughout behaviors and professional settings. As such a person grows within an organization, they may develop new skills and knowledge, but their core conscientiousness stays with them.
“The conscientious person is going to have a plan,” Roberts says. “Even if there is a failure, they’re going to have a plan to deal with that failure.”
Failsafes are like negative preparation. This is where an analytical way of attending to a problem becomes critically important to seeing a path through the issues at hand.
We use a tool called The Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) to predict this conscientiousness. If you know someone who’d like to see where they are on this scale, we’d love to help!
So… Can this trait be developed? Yes!
By mastering the creative process as a skill. It’s all about forming structural tension, and utilizing the difference between the current reality and future vision to bring forth the behavior needed to get better at creating desired outcomes.
You might even say that intelligence is at its greatest when your brain is working toward the creation of a meaningful goal, one that is separate from what you know. By learning to create it, the generative, dynamic urge to bring the goal to fruition is the armature and engine of becoming more effective.
Underneath these skills and intelligence, however, is still the core value of conscientiousness. It is the element of character that creates curiosity, compassion, awareness of surroundings and the motivations of others, and what allows people to focus their attention on the things that matter most.
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