Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Is conscientiousness under-rated in rewarding success?

Published 12 November 2012 05:59, Updated 26 February 2013 11:39

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Is conscientiousness under-rated in rewarding success?

“We should all be concerned that our system may be too extreme in rewarding conscientiousness and punishing creativity,” former Wired writer Eric Barker says. Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

If you want to be successful in life, it won’t be your native brilliance that will get you there, or your winning personality. It will be something as dull as . . . conscientiousness.

Oh dear. How unexciting and sensible. The ability to “get stuff done” is the key. Yawn.

According to former Wired writer, Eric Barker, conscientious people have higher incomes and job satisfaction, are faster at getting a job, have better marriages, are healthier and live longer.

However, he questions to what degree the character trait is universally good, or whether or society is merely structured to reward it.

“Our schools love to pay creativity lip service, but those aren’t the students that get celebrated,” he writes in his blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

Quoting from Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Barker notes that though we value creativity and independence, these traits are not rewarded at school or in the workplace.

“Are you a creative person? Want to be a CEO? Good luck,” he writes.

“I have no doubt that conscientiousness is a valuable trait pretty much anywhere. To be blunt, having your shit together is a respectable quality.

“But we should all be concerned that our system may be too extreme in rewarding conscientiousness and punishing creativity,” says Barker.

There is no doubt that being a “conch” gets you good marks at school and at university and makes you popular with the teachers, and there is also research that shows people require 10,000 hours of practise to achieve mastery in a field of endeavour.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that success in any field is – in a large part – applying the “10,000 hours rule”. However, I think he under plays the impact of natural talent.

In looking at the performance of music school students, for example, he notes that those who practised most achieved the greatest mastery, but I think that all of the students at the school would have had prodigious natural talent in the first place and it makes sense that hours of practice would set them apart.

If you took someone who loved music and desperately wanted to master an instrument, but had little natural talent, I think it unlikely that any amount of practice would get them to the top of such a class.

The question is, if you are a laid back and pretty haphazard person, can you develop conscientiousness?

Well, apparently we can.

“Conscientiousness, a trait marked by organisation and discipline, and linked to success at work and in relationships, was found to increase through the age ranges studied, with the most change occurring in a person’s 20s”, according to an article for the American Psychological Association.

Many of us can remember shaking off the languor of our teenage years to cram for our end-of-school exams, showing formerly unsuspected levels of discipline and willpower. The challenge is to keep it up.

The facets of conscientiousness are:

  1. Competency: confidence in your own ability.
  2. Dutifulness: the strength of your sense of duty and moral obligation.
  3. Achievement-Striving: your drive for success.
  4. Self-Discipline: your ability to persist at difficult tasks until they’re finished.
  5. Cautiousness: your tendency to think things through before acting.

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