Be an Enabler… of Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a trait that affects job performance across almost all occupations. This is not surprising, as highly conscientious people tend to be very focused, orderly, planful, diligent, hard working and loyal, all characteristics that are valuable for success in most jobs. The conscientiousness of job applicants is often assessed using interviews or personality tests during the selection process. However, recent research indicates that selecting the most conscientious applicants does not necessarily mean they will be highly effective performers. Two important factors must also be considered: (1) leadership and (2) how it interacts with a person’s level of conscientiousness to influence job performance.  In other words, conscientiousness often must be enabled by organizational leaders.

Goal-Focused Leadership

The work environment is significantly shaped by supervisors’ leadership behaviors. Supervisors demonstrate goal-focused leadership when they communicate to their subordinates the valued goals of the organization. Goal-focused leadership influences the extent to which conscientious behavior is expressed in the workplace. Effective goal-focused leaders provide cues that shape expectations about work behavior. Workers higher in conscientiousness pick up on conscientiousness-valued cues provided by leaders, which allow them to express their natural personality tendencies toward achievement striving, diligence, planning, persistence, etc. On the other hand, people who are low in conscientiousness (i.e., more impulsive, less persistent, less detail-oriented) may not pick up on the same cues as well as their more conscientious coworkers. Highly conscientious workers tend to receive higher performance ratings than low conscientious workers when goal-focused leadership is present. However, when goal-focused leadership is not present, employees low and high in conscientiousness tend to receive similar, average performance ratings.

Goal Congruence: Leadership-Person Interaction

One of the factors that partially explains why goal-focused leadership results in more conscientious employees receiving superior performance ratings is the effect of that type of leadership on aligning the goals of employees with the goals of their organization. Conscientious employees pay attention to the goal-focused messages delivered by their supervisors and act in accordance with them. Such goal matching does not appear to occur with less conscientious employees. As with performance, when goal-focused leadership is low, levels of employee-organization goal matching are similar for both low-level and high-level conscientiousness employees.

Practical Implications

Considering the above points, some recommendations can be drawn for best implementing these findings in the workplace:
  • Measure applicant conscientiousness as part of the hiring process. Although conscientiousness by itself may not be enough to increase performance, instituting greater goal-focused leadership can result in more productive outcomes if the employees being lead are more conscientious.  One of the best ways to measure conscientiousness is with reliable, validated personality inventories that were developed to assess that trait.
  • Promote a goal-focused leadership style among supervisors/managers. Supervisors should be encouraged to communicate goals that are clear, specific, concise, realistic, and aligned with the performance needs of the organization.
  • As part of goal-focused leadership, ensure that employees’ work goals are consistent with those of the organization.  Use employee surveys, focus groups, or even just informal discussion to assess to what extent goal-focused leaders are getting their messages across to workers.
It should be acknowledged that, while not true in all cases, in many instances a lack of clear goals may leave many employees confused over their roles and expectations. Clearly communicating valued goals can enable conscientious employees to act on their work-related dispositional tendencies, which allows them do what they do best.

Don Johnson


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Colbert, A. E., & Witt, L. A. (2009). The role of goal-focused leadership in enabling the expression of conscientiousness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 790-796.