Becoming More Conscientious
Stefano Tasselli, Martin Kilduff, Blaine Landis
Your boss sits you down for some tough feedback: You are not conscientious enough. She points out that you have missed several deadlines and show a pattern of failing to remember important details. At first, you feel defensive — it is just your personality that she’s describing. Hey, I can’t get bogged down in details! I’m a vision guy! Or maybe you blame external factors. I missed that deadline because there was a big snowstorm and the power went out! However, ultimately you realize that the future of your job, and of your career, may depend on responding to your boss’s feedback and appearing more conscientious.
If you have ever gotten feedback like this, and wanted to do something about it, you are not alone. Many people want to change at least some aspect of their personality, and conscientiousness is high on that list. So what does the science say about how you can boost your conscientiousness? Are there specific things you can do to become more conscientious over time?
Many people, including some experts, see personality as relatively stable over time. In other words, you are who you are, and while you may evolve a little, once you become an adult your major traits — your extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and, yes, conscientiousness — won’t change much.
But this widespread belief in the immutability of personality is misplaced. People can and do change their personalities, through self-development, organizational events and processes, and external events. In a recent review, we delved into the research concerning the new science of personality change. What we found is that people may positively change their personalities by increasing their engagement in activities that fit three criteria: They feel important, enjoyable, and they accord with their values.
With this in mind, think about why you may struggle to act conscientiously. For example, if you struggle with details and deadlines, is it because you consider the project you are working on, or the work you are doing, unimportant? Or is the project or the work unenjoyable? Does it conflict with your values? See if you can identify what is getting in your way, and discuss it with your boss. She may be able to explain why some task that seems unimportant to you is important to the success of the business, or she might be willing to assign you to tasks that are a better fit for your abilities.
If you can’t change the tasks you’re assigned — and let’s face it, a boss who sees you struggling is not likely to give you a plum assignment until you have proven you can change — try to change how you think about them.
For example, say that you miss deadlines because you want to keep working on a project until it is perfect. You will struggle to change this behavior if the message you’re telling yourself is, “I guess I just have to turn in shoddy work.” But if you can remind yourself that timeliness is part of high-quality work, you may find it easier to let go when the deadline approaches. Or say you have trouble responding to email in a timely way, because it just doesn’t feel that important — but as a result, you lose track of key messages, causing angst for your colleagues. You probably won’t improve your conscientiousness on this task by gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to answer email more quickly. Instead, think about why replying more quickly might accord with your values. Do you value collaboration and helpfulness? Building relationships? Teamwork? If you learn to see a task in a way that matches your values, you will have an easier time completing it well.
Speaking of your colleagues, how connected to them do you feel? Part of your struggle to act conscientiously may be due to feeling distant from them — after all, it is easier to drop a ball when we don’t feel a strong connection to the person counting on us to catch it. You can thus enhance your conscientiousness by enhancing your interactions with coworkers, inside or outside the workplace. Research shows that investment in activities with colleagues is associated with an increase in a person’s conscientiousness, and de-investment in the social aspects of work can in turn contribute to lower conscientiousness over time. Thus, even recreational activities with colleagues, including attending office retreats, dinners, and drinks, can help you become more detail-oriented by boosting your sense of belonging and obligation to your work community.
Finally, you might try to improve through coaching or clinical intervention. In only four weeks of therapy, people can experience half the amount of change in personality that they usually experience in the entire lifetime. Change is independent of symptom experience, showing that the shift in personality is not due only to symptomatic relief. Moreover, there is no evidence that the effects of interventions fade over time.
Importantly, showing your willingness to become conscientious may be just as important as actually doing it. From an organizational perspective, leaders should evaluate their employees not only on their current behavior and performance but also on how adaptable those employees are. Even if you will never become the kind of super-detail-oriented person who lives for color-coded spreadsheets, you will get a lot of credit for improving — even a little — if you show you are trying hard to do so.
While at first it may feel threatening and destabilizing to have a boss question a fundamental aspect of your personality, we think this is something that healthy organizations should do. When it’s done well, it can mean more of us get to experience personal growth on the job. In a corporate culture that contributes to positive personality development, managers assign people to specific roles and tasks that prompt personality change. This can be challenging, but ultimately it is more rewarding than doing the same thing day after day.