Choose wisely, they will

Behaviors @ work: conscientiousness

The trait that builds organized, dependable, and productive employees and teams
Behaviors @ work: conscientiousness
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With a background in architecture and business, Alex Dunham, AIA NCARB, is the associate principal and managing director of Ark, a multi-disciplinary studio at HLW focused on the evolving patterns of work and positive organizational change.

Are you an INTJ or an ESTP? Do you express as more sanguine or phlegmatic? What’s your top strength?

These questions may sound familiar if you’ve ever taken a personality assessment. These assessments can be quirky and fun, spark self-reflection, and generate anxiety. Those that like them appreciate that they are fast, deliver personalized feedback, and can be discussed endlessly with friends and colleagues—I’m looking at you, extroverts. For others, they may be unnerving because they lay bare your self-consciousness and force you (if answering honestly) to acknowledge your insecurities.

While Myers-Briggs and CliftonStrengths are favorites in business, the Big Five assessment has gained popularity. Coined by Lewis Goldberg in the 1980s, the Big Five results are organized around levels of openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But the fifth parameter, conscientiousness, has garnered much attention in recent decades for its correlation to positive performance in the workplace. As we delve deeper into new paradigms of hybrid work, might conscientiousness offer the key to unlocking our fullest potential?

The conscientious colleague in a remote world

Envision a co-worker who always seemed highly organized, diligent, and dependable, with an innate sense of duty to the cause. But, perhaps most importantly, they were keenly aware of how their actions impacted others. Can you see them? Likely you enjoyed working with them, as studies have shown that a high degree of conscientiousness can predict the avoidance of counterproductivity in individuals. In short, they are desirable teammates under many circumstances.

Now that hybrid work patterns and physically distributed teams have taken a firm hold of the workplace knowledge sphere; the conscientious are particularly well suited to contribute even more value, given their propensity for self-regulation. With line-of-sight assessment firmly cut off, those that can perform independently allow managers to focus more on outcomes over hours. For many workers, however, a lack of in-person time together remains a consistent barrier to collaboration. It is no longer reasonable to expect knowledge sharing, skill building, or even socializing to happen without intentional effort. Unchecked, a laissez-faire attitude can stunt professional development, reduce employee engagement, and erode culture.

Workplace teams have adopted new behaviors and workflows to combat this challenge. Increased structure has become necessary as the scheduling complexities of hybrid work become apparent. Time blocking has become more common. A renewed focus on the value of asynchronous workflows has also emerged, and with it, the reliance of managers on autonomous work. Given these trends, those who are considerate of risks, methodically focus on achieving goals, persevere, and remain accountable will be well positioned to drive hybrid team success—the conscientious.

The impact of the conscientious on individuals and teams

Workforce conscientiousness can be a double-edged sword. Ironically, employees demonstrating the trait may be prone to additional stress due to their diligence and preference for routine. This was particularly true early in the pandemic as remote work set in. Workaholic tendencies combined with untested patterns often led to increased burnout and reduced job satisfaction. For this reason, teams or individuals in new or unproven hybrid structures must pay close attention to the conscientiously minded. Daniel Ganster, a management professor at Colorado State University, has observed that when structuring teams around these employees, “you need to take more care monitoring work hours, setting boundaries, setting norms, [and] modeling behavior.” Full of potential, conscientious teams must work purposefully to avoid the pitfalls and nurture the benefits.

Remarkably, conscientiousness has also been observed at the group level. The collective version of the trait can, in fact, more powerfully predict team performance than the presence of the trait in individuals. The sky may be the limit for distributed teams with high collective conscientiousness. With purposeful and structured communication, this type of group can match or surpass the intrinsic collaborative value of being together in the office, even when physically apart. Traditional learning by osmosis—the kind of informal education we all receive when looking over a shoulder or chatting around the water cooler—is substituted with proactive discussion and mindful consideration. One may make greater strides (and friends) by curating their work with others in mind rather than simply passing the baton.

Building the skill of conscientiousness: culture, process, and leadership

So, given the power of conscientious thinking, how can companies, leaders, and teams promote the trait in practice? Just as a tree springs from the soil, conscientiousness requires a strong team culture to grow. Shared values of honesty and transparency must be present to establish safety and trust. Teams must have clarity of mission to foster a sense of community and belonging. This drives more frequent and willing contributions toward a shared goal. The real power of conscientious thinking is in its force multiplier effect: mindfulness is contagious.

Culture is just the beginning, however. Successful teams must also invest in ordered processes to leverage results from the trait. Clear, consistent, and truthful communication is a prerequisite. Priorities and division of responsibility must be evident such that teammates appreciate how to push the boundaries of their respective roles and, in doing so, assist others. Robust dialogue also kickstarts knowledge-sharing behavior, which benefits the entire team, just as a rising tide lifts all boats. Reciprocity can nudge even the most hardened introvert into sharing on behalf of the common good.

Likewise, managers are not immune from the change needed to support these endeavors. To ensure employees have the information they need to execute, managers must be accessible (even virtually), engaged, and willing to coach when needed. They might begin by conducting a workflow audit to understand which processes and tasks may be done sequentially and which must be executed in parallel. Where does work happen collaboratively, and where is it truly independent? How do the outcomes of employee A’s assignment affect the inputs to employee B?

Highly conscientious teams will outperform when task work and decision-making are strategically intertwined. The self-aware manager will understand the nuances of these dynamics and shift the group’s thinking toward a new paradigm of performance: one prioritizing results over presence.

If conscientiousness can’t be grown organically, external talent may help fill in the blanks. Long considered to be an example of ‘soft science,’ more and more companies are exploring formalized assessment tools and personality inventories in their recruiting practices. Beyond conscientiousness, evaluations can be customized to identify traits such as curiosity, intuition, or resilience. While there is an implied danger in reducing employee contribution to a formula, one can envision the day when teams are carefully constructed by balancing complementary traits, the way a chef would assemble ingredients for a gourmet meal. Regardless of taste, a sprinkling of conscientiousness will greatly add richness, flavor, and satisfaction to our future teams.