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Alva Guide to The Big Five: Conscientiousness Explained

Conscientiousness: more than discipline?

‘Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day’, said American entrepreneur Jim Rohn.

Rohn, born into poverty, went on to become a self-made dollar millionaire by the age of 30, and would go on to write several books on how to become successful. He attributed his own achievements to the power of ambition, hard work, and discipline – perfectly in line with the American dream.

Although there’s some truth to Rohn’s claim, the statement still begs the question: why do these ‘simple disciplines’ come easily to some of us, while others struggle to keep them going for even a few days? One part of the answer is that we differ on the Big Five trait called Conscientiousness.

From school grades, to saving for pensions and job performance in most types of roles, this personality trait has turned out to be predictive of a number of life outcomes. Let’s start by defining what this characteristic is all about.

Conscientiousness defined

Ever since the first scientific studies of personality, researchers have identified a theme that comes close to conscientiousness. This trait refers to being disciplined, industrious, organised, mindful of rules, and having a strong sense of responsibility towards other people. High Conscientiousness helps an individual to sustain focused effort, avoid distractions, and follow social norms.


Most people can recall noticing this trait already among their childhood peers: early on, some kids tend to keep their rooms tidy, get to school on time, note down their homework (including the deadline), and make an effort to do well in both school and extracurriculars. While others have rooms in constant disarray, frequently arrive late, forget their homework, and are more interested in other things than good grades.

Multiple factors contribute to conscientiousness

Of course, there can be multiple factors contributing to such differences: varying levels of maturity, different parenting styles or cultural backgrounds. But a substantial element of this difference is also attributable to differences in Conscientiousness. What is interesting is that

when we assess personality with the Big 5, we find consistent levels of Conscientiousness from childhood into adulthood.

Each of the Big 5 personality traits comprise smaller, more defined facets; these can also be measured, to help us understand personality.

The 3 facets of Conscientiousness

Alva’s assessment defines three facets of Conscientiousness, which are all closely mirrored in other well-validated Big Five assessments: Goal-striving, Carefulness, and Orderliness.

Conscientiousness and Goal-Striving

The first facet, Goal-striving, relates to results orientation. If we think of each facet as a persona, this is the ambitious, hard-working doer who loves to set a goal and then strive to achieve it. People with high results on Goal-striving tend to get started on tasks easily and are not satisfied until they’ve finished them.

Conscientiousness and Carefulness

While Goal-striving is about getting things done, Carefulness is more about getting things done right. High results on this facet indicate

  • a willingness to abide by rules, regulations, and instructions
  • a desire to meet deadlines, come up with the right answer, and have a strong sense of responsibility towards others
  • thoughtful about decisions and seldom act on impulse

Conscientiousness and Orderliness

Orderliness is a more narrow facet of Conscientiousness than the first two. This concerns the tendency to be structured, tidy, and organised – both literally and figuratively. The orderly individual likes to keep both their homes and their work tasks ‘clean’: likely, you would find project plans, to-do lists, and clear distributions of tasks on their work laptop, just as you would find each item in its place in their wardrobe.

Conscientiousness and job performance

Out of the Big Five traits, Conscientiousness is the only one that has clearly and consistently been linked to job performance in almost all job roles.

Conscientiousness is one of the most well-validated predictors of job performance.

Not all that surprising, perhaps. Most workplaces benefit by employing people who are ambitious, hard-working, responsible, and organised. According to researchers Michael Wilmot and Deniz Ones, who performed an ambitious review of existing research, the core feature that makes Conscientiousness so central to job performance is goal-directed behaviour. Conscientious individuals define targets and focus their efforts on attaining them.

Cooperation, citizenship and performance

Conscientiousness is related to a number of performance outcomes – not only how well we perform the tasks listed on our job description. It impacts both task performance and citizenship – that is, all those behaviours that fall outside of our formal role, but that are crucial to the team and organisation.

Conscientious individuals show a willingness to cooperate to attain shared goals. They’re also more likely to act with integrity at work, and less likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviours such as unwarranted absenteeism, stealing, and lying.

In other words, it’s not only good task performance that makes conscientious individuals appreciated at work. They’re also more prone to show behaviours associated with being a valuable colleague.

Conscientiousness and passion for the world of work

Conscientiousness also indicates a sort of general passion for work: a recent meta-analysis found that Conscientiousness was an important factor in explaining how engaged employees are at work.

This is an interesting nuance to the common narrative, which typically emphasises the need for organisations to make employees engaged. What the above research shows is that individuals with high Conscientiousness bring their engagement with them to any role and organisation.

How conscientiousness predicts outcomes

Job performance is far from the only outcome that Conscientiousness can predict. As you would probably expect, this trait is clearly related to motivation and adaptation in school, which explains its link to academic performance. People with high levels of this trait also live longer, get fewer divorces, and engage in less substance use. Overall, they report a higher quality of life.

Group 36

How can this personality trait have such a broad impact? Researchers argue that it stems from the tendency for sustained goal-oriented behaviour, combined with the propensity to avoid acting on impulse. This creates positive cycles of attaining one’s goals, which leads to a sense of accomplishment and improved self-confidence. It also helps conscientious individuals stay out of unhealthy habits and establish healthy ones.

Can conscientiousness be trained?

Considering the importance of conscientiousness for job performance and career success, as well as a number of other life outcomes, it would seem desirable to try to train it. Would this be possible?

Here, it’s important to note the difference between traits and behaviours. Let’s remember that a personality trait indicates a long-standing pattern of thought and behaviour that tends to come naturally to us.

To a large extent they are inherited. However, that doesn’t prevent anyone from temporarily behaving in ways that correspond to that trait. Anyone can make an effort to meet a deadline, reach a goal, or tidy up their desk, given the right circumstances.

What’s a lot more challenging, however, is to change your typical ways of behaving in the long-term. There are some indications that interventions could change traits – the most famous example probably being Angela Duckworth’s studies on developing grit. However, looking at the whole body of evidence, there is still pretty weak support for the possibility of changing Conscientiousness through training interventions.

Can you develop higher Conscientiousness?

Researchers McAdams, Shiner, and Tackett described the conditions that would likely be necessary to develop higher Conscientiousness. Unsurprisingly, they emphasise that

changing this characteristic takes time and effort.

Take the example of filling out a daily planner: this is not likely to shift your conscientiousness in the short term, but if you do it long enough, it might start to become such an established habit that it actually affects your personality.


For this to happen, a change in self-image needs to take place: the person needs to start seeing the behaviour as associated with who they are, not just an external factor. ‘I fill out my planner because I’m a responsible person’.

In the same vein, the authors argue that it’s likely not the grand life events that cause change in conscientiousness, but rather ‘the experiences one has in the daily grind of life’.

Is Conscientiousness a Positive Catch-22 in work?

An additional complicating factor is that those experiences that could lead to higher conscientiousness – taking on roles that entail a lot of responsibility, setting goals and having to work hard to reach them, etc – are more often sought out by individuals with high levels of that trait.

In other words, those who are more conscientious are more likely to look to lead, and are more likely to have the disposition to go through the hard work to attain those positions. A positive catch-22.

But what about thinking outside the box?

When a trait is associated with as many benefits as Conscientiousness, it’s only natural to start wondering: aren’t there any downsides to this trait at all? When would it be beneficial to actually not be so conscientious?

There are very few professional settings where, given the existing evidence, it would be wise to look for low Conscientiousness. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t any nuances to the findings. One in particular could have some bearing on the future of work.


One of the interesting caveats is around Conscientiousness and out-of-the-box thinking. It’s a well-established finding that Conscientious individuals tend to show a preference for stable and predictable environments. They also tend to value security in the workplace.

Overall, the effect of Conscientiousness is stronger in orderly environments, where employees are expected to abide by socially prescribed codes. According to meta-analytic findings, the trait has a much smaller impact on variables that involve change orientation.

Conscientiousness doesn’t seem to be much of a help when it comes to handling ambiguity, using one’s imagination, or going against the grain to suggest non-normative courses of action.

Conscientiousness and Ambiguity

Especially when combined with lower levels of the trait Openness, then, highly conscientious individuals might struggle a bit in environments where ambiguity is very high and clear goal-setting might be difficult.

You might think that consultants and freelancers and consultants might have lower levels of Conscientiousness, with their enjoyment of new environments; however, they tend to be more conscientious that the average employee.

A related finding is that the relationship between Conscientiousness and performance is actually strongest for low- to medium-complexity jobs. Again, it’s clear that Conscientiousness exerts its strongest influence in contexts where the rules of the game are clear; tasks are fairly straight-forward and you can excel by working persistently and adopting the socially desirable behaviours.

Uncertainty and the knowledge economy

In the knowledge economy, where we’re increasingly working under conditions of high uncertainty, this is something that warrants more research. Especially for individuals high on the facet of Carefulness, it could be hard to cope with work settings that lack clear goals and directions.

However, none of this is likely to make Conscientiousness an outdated predictor of performance. The facet of Goal orientation is likely to remain central: even in the most fast-moving and hazy startup environment, there is a need for people who can set goals and work forcefully to get there – the difference is that goals might be harder to define, and also change more often.

High Conscientiousness and flexible environments

Even though Carefulness could create certain difficulties when it comes to thinking outside the box, there are also aspects of this facet that contribute to high performance even in highly innovative environments: putting careful thought into important decisions, sticking to agreements, attending meetings on time.

In other words, it makes more sense to regard the more uncertain and creative future of work as potential challenges for conscientious individuals, rather than as indications that this trait would become less important in recruitment.

Conscientiousness and finding the right fit

Even with a trait as key as Conscientiousness, there's no such thing as a 'perfect' rating on a scale. Because perfection in humans isn't possible!

Understanding what levels are helpful for particular roles, however, can help us to make clearer-eyed decisions about how to build recruitment strategies that allow us to reduce bias by moving away from low-value predictors such as background and years of experience, to assessments that allow you to see people's potential.

As the world of work continues to evolve at a rapid pace, hiring people who can evolve with you will allow you to hire people who will be able to grow up with you and help you meet and deliver every challenge.

Key take-aways for recruitment

It’s no exaggeration to say that conscientiousness is one of the most important factors for predicting job performance. For recruiters, it’s a very valuable tool in almost any hiring process.

  • Almost regardless of the role you’re recruiting for, look for high conscientiousness.
  • The more the role requires structure, goal orientation, and ambition, the more central conscientiousness becomes, and the higher you should set the bar for this characteristic.
  • The only roles where conscientiousness might not be relevant in selection are those that require high levels of creativity and artistic expression, without much focus on deadlines or structured approaches to work.
  • Keep in mind that individuals with high conscientiousness are likely to get stressed and frustrated in work environments that lack clear goals and priorities, or where they are hindered from setting such goals themselves.
  • A potential challenge for highly conscientious individuals – especially when combined with lower Openness – might be to handle highly ambiguous environments, where clear goal-setting is difficult and they’re expected to come up with non-normative solutions.

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Next up in our blog series on the Big Five is Conscientiousness – the trait that has turned out to predict job performance in almost all job roles. But what does conscientiousness mean? And are there any downsides to constantly striving for results and abiding by the deadlines?