The Downside of Too Much Personality

The “Big Five” factors of personality are broad dimensions used to describe human personality. The factors are openness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. In a number of research studies, across a wide variety of job types, conscientiousness has been the best of the Big Five at consistently predicting job performance. A meta-analysis on emotional intelligence (EI) that I described here recently confirmed that conscientiousness has a direct effect on job performance.

Conscientiousness people are dependable, persistent, organized, and goal directed. As employees, they tend to be more motivated to perform well on the job; however, excessively conscientious folks can be so focused on their goals that they become rigid and inflexible.

Is it possible that too much strength of personality can be a weakness?

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined the relationship between conscientiousness and job performance. The study also examined how this relationship might differ between high complexity and low complexity jobs. High complexity jobs (e.g. accountant, financial analyst, scientist, and engineer) require accuracy, creativity, and non-routine tasks, while low complexity jobs (e.g. bank teller, bookkeeper, administrative assistant) involve routine tasks requiring speed and accuracy.

The study found a curvilinear relationship between conscientiousness and performance that was most pronounced for low complexity jobs. This means that higher levels of conscientiousness resulted in higher levels of performance up to a point. Beyond that point, more conscientiousness lead to decreased performance. For high complexity jobs, the drop in performance was very slight, but for low complexity jobs the drop in performance occurred sooner and was significant (see below). The study also examined the relationship between emotional stability (calm, steady under pressure) and job performance, and found the same curvilinear effects.

The implications are pretty clear. For your jobs that are highly complex, selecting and promoting highly conscientious employees is one of the best things you can to do facilitate performance. For your less complex, more routine jobs, keep in mind that too much of strength can be a weakness. The best employee for some jobs is the very good one, not the great one.


Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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