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  • Ben Kettle

Conscientious Hardos In Decline💪📉

Employers value conscientious workers. But they're naive to the downsides.


In this post, we'll discuss conscientiousness - the upside, the downsides, and why many employers overvalue it. As a nice little bonus, we'll also learn how NASA avoids inter-astronaut conflict.


 


The Basics


Conscientiousness is a long word that means diligent, hardworking, driven, etc. It's a Big Five personality trait (for whatever that's worth), a crucial component of "character," and people who score high in conscientiousness live a long time.


Conscientious people are often seen as disciplined and reliable, which means that most employers LOVE the idea of hiring them. There's even a cottage industry of "Conscientiousness Assessments" that you can buy to test yourself or your candidates.[1]


If I approached you, a hiring manager, and said, "Hey, I have five candidates for this job, and they all are super self-disciplined and reliable. Is that OK?" You'd respond with, "WTF is wrong with you? Of course, yes, give them to me!"[2]


But here's the thing - your response may not be the right one.

 

The Downside of Conscientiousness


Being highly conscientious has its drawbacks. Let's take a look at a few of them.


Conscientiousness is Mockable


Overly conscientious people are extremely mockable. My mom calls them "Sunnies" [3], the kids these days refer to them as "Hardos," and social media is littered with memes and videos that capture the a-little-too-conscientious vibe well.



Now, on its own, being ripe for parody doesn't mean that conscientiousness is a bad personality trait. But like all jokes, there's some real and, in this case, proven truth at the core.


NASA Screens for the "moderately" conscientious


For example, you'd think NASA would want astronauts who score very high in conscientiousness. After all, they're preparing to send humans to go to MARS. The more thorough, detailed-oriented people they have headed there, the better, right?


Wrong. NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) simulates the isolated, stressful, prolonged environments required for a mission to Mars. Here's what they found:


[NASA] Psychologists also measure conscientiousness. That may sound like a crucial quality for a trip to Mars. But, on average, crew members selected these days for missions in HERA score moderately in this respect.
Research in HERA has shown that people who score very highly on conscientiousness are more likely to be seen by others as a hindrance. To others, the conscientious person can feel like a nag.

Sure, Mars astronauts must be reliable and have good character. But it's even more critical that they don't nag each other to death in space.[4]


Highly conscientious people can struggle with change


In a study of decision-making ability subjects who scored lower in conscientiousness made better decisions on tasks that had an unexpected change. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. If you're overly committed to seeing something through no matter what, you'll struggle to adapt given new information.


Anecdotally I've seen this tension play out at fast-growing companies. As a company scales it's tempting to hire people from much larger, mature employers. The idea is that the big company candidates bring with them the practices and skills that they obtained from their previous employer. In practice, and again, this is just my experience, those large company hires often struggle with the pace, lack of process, and pivots that are hallmarks of a hyper-growth environment. Again, being highly conscientious is a gift if the environment is stable, if it's not, there tends to be a struggle.

 

Wrapping Up


Cards on the table here, I've struggled with my own perceived lack of conscientiousness.[5] I often feel like I give up on things too quickly, and lack grit or discipline. But digging into "conscientiousness" has made me realize that, like any personality trait, context matters. There's a time when you should prize conscientiousness, and there's a time when you shouldn't. Being intelligent and humble enough to know when to be what is the real trick.


In a later post, we'll talk about how to screen for conscientiousness productively.


In the meantime, rest easy knowing that those overly conscientious people that annoy you probably annoy everyone else too.


 

Footnotes and Other Stuff

  1. These are overwhelmingly self-reported assessments with questions like "Do you work hard?" In other words, they're mostly trash. There are better ways to measure conscientiousness.

  2. A 2021 Indeed survey called out 14 (maybe 13?) traits that employers look for in all employees regardless of role. Conscientiousness was one and three of its synonyms also made the list.

  3. My mom calls me "Sunnie" frequently. I'm not proud of that.

  4. If anyone from NASA is reading this, I score moderately high on conscientiousness (self-reported, of course). I'm also (sort of) available for pretend trips to Mars.

  5. I've been diagnosed with ADHD - which, you guessed it, is associated with lower conscientiousness.

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