“You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you’ve got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.” – Vince Lombardi
Coach Lombardi was right. Intelligence and conscientiousness are the two most accurate predictors of success in both our work and financial lives. And as recruiters and hiring leaders will be interested to know, that applies not just to football players or even males – the persons Lombardi was referring to – but to every worker across every occupation.
The “head” that Lombardi mentioned is what researchers call general mental ability. It denotes not just the knowledge and abilities one has accumulated coming into the job, but also the capacity to gain new knowledge. Highly intelligent people learn things quickly and effectively while on the job.
Conscientiousness is the scientific term for the “heart” that Lombardi was talking about, and it goes by other names, such as integrity, perseverance, resourcefulness, or industriousness. In a strict sense it includes the habits of being well-organized, punctual, disciplined, reliable, mindful, attentive to detail, and inclined to plan ahead.
In the broader context of human performance, conscientiousness also includes a keen awareness of how one’s behavior affects others and shapes the environment in which they perform. While conscientious people have an intrinsic desire to do the job well, they are able to get beyond their own motivations in doing so. They are aware of the difference between minding the details in order to soothe their own neuroses and doing so to satisfy a demanding customer. And in general they know that many others depend on them, and therefore take pains not to hand off problems to their coworkers or customers.
Unlike intelligence, which can vary over a long period of time, conscientiousness is a personality trait and thereby remains stable. It is the only personality trait that consistently predicts success across all occupational categories.
A person of both high intelligence and conscientiousness has the two most potent ingredients for success, and is the sort of job candidate everyone wants to hire.
Evaluating Candidates for Conscientiousness: Right Idea, Wrong Approach
Of course, knowing what traits predict success in future workers is one thing, but being able to evaluate whether candidates have these traits is a whole different ball game.
The most accurate way to measure conscientiousness in a job candidate is to administer a personality test during the application process. Yet in many cases, doing so simply is not feasible, and so it is tempting to take shortcuts.
One restaurant manager attempts such a thing with every person he interviews, leaving a small but conspicuous piece of trash in the path of the candidate as they arrive on site for the interview. A candidate who picks up the trash passes the test and is summarily considered fit for employment, while those who don’t are roundly scrutinized about their decision.
The manager claims to have used this method for the past 20 years to judge integrity and compassion, two critical hiring criteria, and also major components of conscientiousness.
The article doesn’t say whether this test has proven at all effective over its 20 years of administration. But there are a lot of good reasons for properly mannered, prudent candidates to avoid picking up wrappers or soiled food lying in their paths. Those from urban backgrounds will by habit avoid picking up anything in a public spot, especially a wadded up piece of paper that could contain something hazardous. Those from rural backgrounds, such as myself, will assiduously avoid showing up the hosts of any place they’ve been invited, especially by calling attention to its condition, and even more so on the first visit.
The manager has the right idea. Yet by taking such a litmus test approach to a complex personality trait, he has doubtless excluded innumerable highly qualified and conscientious candidates who nevertheless do not share his exact same acculturation. He is most likely hiring on the criterion of being a clone of himself, and not conscientiousness.
How We Can Do Better at Recognizing Conscientiousness
An important takeaway is that conscientiousness is a totality of behaviors that appear habitually across multiple tasks and are not contrived. It cannot be measured on a single parameter, or by some trick question whose purpose could be easily picked up by a wily candidate who just might be expecting it. Put another way, if you select candidates on something that can be easily hacked, expect to hire a lot of people skilled at shortcuts and manipulation.
So let’s look at some ways to detect authentic conscientiousness in candidates, assuming you don’t have the time to administer an unwieldy personality test.
To begin, hiring managers and recruiters need to resist the temptation to assess conscientiousness during the pre-interview phase. During this time they are highly likely to misjudge other personality traits, such as extraversion or openness to experience, as conscientiousness, and give them much more weight than is due.
Likewise, social media, which has become a popular place to vet candidates, tends not to be an accurate indication of a candidate’s conscientiousness. It is best to wait until the actual interview, where sufficient time and attention can be directed toward understanding the heart of the candidate.
Make Each Interview Your Masterpiece
Candidates high in conscientiousness are likely to have prepared for an interview far beyond polishing their shoes or rehearsing stock answers. They will have carefully researched the particular organization, the specific role, and some of the major players both within and outside the organization with whom they might be working if offered the job. Candidates discussing these subjects will effortlessly converse with interviewers, not talk at them.
They are adept at vivid storytelling as they illustrate the value they can bring to the organization, and are particularly mindful to keep themselves in the background of the story. Their narratives exhibit a strong orientation of “what’s in it for them?”, that is, the interviewing team. They limit their speech to two minutes and often conclude by asking the interviewer whether their question was satisfactorily addressed. Within 24 hours following the interview, they write personalized thank you correspondence to the appropriate persons.
Interviewers need to be careful to check their own biases at the door. Interviewers have a strong tendency to favor candidates who exhibit high extraversion and agreeableness. By mistaking those traits for conscientiousness, hiring managers risk making selections based on personality traits that are not strongly associated with high performance, and ultimately hiring the wrong candidate.
Winning isn’t Everything…
After many decades there is still debate whether Coach Lombardi really said,”Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, the quote most often attributed to him.
Conscientious candidates are not apt to misquoting others, nor taking misquoted statements to heart. Rather, they are likely to be aware of some similar words that really did come from Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything – but making the effort to win is.” But even if they weren’t familiar with the exact quote they would be able to demonstrate that they live by it.
And that’s what conscientiousness is, in word and deed.