Hiring in past generations meant looking for team members who were driven, assertive, maybe even a little aggressive in pursuing their goals. Phrases like "dog eat dog" and "rat race" were coined for a reason, after all. Capitalism is a competition both in between teams and inside them, right?

But a new study finds the personality trait that predicts success at work more than any other is associated with a very different tendency: I'm talking about conscientiousness.

"Conscientiousness is the most potent, non-cognitive predictor of workplace performance," says University of Toronto-Scarborough researcher and study leader Michael Wilmot, in a release.

When we talk about personality, conscientiousness means being diligent, considerate of others, orderly, in control of oneself, and generally playing by the rules.

Perhaps not surprisingly, research has shown for years this overall trait is a strong predictor for all sorts of key positive outcomes such as academic and work success, marital stability, a long life and well-being.

For the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, data was used from dozens of earlier studies across countries, occupations, and career milestones, from education to job application and evaluation. Researchers looked at how conscientiousness relates to 175 work-related variables including motivation, performance, and emotional well-being. 

It turns out conscientiousness has a far stronger impact on these variables than other personality traits such as extroversion, which is often extolled in the workplace and linked to predicting success.

"One of the more interesting things is that it predicts an absence of counterproductivity really well," says Wilmot, now a research scientist at the Human Resources Research Organization. "People who are higher in conscientiousness just don't engage in those types of destructive, disruptive behaviors."

This might not be all that surprising: that being thoughtful is a plus when working with other humans, or that it also correlates with being goal-oriented, reliable, and dependable.

But the study did reveal that conscientiousness isn't as strong a superpower in all settings. Wilmot said the positive benefits of the trait did appear to be a little weaker in high complexity jobs. 

"It will be important for organizations to consider other measures, such as cognitive ability measures or other personality measures like openness to better forecast performance in more complex jobs," he says.

In recent years there's been lots of research and talk about the importance of traits like self-control and grit, which is really a monosyllabic way of saying perseverance. But Wilmot suggests they're really a part of the same larger trait.

"It's kind of like conscientiousness is the mother construct and these are the children -- these sub-traits fall under the umbrella of conscientiousness."

So remember team, it's back-scratching over backstabbing. Consensual, workplace-appropriate back-scratching, that is. A conscientious person will know what I mean.

Published on: Nov 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.