If you were only allowed to look for one thing in a prospective manager, what would it be? Business psychology tells us that it should be ‘brains’, or rather general intelligence, or if you want to be precise, the ‘fluid’ bit of general intelligence. That’s the sort of intelligence that helps you to solve problems you haven’t come across before. Why? Of all the things we could assess, general intelligence – or having sufficient brain power – is the most predictive of work performance. Now if you could pick a second thing (this is getting a bit like the three wishes granted by a genie, I admit), what would that be? Again if we go with what’s most predictive we would have select ‘conscientiousness’ – the personality attribute that’s associated with self-organisation, discipline, thoroughness and a need to achieve. It also happens to be the best predictor across all types of work. And if a third choice was available? Then it would have to be emotional stability: being positive, calm and relaxed and able to take what comes your way.
Do I need to pick anything else? Obviously knowledge and previous experience come into the frame, and it might also be useful to have a sociable (extrovert) manager, and maybe one who was open to new ideas, who was concerned for others, and honest, with a touch of insight… Stop. Actually we’ve already got the top three and we’ve known what they are for at least the last 20 years.
However it’s not quite that simple. Here’s the thing: whilst general intelligence and conscientiousness are both predictive of success at work, they do not correlate with each other; indeed some people have found a negative relationship between the two. What’s going on? As you can probably imagine this has been the subject of much debate. One of the ideas is that a negative relationship is due to fluid intelligence affecting the development of conscientiousness. This has the snappy title of ‘intelligence compensation theory’ and it goes like this: fluid intelligence, being innate, is the most likely to influence a growing personality; and to cut to the chase, what then happens is that those with less intelligence compensate by developing higher levels of conscientiousness – and vice versa for those with higher intelligence. Well, it ties in with the statistics, but as you can imagine it’s rather controversial. Mind you it does help to explain the bright individual who flies by the seat of their pants (low conscientiousness) and who nevertheless tends to get away with it.
But getting back to our prospective manager, perhaps there’s a less esoteric explanation. Conscientiousness is a mix of different attributes, which usually include dutifulness and deliberation on the one hand, and achievement orientation and competence on the other. Thus it’s likely that the dutiful plodder aspects of this personality factor are negatively associated with intelligence; and the achieving, competent, striving bits are positively associated. So could it just be that we’ve been looking at personality at the wrong level?
So here’s the punch line – looking for general intelligence, consciousness and emotional stability is still good advice, but don’t be surprised if those with brains can look like riskier bets because they sometimes get lower overall conscientiousness scores. You’re going to have to dig deeper to find out who you’re really dealing with!
Note: If you’re worried about the other bit of general intelligence, the learnt or ‘crystallised’ aspect, there’s an ongoing argument about whether that is or isn’t related to conscientiousness, and in what combination (or not) with fluid intelligence. Let alone those that think intelligence is part of personality. I expect you get the idea.
Barrick, M.R. & Mount, M.K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1-26.
Moutafi, J., Furnham, A. & Paltiel, L. (2004). Why is conscientiousness negatively correlated with intelligence? Personality and Individual Differences, 37(5), 1013-1022.
Schmidt, F.L. & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-274.
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