Human ResourcesPeer-Reviewed Research

Too Much Of A Good Thing

  • Companies are often right to assume that a worker with more of a certain appealing trait will perform better.
  • But new research suggests that the personality/performance link might not always be straightforward.
  • Some employee qualities that are generally appealing, such as conscientiousness, can be less than useful in large doses.

Let’s say you’re a CEO and need a manager. Human Resources has narrowed your choices to two candidates. Both look equally qualified, except for one detail. The first candidate ranks slightly above average in conscientiousness: a good thing. The second candidate is extremely conscientious. A great thing, right?

Not always.

Traditional research assumes a linear relationship between personality traits and performance. In other words: More of a good thing is better.

But a growing body of data-driven research suggests that, at least in some work settings, the link between personality and performance may not be a straight line. In these cases, certain characteristics may be useful only up to a point. After that point, the value-add may taper off. And in some cases, the traits can stunt performance.

Take conscientiousness. A not-so-conscientious worker likely will do sloppy or erratic work, whether in manufacturing, health care, sales or virtually any other endeavor. Too much conscientiousness, though, can be worse. A super conscientious worker, many managers know, can be plagued by perfectionism, inflexibility or paralysis.

So when might too much of a good thing turn bad?

A recent paper coauthored by Frederick Oswald, a professor of psychology and management at Rice, addresses one piece of this puzzle. Oswald and his team conducted computer simulations to see what might happen when companies assume a simple more-is-better relationship between good traits and good performance. Their results suggested there can be a cost when this assumption goes wrong.

Oswald also led experiments in the U.S. Navy that reached a similar finding. When subjects performed more than one task on a computer monitor in normal conditions, exceptional conscientiousness levels had little effect on the outcome. But when the tasks were speeded up in an “emergency,” conscientiousness had a negative effect. Paying too much attention to detail on one task, the data suggested, undermined performance on other tasks.

Relationships like these may vary across jobs, personality measures and performance criteria. For an individual business, ferreting out when the personality/performance connection goes nonlinear requires broad, field-specific research on large samples. That’s why most companies still hire on the assumption that more of a good thing is better.

In general, this approach does work. But in the near future, cutting edge research and big data business insights together may reveal more complex yet stable relationships between personality and employee outcomes. For employees, this could raise performance, satisfaction and engagement. For firms, it could boost effectiveness.

Until then, as so often, old-time wisdom still has a place in business. Moderation in all things. Well, almost all. It really is possible, as Oswald shows, to hire too much of a good thing.

Frederick Oswald is a professor of psychology and management at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Converse, P. D., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Thinking ahead: Assuming linear versus nonlinear personality-criterion relationships in personnel selection. Human Performance, 27, 61-79.

Also please see: Oswald, F. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Jones, L. A., & Ghumman, S. (2007). SYRUS: Understanding and predicting multitasking performance (NPRST-TN-07-5). Millington, TN: Navy Personnel Research, Studies and Technology.