Are conscientiousness and creativity mutually exclusive? In our schools, businesses and organisations, do we over-reward conscientiousness and discipline and underrate creativity and independence. What is the effect of this on human beings, productivity, inspiration and innovation?


A string of books has been written about this through the decades, with many researchers pinpointing conscientiousness and discipline as the number one behaviours children need to learn. They maintain that these traits, more than any others, help people to lead satisfying, successful, happy lives.

In an article in Time Health by Eric Barker, August 22, 2014, titled: Science Points to the Single Most Valuable Personality Trait, he says that conscientiousness (orderliness, discipline, industriousness, efficiency, responsibility) is the trait that best-predicted workplace success. In his research on personality, what intrigues psychology professor Brent W. Roberts, University of Illinois, United States, about conscientiousness is that it predicts so many outcomes that go far beyond the workplace.

Research indicates that people who are high in conscientiousness tend to get better grades in school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer—and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

There had to be a backlash to this and it has come from the Millennials, a notable number of whom do not rate consciousness or discipline at all. They associate these traits with ‘boring, uninspired and old-fashioned’; some even shun these traits as negative creativity blockers. Are they onto something or have they found the perfect excuse to be late, slack and disrespectful of other people’s time to the detriment of productivity and their own personal and career development?

In an article titled ‘If You Permit It, You Promote It’, written by workflow coach, Sara Caputo, published on LinkedIn in July 2017, she writes: “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you all know that employee who always shows up at least 17 minutes late, completely oblivious that an apology and/or explanation is common courtesy? Yes, that one, the one who answers everything with “no problem,” though in fact there are tons of huge problems created by him and his cavalier attitude. Well, he’s not going to change on his own … Here’s the thing: Unwanted behaviours need to be addressed with clear and direct communication. Turning a blind eye does not solve the problem. In other words, “If you permit it, you promote it.”

She strongly believes that managers and leaders at every level have to immediately shut down unconscientious, undisciplined behaviour and that they need it clearly stated in the company or organisation’s rules of conduct as being unacceptable.

The danger here is not the requirement for the conscientious and disciplined practices of good timekeeping and punctuality. These are given. The danger is when conscientiousness and discipline are rated above all else, then what happens to innovation, curiosity, independence and creativity?

Do you land up with an office full of conscientious, disciplined drones who get the work done but who will never drive the organisation, venture or themselves to the heights that could be achieved? Does elevating two characteristics above all others not run the risk of cultivating mediocrity?

Many researchers say it does and one of the reasons for this is that while conscientiousness and discipline are rightly praised, we don’t often hear equal praise and reverence for curiosity, creativity and independence.

In his book ‘Creativity’, distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate University, United States, interviewed 91 groundbreaking individuals across a number of disciplines, including 14 Nobel Prize winners. He maintains that curiosity and drive are paramount personality traits and that successful creative people have them in abundance. The combination is their formula for achievement.

He added that schools and higher education did not seem to have had a profound effect on many famous creative people and they did not necessarily shine academically but what they always had more than others was curiosity.

The qualities of curiosity, creativity, drive and independence are far more complex to manage than conscientiousness and discipline, and educators, managers and leaders too often prefer to pursue the narrow road of codes and conduct.

Teachers reward discipline, according to American economists and social theorists, Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis. They all say they love creative students but many don’t. According to Bowles and Gintis, ‘favourite student’ preferences negatively correlated with creativity; while ‘least favourite student’ positively correlated with creativity.

They said the workplace is no different and that managers and supervisors tended to judge staff members the way teachers judge students. They gave low ratings to employees with high levels of creativity and independence and high ratings to those with high levels of tact, punctuality, dependability and delayed gratification.

These are respectable qualities but if what they say is true, we need to investigate whether our system is rewarding conscientiousness and discipline while punishing creativity, curiosity and drive.

My take is that we need to stop drawing lines in the sand; we need to re-look at our definitions and distinctions because many of the world’s creative geniuses demonstrate high levels of conscientious and discipline in their work. In the same vein, Millennials who disregard conscientiousness and discipline as being uncreative are on a losing track as both are essential to creativity and achievement.

Which isn’t to say that creative people are consistently conscientious and disciplined in all areas of their lives. Einstein was consummately conscientious and disciplined about his work, but at the same time, he was not conscientious about taking care of his first wife and children’s needs.

There are many contradictory characteristics in the human personality that managers and leaders need to continuously study to better understand. When countries pick their national rugby sides do they pick the player who is a good, conscientious, disciplined player and yes-man or do they pick the slightly less conscientious, less disciplined, brilliant player who is a real game-changer but who needs more complex leadership and management? There is no set answer: therein lies the challenge and opportunity of leadership.

We know that creative, brilliant people can be exasperating because they do not always follow the rules. They very often take a contrary approach and express their own strong views and volatile emotions but without them, the world would be a less brilliant, less inspiring, less interesting place.

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Issue 58