Claudine likes to plan. In fact, her 6-month, 1-year, and 5-year plans are broken down into sequential steps, cross-referenced and neatly filed. She takes great pleasure in methodically crossing off each goal as she achieves it. Every entry in her diary — written in her spare, precise script — is colour-coded. She is the high priestess of the to-do list, and runs her life with an efficiency that would make a sergeant-major swoon with delight.
Because she can’t work in her host country, Claudine has devoted herself to running the Welcoming Committee at her expat organization. The coffee mornings for newcomers used to be easygoing affairs, but Claudine’s coffee mornings run like clockwork. With the President about to repatriate, Claudine has set her sights on the top job, but many worry that Claudine — with her insistence on rules and regulations — is too controlling.
Layla has heard about the newcomer coffee mornings at the expat women’s club. She keeps meaning to go, but somehow never manages to make it. She promised to go with her neighbour last week, but forgot all about it and went shopping instead. Now she wants to apologize but can’t find the scrap of paper on which she scrawled her neighbour’s phone number. She starts rifling through the untidy heaps of paper strewn around her house (noting idly that she really should finish unpacking the shipment that arrived four months ago) when a friend calls to invite her to lunch. The apology is set aside for another day.
What is Conscientiousness?
Conscientiousness refers to a tendency to be meticulous and responsible. People like Claudine, who score high on the conscientiousness continuum, are reliable, persevering, and achievement-oriented. They are masterful planners, blessed with a laser-like focus that vaporizes distractions. This combination of self-discipline, impulse control, and an uncanny ability to keep their eye on the prize means they’re highly regarded by employers who value efficiency, persistence, and attention to detail. Studies have shown that conscientiousness is related to expatriate work adjustment.1
Conscientiousness has a dark side, however. At its most extreme, it can lead to rigidity and perfectionism. Prudence can turn into over-cautiousness and a disinclination to budge outside of one’s comfort zone. Thoroughness can become obsessiveness. People who score extremely high for conscientiousness risk becoming workaholics.
At the other end of the spectrum we have people like Layla, who exhibit a lack of conscientiousness. They can be characterized as careless, undependable, and disorganized. Their impulsivity, lack of discipline, and preference for instant gratification make planning and goal-setting difficult. They are forgetful, fickle, scatterbrained, and likely to quit when the going gets tough. With no ambition, direction, or self-discipline, it’s little wonder that those who lack conscientiousness are low achievers.
What does Conscientiousness mean for expats?
I have a feeling that high scorers and low scorers probably have different host country affinities. Those of us at the bottom of the pile (I scored 21: “You tend to do things somewhat haphazardly”) would probably be more content in locations that have a more flexible approach to time (mañana!) and take a fairly lax view of rules and regulations. High scorers might prefer a more orderly, regulated society.
No matter where they end up, superior organizational skills mean conscientious expats have the advantage right out of the starting gate. Researching the prospective host country, setting up a look-see visit, arranging visas — these are just a few of the many items on the interminable expat to-do list. Speed and efficiency in these matters can lead to a more positive outcome. Graebel International and The Interchange Institute asked expats how long it took them to do 18 settling-in tasks (unpacking boxes, etc.) Those who performed these tasks more quickly “felt more settled, were more positive about the assignment, and settled in faster. They were also less stressed about living in the new country.”
Possibly the most beneficial aspect of conscientiousness is the ability to set goals. Expats who have a sense of purpose, clear goals, and a practical plan for achieving them may escape the aimlessness that many expats — particularly spouses — sometimes feel. Merely scheduling activities into their days can provide direction and stave off emptiness.
I say “may,” because as we all know, life doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to cooperate with the plans we make. The famous Yiddish proverb sums this up perfectly: Man plans, God laughs. Not everything can be organized, scheduled, or controlled. Those who score lower on the scale, and are more willing to go with the flow in a new cultural environment, open themselves up to serendipity. So many of those “wow” moments expats experience aren’t on the itinerary; they come from occasionally leaving the guided tour and wandering off on our own little voyage of discovery.
Please remember that personality is multi-faceted, and that each of the Big Five traits is made up of many sub-traits. Focusing on a single trait without taking into account the complex interplay among the many aspects of personality can lead to a distorted impression. Also keep in mind that Claudine and Layla represent the extremes of the conscientiousness spectrum, while most of us are found somewhere in the middle. That said, scoring high or low is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — it just is.
This is Part 3 in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. Previous posts in the series are:
Next up: Extraversion
1Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Koh, C. (2006). Personality correlates of the Four-Factor Model of Cultural Intelligence. Group & Organization Management, 31(1), 100-123.