One of the most valued personality traits in the workplace is conscientiousness. Employees who are higher in conscientiousness are generally better performers, engage in lower levels of counterproductive work behavior, are more satisfied in their jobs, and are more committed to their organizations. However, there are instances where conscientious employees may be vulnerable to burnout. New research (Venkatesh et al., 2021) examines contexts in which conscientious employees may be more vulnerable to ambiguity in workplace procedures and policies compared to their less conscientious coworkers.
For example, work during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed dramatically, as many people have switched to telework or virtual meetings. Because of this change, work expectations may lack clarity or consistency, provide a lower level of autonomy, and involve decreased consequences for individual behavior.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
In their study, the researchers surveyed 474 individuals working in the hospitality industry before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Results from their analysis show that participants reported more ambiguity at work during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic.
When highly conscientious employees experienced more ambiguity in their work, they experienced increased strain and decreased job satisfaction. Further, this effect occurred because conscientious employees experienced more job demands and worked more hours. Interestingly, this trend was not the case pre-pandemic, as conscientiousness was associated with higher job satisfaction and low strain.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results of this study suggest that when work contexts become more ambiguous, conscientious employees will generally perform well. However, these employees are at much higher risk of burning out and being less satisfied with their jobs because employers may demand more of them. Further, conscientious employees may set higher internal standards for themselves and work more hours when expectations from the employer are less clear.
There are multiple ways that managers and employers can mitigate these risks. The researchers suggest that managers should be aware that their conscientious employees working remotely may be working longer hours than expected and may skip breaks or leisure activities. Additionally, managers should closely monitor work hours and perform wellness checks. Finally, employers should strive to set clear expectations and policies. For example, they may choose to limit or prohibit emails and conference calls outside of work hours.
Venkatesh, V., Ganster, D. C., Schuetz, S. W., & Sykes, T. A. (2021). Risks and rewards of conscientiousness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(5), 643-656.