Personality effects on adaptability to changing task contexts

While analyzing the interview material from my study on manager's concepts of employee self-directedness (or self-leadership, or self-management - I have trouble zeroing in on only one word here, and also there are translation issues to the Swedish "självgående", meaning literally "self-going"), it seemed that self-directed behaviors were conceptualized in mainly two ways.

The first kind of self-directedness concerns the everyday running of things: keeping things moving, keeping all plates spinning, and seeing things through to the end.

The other kind is a more creative kind of self-direction. The ideal self-directed employee is described as intellectually curious, often intelligent, but most importantly with a will and motivation to learn new things and embrace change.

As I see it, these two kinds of self-directedness roughly correspond to the two personality factors of conscientiousness and openness to experience. With correspond, I mean that conscientiousness would likely correlate with the first kind of behaviors, especially finishing things, while openness would more likely correlate with adapting to new situations and a willingness to learn new things. It seems plausible. So of course, I searched for research in the area and found some studies.

In a very small but interesting study by Le Pine, Colquitt and Erez (2000), it was examined to what extent cognitive ability (intelligence), Conscientiousness, and Openness could predict decision-making performance at two times: one prior to, and one after, unforeseen changes in the task context. The task was a game where the participant was to judge threat levels of aircraft showing up on a radar using 3 "decision rules" - this makes it a rather special situation as the tools for judgment are given and participants "know" that at least one of them is correct. Contrast this with how Weick describes conditions for employees in organizations facing fluctuating environments: you have to search for patterns and order in the information you have with no assurance that it actually exists, and when you do find something you will get no answer as to whether it is correct. The situation in the lab is therefore not very similar to the situation in real life - as is often the problem with lab studies. On the other hand, we can be more confident in cause and effect.

The manipulation performed was that some time through the experiment, which rule was the correct one to use changed without any notification to the participant. Their task was to notice that their procedure was no longer working and to find and use the new relevant rule.

What the researchers found was essentially this: high g (intelligence) and Openness promoted decision-making performance after an unforeseen change, while Conscientiousness lowered it.

Having high g predicted pre-change performance while personality factors did not affect this. After the change, the strength of the g - performance link was increased - high g mattered a lot more for performance after the change than before. And, personality factors became as important for predicting performance, after the change.

This shows that past performance is not necessarily very indicative of future performance - if that future is likely to include changes unforeseen right now. The conscientious person may perform very well right now, but if things change, s/he may, out of a sense of duty and orderliness, have a hard time to throw things overboard as needed to unlearn & relearn quickly.


Le Pine, J., Colquitt, J., & Erez, A. (2000). Adaptability to changing task contexts: Effects of general cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Personnel Psychology, 53, pp. 563-593.