Had you been following the latest psycho literature you would have come away with the sense that empathy is the supreme moral sentiment. Having a capacity for empathy makes you a fine, upstanding moral being. Lacking it makes you a psychopath, a sociopath or a bigot.
While empathy, per se, does not show up on what is called the Big Five personality test, it is lurking in the shadows.
The test measures what it calls personality traits, among them: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. In the study the researchers wanted to see the correlation between one or another of these traits and career success.
Jena McGregor defines them in the Washington Post:
The research examined the careers and personalities of more than 4,500 married people, using a common personality test known as the Big Five. The test measures people on five different traits: extraversion (how outgoing and sociable a person is), agreeableness (how honest and sympathetic someone is, versus suspicious and unfriendly), conscientiousness (how well someone can plan and be productive, rather than be disorganized and impulsive), neuroticism (how anxiety-prone someone is) and openness (how naturally curious and open to change a person is).
Before going any further, let’s note that extraversion (and its cousin, introversion), agreeableness (and its component quality of empathy), neuroticism (a nervous and febrile life style) and openness are personality traits.
Conscientiousness, however, is a character trait. The ability to make a plan and to implement it is not a personality trait. Surely, other parts of conscientiousness involve being responsible and reliable.
So far, so good.
When the researchers examined which personality and character traits translated into greater career success they discovered that:
… those with higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to have higher levels of future job satisfaction. Meanwhile, higher conscientiousness was also tied to better salaries, and greater extraversion was linked with more promotions on the job.
Nothing about this should come as a surprise. People who are more outgoing and more sociable, who get along well with others and who practice those qualities conscientiously, with good manners, are more likely to do well on the job.
Interestingly, people who are more conscientious are more likely to make more money while the extraverts are more likely to get more promotions.
On the negative side, individuals who were particularly agreeable often had lower income and fewer job promotions. And unsurprisingly, those who scored high on the neuroticism traits were also less satisfied with their jobs.
No one is surprised that people who are nervous and suspicious and untrusting are not going to do very well in their careers. And yet, it is somewhat surprising that people who value agreeableness above all else, who share feelings freely and openly are less successful at work.
But, this is not the more interesting part of the study.
That lies in the fact that those who succeed in the business world are more often married to spouses who exhibit one “personality” trait in particular: conscientiousness.
If a man’s wife is conscientious, he will do better on the job. It is, the research suggests, the only wifely trait that really matters for his career success.
If his wife is not conscientious, she might be empathic and agreeable, to say nothing of extraverted and open and even sexy, but her husband will not do as well.
Admittedly, the Washington Post story uses the gender neutral term of spouse. It does make some sense. In a world that is awash in househusbands and female breadwinners, it seems quaint to talk about husbands and wives.
And yet, to avoid confusion, I will use the more traditional terms.
The conclusion, again: a conscientious wife will be an integral part of her husband’s career success. (Until, that is, she faces a judge in divorce court and is told that she should not expect very much alimony. See previous post.)
Why should this be so?
The researchers speculate:
Yet when it came to the effect of a spouse's personality traits on a person's career, only high scores on conscientiousness had any impact, whether positive or negative. Jackson suggests two main reasons for this: One, he says, is that people often emulate their spouses' behavior, meaning a husband's or wife's industriousness and organizational skills might rub off on the other.
The second reason is that when a person's spouse is organized, efficient and hard working, they're probably tackling the bulk of the household chores, freeing their husband or wife up to focus more on his or her job. "You're not as stressed about certain chores or duties that need to be done while you're at work," Jackson says.
The second reason feels far more cogent than the first. As for the question of what does or does not rub off on one’s spouse, it is equally possible that a conscientious individual would choose a conscientious spouse.
Surely, it follows that if a woman has exalted career ambitions, like Sheryl Sandberg, she would do well either to have a conscientious househusband or an extensive household staff.
Unfortunately, McGregor wants to promote chore-sharing, so she misses the second of Jackson’s points. She follows Sandberg blindly when she says that both members of a couple should be sharing household chores equally.
In truth, Jackson’s second point suggested a traditional division of household labor. It is fair to note that if career success depends on being freed of any worry about the home front, the need to share household chores bespeaks one’s spouse’s lack of conscientiousness.
Believing that one’s spouse can be counted on to do only half the chores does not free the working spouse from being distracted by what might or might not be going on at home.