Personality and Too Much of a Good Thing

Using personality assessment as part of a company’s hiring process can often parallel how people deal with nutrition, health supplements, exercise, to name a few. Simply put “more is better.”

The process often times centers around assessing the personality of top and bottom performers to see which behaviors are unique to the top performers.

Once the behaviors that are unique to top performers have been identified, the tendency at times is to assume is that if the behaviors were even stronger, the job performance would also improve.

For example, an analysis of top/bottom performers revels that top performers have conceptual thinking capabilities. They can review complex data and see patterns that allow them to quickly formulate strategies. It might stand to reason that the stronger this ability, the better the outcome. But consider this:

  1. When abstract thinkers arrive at a solution based on their analysis of complex or abstract data, their often macro-level conclusion(s) confuse or lose others whose thought process relies on concrete or linear data. The possibility of miscommunication becomes even more acute when decisions and execution must happen quickly.
  2. Companies in their quest to future top talent often seek out and hire conceptual thinkers into entry-level positions. Many times, these entry level positions do not require conceptual thinking or problem solving. The result can be intellectual boredom that drives these individuals to other companies whose entry-level jobs support conceptual problem solving. To compensate, some companies assign these prospective top talents to special assignments where their unique skills are valued.
  3. Another potential dilemma can arise when other personality factors are not considered. If complex reasoning and analysis are combined with high creativity and strong outside-the-box thinking, wide bands of possible solutions and ideas abound. A potential outcome is that none are picked.

Another example is when a top/bottom analysis concludes that a persuasive communication style is unique to the top performers. For this example, persuasive communication is defined as the motivation to change another’s thinking to conform to one’s own conclusion. It is generally accepted that this behavioral attribute cannot be taught and therefore in the certain job roles, can be incredibly meaningful and effective, especially in sales and leadership. For example, in leadership, it is invaluable when it comes to inspiring others follow a vision.

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This style is most often exemplified by individuals who, at a social gathering, enjoy taking the opposite position on a topic just to see if they can persuade others to agree with their point of view. While it is a very powerful communication tool, in excess it has a dark side.

  1. Because the primary motivation is to change another’s thinking or viewpoint, when the “persuader” runs out of supporting information or data, there can be a tendency to stretch the facts. In cases where the need to persuade is all consuming, facts and data can get made up.
  2. In other instances, persuasive types can be so motivated to persuade that they fail to pick up on clues from others who are intimidated or resentful of being manipulated. In these instances they may “win the battle but lose the war.”
  3. Additionally, extreme persuaders can selectively listen with an unwillingness to embrace the ideas of others. As a result others may avoid engaging this type of individual in conversation and the persuader never gets information that might be valuable.

The classic top/bottom analysis is attractive because it feels both logical and intuitive, but in the era of big data this approach has been challenged. Dr. Thomas Schoenfelder, our head of research, has recently published his findings on what constitutes “top performance.” His findings suggest another model with higher predictive validity might be the way to go.

In his report entitled the “Theory of Work”, Dr. Schoenfelder has revised the widely held top/bottom theory. The gap that he identified was that testing top and bottom performers and relying on the differences fell short if further thought was not given to other factors, outside of personality. Factors that further qualified the behavioral traits deemed predictive. In a nutshell, Dr. Schoenfelder advocates returning to the basics of scientific theory. Simply put, develop the hypothesis of top performers in a job, then test the hypothesis with all the performance data available, including personality, to validate the conclusion. In this era of big data, not relying on all performance data can potentially diminish a company’s competitive advantage.

Ron Wolff  is SVP for talent management at Caliper. He joined Caliper in 1991 as the vice president of sales. He served as a member of the chairman’s executive committee and for 14 years functioned as Caliper’s senior vice president of sales and service. Before joining Caliper, he was in sales, sales management, and human capital development for NCR, Avery International, Ingersoll Rand, and Citicorp.

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1 Comment on “Personality and Too Much of a Good Thing

  1. Human affairs are emergent phenomena; exceptionally difficult to predict. Skill and aptitude measures, OTH, are much more amenable to quantification, especially simulation, which is known to have far higher predictive correlation than any kind of personality assessment.

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