by Dr. Eric Nelson
What makes a high-performing employee? Why are jobs at all levels filled with people who “look good on paper” and yet prove to be unsuitable for the position for which they have been hired or promoted?
Historically, hiring decisions have been based on observed technical skill combined with an interview, but this strategy can be ineffective. An often overlooked influence on success at all levels of an organization, from the call center to the boardroom, is the employee’s personality.
Personality channels technical skills into critical competencies. And sometimes, these competencies can be “sabotaged” by self-defeating personality characteristics that emerge during periods of stress, fatigue, boredom or complacency. Observe the lineman who has a belligerent “emotional meltdown” when asked to work overtime or the vice-president who viciously belittles and berates her subordinates when productivity seems to lag.
Consider these three examples of the connection between personality and performance: customer service, safety and management.
1 Customer Service
Nearly everyone can talk on a telephone and use a computer, but not everyone would make a good CSR. Turnover among customer service employees tends to be quite high, resulting in significant hiring and training costs. Research using a reliable and valid measure of personality characteristics in the workplace has found that successful CSRs tend to be higher in emotional stability, ambition and conscientiousness than those who are less successful. Companies that use these data as part of a selection process experience higher CSR productivity and lower absenteeism and turnover .
Serious injury and work-related illness cost American companies more than $200 billion annually in direct and indirect expenses. At electric utilities, where safety is paramount, it’s important to understand what contributes to “safety competency.” Again, personality differentiates safe from unsafe employees. Even though an employee may have the specific technical skills required for a high-risk job, employees who are anxious, defiant, easily distracted, reckless and arrogant have on-the-job accidents at a far higher rate than those who are more controlled, vigilant, confident and careful. These “safety competencies” are rarely apparent in an interview. A well-constructed personality assessment can identify these competencies and help hiring managers both to “screen out” potentially unsafe employees and to identify training needs for those currently in high-risk positions.
A recent survey revealed that the majority of American workers rate the most stressful element of their jobs to be their immediate supervisor. Additional research suggests that more than 50 percent of managers and executives fail. Leaders are often promoted on the basis of technical expertise with little regard for managerial competence. As a result, leaders often fail to develop high-performing teams. At times of stress, they may reveal a variety of self-sabotaging personality characteristics such as moodiness, arrogance, dishonesty or excessive perfectionism that impair staff morale and reduce performance. Some of these characteristics, at moderate levels, can be strengths, but when stress, “burnout” or boredom creep in, the “dark side” characteristics emerge. Sometimes these characteristics can be so disruptive that they effectively derail a manager’s or an executive’s career. Assessment of these self-defeating personality dispositions, often in conjunction with 360-degree feedback, can increase managerial versatility and allow people to develop past potentially derailing behaviors.
Personality assessment today
The quality of personality assessment has increased steadily over the past three decades. Contemporary personality assessment is neither a medical nor a psychiatric examination; it is legally defensible and has no adverse impact on any protected group. Assessment of personality can offer a substantial return on investment for selection, development, succession planning and talent management.
Eric Nelson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and senior consultant for Hogan Assessment Systems, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company specializing in the application of personality assessment for selection and development of employees at all corporate levels. Dr. Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.