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Psychology At Work

Psychology At Work

Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

January 12, 2012
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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Catchy title, eh? Too bad I stole it from an article in this month’s Talent Management magazine. Don’t tell anybody over there, but do read Ronnie Reese’s article. It is an excellent overview of how talent acquisition in many successful companies is focused on the personality and character traits of recruits, more than their specific job skills.

I know hiring managers who spend more time learning about the background and makeup of the fish they are ordering in a restaurant (wild-caught or farm-raised? Bay or ocean? Cold or warm water? Was it a happy fish?) than of their new hires. Or they exhaustively review and test the skills and job experience of the candidate but make no inquiry into attitude.

Big mistake. “Eighty-nine percent of the time, if a new hire fails, they fail for attitude, not for skills,” says Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude, quoted in the aforementioned article. Famed research psychologist Chris Peterson bemoans the failing of many companies to hire for attitude in one of his academic articles, saying “strengths of character are a neglected but critically important resource for organizations.”

The good news is more and more organizations such as Apple, Google and Ritz-Carlton understand that the psychological makeup of their recruits is critical, and go to great lengths to ensure new hires can fit within their unique cultures. In fact, much of the aforementioned Talent Management article focuses on issues regarding cultural fit, providing examples from “great attitude” companies such as Southwest Airlines. The general rule - one I firmly endorse - is to figure out what strengths make your organization special and unique, and try to identify recruits who reflect those strengths.

But are there certain traits that are present in the all successful hires, regardless of the specific culture of the organization? Peterson, along with his research colleagues Martin Seligman and Nansook Park, suggest there are. Among the most common are:

  • Optimism
  • Hope
  • Curiosity
  • Zest

By now you are probably saying “sure, this makes sense, but we don’t have the resources to hire a bunch of Ph.D.s to redesign our talent acquisition processes to scope out these things." The good news is that the Internet, as well as certain research foundations, have made measurement tools readily available, inexpensive and non-intrusive. I have written about several of these in past blogs, including Peterson’s free Values in Action inventory of strengths. In the time it takes you to read this article, you could have started taking one of these surveys yourself, and within moments have a printout of your strengths, traits and attitudes (links to the VIA can be found in the blog about it). Go ahead, give it a test drive, then try it out on a few people during the pre-hire process (there are far fewer legal implications than you might think). If you don't like the VIA, several of my more dedicated readers have provided links to similar tests their firms provide, and I imagine in the comments posted under this you’ll be given some more examples to check out.

Even if you don’t want to institute formal measurement tools into your talent acquisition processes, you can accomplish much of the same thing by following one simple rule: hire optimistic people. Optimism is the mother of all good attitude traits. Evidence abounds that optimism, which is closely correlated with happiness, is a very strong predictor of workplace performance in almost all domains. Yes, law, actuarial work and some investment jobs find a dose of pessimism a helpful professional attribute, but even in those fields it is usually the more optimistic who rise to the top. Optimists close more sales, rebound from failure more quickly, miss less work and are less likely to sue their company if things turn sour.

And optimism is pretty easy to parse out during the hiring process. Ever interview a surly misanthrope who hated his last job and sees problems and roadblocks everywhere when you talk to him? Chances are he’ll find reasons to hate you, sooner or later.

Let the competition have him.

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