Partial Truths about Workplace Behavior

As we all know, truth exists on different levels. What is true in one situation is not true in another. With people decisions, complete distortions of reality are not the problem we face. Far more injurious and costly are those subtle partial truths that people carry around and use as the platform for their decisions.

In this issue we will consider four rather common beliefs that underlie bad management and placement decisions. In two weeks, with our next issue, we will look at how several other distorted ideas set much of the training done in business up to fail.

1. People are motivated by money…

Herzberg steered us away from this myth once before, but obviously his books and writings are covered with dust in many libraries today. Sure money matters, but the lack of money matters more. Too little money can be a source of dissatisfaction, but nowhere in business research do we find any examples of higher pay or associated rewards prompting higher performance.

The reality is that people are motivated by what they do and how they are allowed to do it, not by what they are paid for doing it. If you don’t get the right person a job, money won’t make the difference. But it’s the corollary that really matters: it costs you a great deal more to hire the wrong person than it does to hire the right person.

Do you have incentive-based jobs in your organization? If so, in OMS terms you are looking for Higher A/Lower P personalities to fill those roles.

Do you have Higher A/Lower P personalities in your company (surely you do)? Then using performance-related incentives with them is smart. It gives you one more button to push. But don’t try the same thing with Higher P/Lower A personalities, because that will create anxiety, which will have a negative impact upon performance.

2. You have to be an extrovert in order to be successful in selling…

This is a very common partial truth. Yes, many sales people, maybe even most sales people, are extroverted. But that’s based upon the longstanding notion that the primary objective of the salesperson is to verbally influence the buyer’s decision, which is as outdated as labeling sales people commercial travelers.

The reality is that it’s not always true and it’s rarely more than partially true. In some forms of selling – retail and features & benefits scenarios – getting close quickly, demonstrating empathy, and being persuasive drive sales. But these tend to be sales situations combining one or more of these conditions: opening the door is halfway to the close, there is generally one interaction between the buyer and seller, the offerings of different vendors are very different, thus minimizing the basis for rational comparison, and the buyer’s emotions can be appealed to in some manner. Clothes, cars, travel, telemarketing, and recruiting are examples.

But increasingly as more and more companies move to consultative selling strategies to attempt to turn customer interactions into longer term relationships with a support component, and as selling moves more into the realm of problem-solving, asking questions and developing financially sound business cases are proving more critical than the ability to talk. In these roles, in actual contact with the buyers, extroversion is an asset, but no more of an overall advantage than the analytical and investigative abilities of someone who is less extroverted.

What about your business? Is your sales role requiring increasing cerebral and cognitive ability? In OMS terms, do your sales people require Hi S or can the role be filled by Lower S personalities?

3. There’s more than one way to do a job…

Some people like to believe that they can hire greatly different personalities for the same job, because they don’t want everybody to be the same. There’s an obvious point of agreement here, because none of us would want all the people we employ in a certain job to be monolithic in their dress, behaviors, and mannerisms. But unless you have an incredible brand, an incredible reputation as an employer, and an incredible pool of talent from which to choose, you can forget about this piece of science fiction. It will never happen even if you set out to do it.

People can actually have diverse personalities but similar traits that matter. Intelligence, attitudes, values, and the environment – these types of attributes shape the behavior of people along with traits. And that’s where this is a partial truth. We have to hire the traits we must have, but there can be many other attributes that are variable. For instance, in job studies we have found that certain traits are correlated significantly to different job performance criteria, but other traits are not. It’s those specific characteristics, which are job-relevant, that are central to accurate placement.

In some entry-level jobs where personality has minimal effect on performance, there can be more than one way to do a job. No debate on that. But higher up the pyramid, where specific activities are deemed critical, the range of acceptable behaviors gets narrower and more defined, and there is greatly less tolerance surrounding job behaviors. However, even with this more explicit definition of talents, they don’t all have to look the same.

Does your selection system differentiate the vital few attributes and traits from the trivial many with each job? Rather than focus on everything, it’s more important to know what is important and measure that.

4. People can change…

Yes and no. Some things change and some don’t. When people talk about themselves they like to discuss ways in which they have become better or more like some desirable image they have set for themselves. But does that mean they have really changed at the core?

Yes, they have changed, but probably not in the way they think they have. What most people refer to as a change in personality (“I’m more self-confident today that I was earlier in my career.”) is really the by-product of time and experience and, to a lesser extent, an effort to project behaviors that are different from their natural behaviors.

No matter what we do, if we do it long enough, our experience makes commonplace the challenges that were once threatening. What once caused us high anxiety no longer does, so we feel more confident and more competent. Similarly, years of practicing certain behaviors, even if they are not natural, can make them feel more that way.

But that is not the same thing as changing one’s traits. Numerous research projects involving longitudinal studies of personality have shown that there is indeed a great deal of stability to many central dimensions of personality.

In particular, the work of McCrae and Costa has shown that the Introversion-Extroversion dimension of personality (equivalent to the OMS S scale) is highly stable and that the “neuroticism” dimension (anxiety and negative energy – the OMS D scale) is also unlikely to change to any appreciable degree. Other researchers have also found that life experiences tend to reinforce and stabilize traits.

As more and more insights from ongoing genetic research add to our knowledge base, it is becoming increasingly evident that predispositions are clear and measurable at a very early age, and that the stability of personality through our adult years serves as a practical basis for predicting performance in the workplace.

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