Like anything else of value, creating a performance improvement based culture can be achieved through desire and committed persistence. While most managers and staff will give the typical “lip service” to performance improvement activities, and devote very limited real effort, the more progressive thinkers among us will understand that the challenges of the “new economy” will dictate that higher multi-tiered performance results are necessary for organizational competitiveness. Rather than return to “business as usual”, we need to adapt to the new realities and change our thinking.
If we want to experience superior performance we need to define what that performance would be in our specific organizations, teams or individual tasks. In order to get from performance level A to performance level B, within a reasonable period of time, we will need to know where B is and we will need to be honest about current performance A. Only then will we be able to accurately identify performance gaps, create priorities and then develop results-oriented solutions to eliminate them. There are no magic “fit-all” solutions. To be effective we need to understand the foundation of performance and then adapt it to our specific situations.
The foundation of performance is based in work personality, and how it matches to the requirements of the work to be done, the team, the manager and the organization as a whole.
When education, experience and technical skills are appropriate and relatively equal, the person with the better multi-tier personality fit will sustain superior performance over time. Understanding this point is critical to performance improvement at all levels and has a direct impact on such key human resource related issues as; employment candidate selection, management or leadership development, organizational planning, internal communications, conflict resolution, team building, succession planning, bench strength improvement and overall strategic human resources planning.
It is the lack of understanding, and / or neglect, of performance based personality characteristics and their direct impact on performance that is significantly responsible for mediocre performance and its widespread acceptance.
Understanding Key Performance Personality Characteristics
Initially, it is important to understand the general performance characteristics that are typically found in successful people, and then to identify the traits within each category that you will require in order to achieve your pre-determined performance objectives. In general we can say that above average performers will have consistent significant strength in eight major categories:
Within each of these categories are a number of defined personality characteristics that all function in unison in order to formulate the overall work personality. Since complex work personalities can be confusing, we can simplify our analysis, and provide effective performance solutions, when we identify and prioritize performance gaps that are relevant to the pre-determined performance requirements. Otherwise, we can get bogged down in details, many of which are irrelevant to the task at hand.
1) Problem Solving Capability
Different positions in an organization will require the ability to work with problems of varying complexities and that may span anywhere from one day to several years. As positions become more complex and managerial, different time orientations (referred to as scope) are required. The greater a person’s ability to handle information complexity, the greater will be his or her ability to think ahead and work with more complex problems. And the ability to conceptualize and to envision multiple solutions greatly expands that person’s scope level.
For performance requirements to be met it is initially important to estimate the scope requirement of the work and then to determine if the individual involved has a scope that is a suitable match to what is required in both the short and long terms. The scope of a person’s thinking and the time-span demands of their position in an organization need to fit the same pattern for relative success to be experienced. Since the scope required for each position increases as you go up the organizational hierarchy, mismatches of people’s scope to the demand of the position will have a negative impact. Those with scope below the positional requirement will be ‘over matched’ and unable to perform at a suitable capacity. Those with scope that is significantly beyond the positional requirements will be bored, feel underutilized and see little value in interactions with their immediate supervisors.
By knowing an individual’s current scope and age, it is possible, to predict how fast an individual’s scope may grow and, therefore, predict when an individual is apt to be ready for a greater level of responsibility. This has tremendous implications for management development, succession planning, internal workforce mobility options and retention considerations when hiring new candidates.
It is critical to be able to measure an individual’s ability to plan, to think strategically, to analyze problems and to anticipate the consequences of various courses of action within the context of the scope of their respective position. This will require that the person has the ability to set appropriate priorities (judgment) and then to be able to properly assess, interact with, mobilize and utilize their human resources (people judgment) to facilitate appropriate action. When knowledge of a person’s problem solving capability is combined with the assessment of such traits as conscientiousness, initiative, tenacity, achievement motivation and planning skills, you will be able to identify problem solvers who will be capable of making quality decisions regarding problems faster than the typical person.
2) Concentration - Attention
Every position has a certain degree of stress that will ebb and flow as situations change. Superior performance is dependent on the ability of the individual to concentrate and make good decisions, or take appropriate action, while dealing with the stress involved at that point in time. Knowing that each individual has a dominant concentration style, identifying their style, and comparing it to the typical stress tolerance requirements of the position and environment, will increase the likelihood of superior performance. More importantly, as stress levels increase, a properly matched concentration style will enable the person to better handle the increased demands.
In addition, we can measure a person’s ability to easily adapt to changing concentration requirements. Since priorities and stress situations are dynamic and constantly shifting (especially at the upper management levels), we need to know an individual’s ability to react quickly and instinctively to changes that occur around them, their sensitivity to the environment and to the non-verbal (emotional) messages that people often send. We also need to know the individual’s tendency to become distracted by task irrelevant things going on in the environment, or of the tendency for the person to become distracted by their own thoughts and or feelings.
These external and internal distractions have a negative impact on performance and will be accelerated with elevated stress levels. Lack of concentration flexibility can cause a person to either become too focused internally or externally, and performance mistakes are made because the person fails to make needed shifts in their focus of attention. If we find that a person has a preference for a wide variety of activities, or a need for, and enjoyment of change, they will lose concentration more readily when engaging in repetitive tasks or attendance to details. This may also serve as an indication of his or her ability to cope with shifting priorities and a relative lack of structure.
It is important to incorporate concentration skills along with intra and interpersonal characteristics in the overall assessment of performance. This is based on the concept that to concentrate effectively you need to be able to shift both the width and direction of your focus of attention in response to the changing demands of performance situations. Therefore it is important to measure two main components: the ability to develop the different types of concentration required to perform effectively, and the ability to shift back and forth between the different channels of concentration at appropriate times. By focusing on the basic elements of concentration, we are more capable of identifying the specific skills that individuals will need to develop in order to improve their performance.
3) Productivity Traits
Superior performers develop consistent, reliable work productivity traits. These traits are rooted in their “work ethic”, which can be defined as the values that they hold pertaining to work. For superior performance to be sustained over time it is important that the person’s work values be in alignment with those that are required by the position, department and the organization as a whole. When aligned, the person is confident and comfortable that their efforts and approach to work are consistent to what is required and they will naturally incorporate learned successful approaches into their daily work activities.
Superior performers will set achievement goals and understand the relationship between effort and results. They will see problems as challenges to be overcome, they are open rather than rigid in their thinking and they are tenacious in moving forward toward appropriate solutions. In other words, they don’t give up. Typically maintaining a positive attitude, they satisfy their ambition to succeed through genuine hard work and persistence. Often “multi-taskers”, who require a variety of challenges to maintain their attention, these people understand that the key to their success lies in incorporating productive work habits into everything that they do. And it comes naturally to them.
High motivation and superior performance go hand in hand. But it is not enough to simply be “motivated”. The person’s motivation must be matched to, and supported by, the motivational characteristics of the immediate work environment, the team members, the manager and the overall organizational objectives and culture. So here we are wise to first determine the motivational characteristics that are present in the work environment and then to determine the relative match with the individual’s personal motivational requirements.
More than a general concept, motivation can be a complex interaction between a number of personal needs and desires. We need to identify what triggers the person’s interest and, conversely, what environments or activities will de-motivate them. Does the person stay motivated by judgments from external sources or by using their own standards? Does the environment give them the appropriate feedback that they need to stay motivated? Is the person’s motivational energy focused on goals, or problems to be dealt with or avoided? Are they motivated by continually looking for alternatives or to follow established procedures? Will they be expected to take the initiative or wait for others? How does the person react to change, and what frequency of change do they need? Does it match with the environmental rate of change? In other words, what are the elements in their work that they need to have a positive physical and emotional reaction, and are these elements present in the work activities and the work environment?
With an appropriate environmental match, highly motivated people will have greater energy, and will energize those around them. They bring a positive attitude, they encourage and support others, they foster a collaborative team effort and they help to move organizations forward toward organizational goals regardless of difficulties and adversity. From a retention standpoint, when their personal motivation and goals are congruent with those of the organization, they will be willing to make long term sacrifices for the sake of accomplishing specific long term goals or objectives
5) Interpersonal Skills
Human relations are a critical component of successful performance as nobody operates within a vacuum. Whether internal or external to the organization, on a peer to peer basis or an employee – manager interaction, everybody has numerous interpersonal interactions daily. Superior performers are adept at creating and maintaining strong relationships, and via these relationships they subsequently encourage collaboration, support for their ideas and commitment to performance. People are more likely to agree with, and follow, someone who they respect and like. Top performers naturally use their interpersonal skills to make this connection with those around them.
By evaluating a person’s “people judgment” we can determine their ability to build and maintain relationships. A successful performer will typically demonstrate empathy and the ability to understand and respect the needs of others. The measure of a person’s level of agreeableness will tell us whether they are compassionate and cooperative with others, whether they will try to get along, and whether they will compromise their personal interests with other team members for the common good. Conversely, we can also tell whether a person is generally unconcerned about other people and more likely to put their own interests ahead of the team and the organization. Since in a managerial role people interaction, motivation and accurate evaluation are all essential to departmental and organizational success, sound people judgment is critical for the manager to be able to properly utilize their human ‘assets’.
Further, by measuring a person’s level of extroversion we can determine their need or desire to be around others, as compared to their level of introversion, the measure an individual’s enjoyment of working alone, and their need for personal space and privacy. With the proper information we can go beyond simply identifying positions that will require an extraverted personality type for success. We can take it further to the task level and identify the extent and frequency of the required trait and then also determine the comfort that an individual would have in adapting to changing socialization circumstances. By avoiding a “one or the other” scenario, we can create a better fit determination for those who are extraverted in some situations while introverted in others.
When we combine aptitude in relationship building, people judgment and appropriate extraversion / introversion with characteristics such as self-confidence, self-esteem, the need for control, eagerness to take on responsibility, and comfort in following others, we can obtain a more complete picture of an individual’s interpersonal skill set. This can be extrapolated into assessing such items as a person’s willingness to take the initiative or to assume a leadership role in high-pressure situations.
A motivated problem solver will be able to maintain their concentration under stress. But will they be able to encourage others to participate in the process and actively implement the subsequent solutions? The positive interactions with other organizational members, fostered by strong interpersonal skills, will ensure that policies, directives and actionable solutions are properly implemented.
6) Communication Skills
Positive interaction with others is only one part of the equation. The ability to effectively get their message across to these people and to understand the other person’s point of view is a common characteristic of superior performers. We can determine a person's dominant expressiveness style, and match that with what would be required of their respective position. More importantly, we can ascertain their comfort with the expression of ideas, their ability to understand and adapt to the communication style of the recipient, and their acceptance with having their thought processes challenged.
We can also identify each person’s dominant style for receiving communication input, for adapting to alternative forms of input while maintaining appropriate concentration, and whether their learning style is visual, auditory or kinesthetically based. Finally, we can evaluate true aptitude for written and verbal communication as per the requirements of their position.
We can determine if the person will be positive and supportive in their communication with others or if they will have a tendency to be confrontational and overly critical. Obviously, how people communicate with others will have a direct impact on their ability to develop and maintain personal relationships, to influence the opinions and actions of others and to encourage support. We can also determine if the person is strong at teaching others, would be confusing in their explanations, has strong listening skills, and if they are effective communicative motivators.
An essential compliment to a superior performer’s ability to build relationships with other people is their ability to communicate effectively to ensure that things get done. Listening being as important as speaking, strong communicators adapt their approach to their audience depending on the situation, and are capable of getting their message across regardless of the stress level involved at the time.
7) Emotional Stability
An often neglected element involved in performance assessment is an individual’s level of (or lack of) emotional stability. Most people have suitable levels of stability to cope with their daily stress loads, however when stress levels are accelerated less stable people will tend to be emotionally reactive and vulnerable. This can emerge as anger, anxiety or depression, and will obviously affect their performance, problem solving and concentration levels, as well as have a negative impact on the people that they interact with. Often in a bad mood, they are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as negative and have difficulty thinking clearly and making appropriate decisions in a reasonable period of time. Their emotionally stable counterparts will tend to be less emotionally reactive, have a more positive outlook and can make calm, logical decisions in highly stressful situations.
Obviously, we want to determine whether a person’s level of emotional stability is a factor that will be, or is, restrictive to performance, either at the hiring stage or in later performance reviews. Emotional instability will have a significant impact on performance, motivation, a person’s ability to concentrate under stress, in their interpersonal relationships and their communications with internal or external personnel. It is also important to note that emotional stability is an essential requirement for success in a leadership or management role.
8) Ethics and Integrity
Hiring managers are interested in hiring people who are trustworthy and share the organization's ethical values regardless of the position that they will occupy. Talented or not, one would question why anyone would knowingly hire a dishonest person in the first place, better yet maintain their employment knowing that they were untrustworthy. There is comfort in knowing that superior performers will tend to score high on integrity and ethics evaluations.
Beyond interview questions that will evaluate a person’s past response to ethical circumstances, we can assess a person’s behavioral control, which relates to a person's tendency to play by the rules or make up the rules as they go. We can determine if they might misuse authority, if they have an unfounded sense of superiority or if they have a tendency to over-exploit others for their advantage. We can also identify if the person has a sense of entitlement (common with younger people) that will emerge as a poor work ethic and restrict performance. Neglecting to factor ethics and integrity into human resource decisions can be a costly omission.
Once we understand the personality-based foundation of performance, and the interrelatedness of performance based personality characteristics, we can then move to results oriented performance solutions that are specific to our particular requirements. Obviously, it is crucial to begin with a real desire to improve performance, at all levels, and then to sustain this desire via appropriate integration into the organizational culture. We can then develop realistic multi-level performance targets and identify any performance gaps based on an honest awareness of relevant performance strengths and weaknesses. Only with accurate awareness can we develop performance solutions that will maximize the impact of the former and minimize the impact of the latter.
Most importantly we need to “do the work”. Like anything of value, performance improvement requires effort and persistence. Since there are no easy solutions, we cannot leave performance improvement initiatives or decisions to those who are not committed. There are no “cookie cutter” solutions that can be applied to all, and those who expect minimal effort are doomed to repeat past mistakes and to maintain mediocrity. The more competitive leaders will understand the need to change, will embrace innovative performance improvement initiatives, and will persist in moving their respective organizations forward.