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The Perils of a Personality Culture

In the post-Industrial era, highly skilled and experienced team players resemble Ricky Williams or Troy Aikman — powerful, rare, and expensive. Attracting and retaining all-star talent is a top priority for most organizations, which readily award greater respect and bigger paychecks to new recruits. This increased focus on the individual is commendable, but it too often encourages managers to make decisions based on personality traits rather than skill sets.

In the post-Industrial era, highly skilled and experienced team players resemble Ricky Williams or Troy Aikman — powerful, rare, and expensive. Attracting and retaining all-star talent is a top priority for most organizations, which readily award greater respect and bigger paychecks to new recruits. This increased focus on the individual is commendable, but it too often encourages managers to make decisions based on personality traits rather than skill sets.

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Oftentimes, when managers assigns employees to an interdisciplinary team, they place more emphasis on interpersonal dynamics than skill sets and aptitude. Conversations like these pervade corporate America today: “George wrote the book on debugging network problems, but his temper is so short that we don’t dare send him to the customer site. Let’s send Mary instead, and George can back her up from home.” Or, “We can’t put Trevor in charge of the project. He’s a great cheerleader, but he couldn’t plan his way out of a paper box.”

Character and personality certainly contribute to or detract from a group’s harmony and productivity, but a manager must resist the temptation to assemble teams according to personality fit alone. Here’s why.

Judgments of character can be distorted or downright wrong.

History and literature books are filled with leaders who committed catastrophic mistakes because they misinterpreted someone’s actions or accepted a third party’s assessment. Othello murdered his beloved Desdemona after Iago poisoned his perception of her. King Lear disowned his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because he believed she loved him less than her sisters did. Once her sisters had their inheritance, however, they treated Lear miserably. Other examples emerge from the Salem witch trials or the lives and the careers destroyed by the National Enquirer.

Misperception and misunderstanding are even more prevalent in the workplace. Consider the case of a programmer at Evolutionary Technologies International (ETI) named Jeremy (not his real name). Relatively new to the company, Jeremy was thrilled when assigned the task of designing and implementing a Pascal compiler. He was conscientious and took considerable time researching and revising his initial design. However, during the first six months of his project, Jeremy’s boss sent him on several “fire drills” — putting out fires on other products. Jeremy assumed his boss would realize that progress on the compiler would suffer due to these emergency assignments. His assumption was wrong.

As the compiler release date approached, Jeremy’s boss failed to prepare his own boss for the possible delay. Jeremy’s boss was annoyed and brought another programmer into the project. With the additional help, Jeremy managed to release the compiler. Because Jeremy’s boss wrongly perceived him as a slacker who had missed a crucial deadline, however, the pinch-hitting programmer received a heftier raise, despite the fact that Jeremy was a more valuable employee overall.

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To correct this misperception, Jeremy should have given his supervisor progress reports on the compiler throughout the course of the project. In so doing, Jeremy would have not only documented the excellent work that he was doing, but also informed his boss of delays resulting from the impromptu projects.

A culture obsessed with personality makes people worry about the wrong things.

We all claim to dislike office politics, but our overreliance on hearsay and summary judgments only breeds that political behavior. When employees see people like Jeremy fall victim to unfounded judgments, they question whether it makes sense to dedicate so much time and energy to work that may not earn them any recognition. Cynical employees who adopt this mind-set focus more on working the system, rather than on giving the company 110%.

More important, if workers believe subjective judgments drive decisions in the organization, they will spend too much time worrying about what people think, wondering if they say the right things, if people like them, and if they understand others’ intentions correctly.

If given too much weight, such judgments can become self-fulfilling.

Over the past several years, I have caught wind of rumors that I am a micromanager. This perception stems from the early days of ETI when I worked closely in a number of areas — writing drafts of our user’s manual, participating in design discussions, etc.

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Knowing that my micromanaging reputation precedes me at the office, I tend to pull back and be hands-off when new senior managers come on board. I want managers to trust that I will let them do their jobs. In at least two cases, however, I have raised general concerns and offered to help — only to be told by the manager that he had the situation under control. In order to fight the micromanaging preconception, I didn’t press the point. In both cases, the managers’ teams ultimately failed to meet their performance goals, and I was forced to step in — thereby proving the judgment about me correct.

In retrospect, I should have explicitly articulated the problems I noticed and set up a mechanism for the manager involved to report regularly on solutions. In other words, I should have acted like a boss, rather than worry about whether my employees thought that I was meddling. After all, bosses are ultimately responsible for the results of their entire organization.

People will always peg their coworkers as friends or foes, allies or adversaries. Many times, these instincts are critical to success. Likewise, personality traits often indicate potential for growth and collaboration. As managers, we are expected to make a short-term call based on experience and external input, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that people cannot change if given the appropriate guidance and motivation. It is our responsibility as managers to give each employee the opportunity to learn and to grow — in short, to prove us wrong.

by Katherine Hammer