Should you recruit for personality type?

There's an alchemy to the perfect team.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Apr 2018
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Down to business

Hire on aptitude, fire on attitude. An old adage, but one that still accurately summarises many firms’ approach to recruitment.

Yet if you hire for skills alone, you’re setting yourself up for failure. We are not cogs in a machine, each with a predetermined function. Organisations are more akin to biological systems – they’re inherently unpredictable because they depend on the interaction of living units.

That’s why wonder-teams of employees with complementary skills do not always perform well: skills are necessary but not sufficient for high performance. The whole can be less than the sum of its parts.

This insight was behind the development of Meredith Belbin’s team role theory in the 1960s and 70s. His research showed that the best teams had people playing different roles, such as the gregarious ‘chairman’, the impartial ‘monitor-evaluator’ and the lateral-thinking loner ‘plant’ etc.

It’s an appealing idea – there’s a kind of alchemy to teams, based on personality type not skill sets. Unsurprisingly, Belbin took this principle to its logical conclusion in his own eponymous company. 

‘When we recruit someone, we never tell them precisely what the job is,’ he told MT. ‘If you spell it out and ask if they can do it, of course they’ll say yes. This way, people reveal their true selves far more.’

Hiring for personality type is arguably much more difficult than hiring for skills, however. Not only do you have to consider how their personality will gel with a group – the composition of which may change over time –  but you’ll also have to figure out what their personality type actually is in the first place.

There’s a whole industry producing psychometric tests for this purpose, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Even if you do figure out what an employee’s personality type is – these usually revolve around the ‘big five’ characteristics of extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness and openness – you then have to think extra carefully about how you’ll manage them.

After all, to an extent personality depends on context, and different characters will thrive in different environments. The typical sales floor is loud and bustling, the ideal space for extroverts. The typical accounts department is quieter, the work more focused.

That may well be true, but the danger here is that we hire personality stereotypes, which risks creating teams of people who all think alike. This can cement silos between different departments  and make us more likely to miss out on less obvious talent.

For example, great talkers can make great salesmen, but so can great listeners.  In fact, introverts not only tend to be better listeners, they also typically thrive in one-on-one conversation, which is ideal for sales.

Teams and organisations generally benefit from diversity of thought, and personality is a key component of that. Firms therefore need to create a variety of spaces and environments in which different personality types can flourish, rather than self-selecting for the personalities that fit the existing environment.

(Bean bag offices will attract bean bag employees, or employees pretending to be in order to get the job. Neither is ideal.)

If you’re open to complementary personalities as well as complementary aptitudes, you increase your chances of turning lead into gold, as it were. But in truth, recruitment will never guarantee excellence on its own.

The final, critical ingredients to this alchemy are great leadership and great culture. Neither just happens, and both require constant attention. But the rewards for forward-thinking companies can be magical.  

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