Monday, June 16, 2008

Unlock Employee Motivation through Personality Testing

Remember that really smart co-worker, the one who had so many answers he could run the company, but who put in minimal effort and seemed unconcerned with promotions? Or your boss who had brilliant ideas for product improvements, but couldn't motivate direct reports to get anything done? Personality testing might have unearthed the key to unlock their motivation and prompt the performance you knew they were capable of.

We have all seen people who know could be wildly successful, if they just tried harder or were better fit for their roles. Or people whose inability to maintain positive working relationships undermined their other contributions. What explains these strange gaps in performance? Can we know in advance who will best "fit" the job at hand and what motivates them to succeed?

Actually, yes. Decades of research shows a lot of what motivates people is inside them. While money, opportunities for growth and good leadership all matter for employee motivation, a big piece of motivation is based on a person's character or personality. For better or for worse, we are who we are, and our personality tends to be stable over time and across situations. This consistency in people creates an opportunity for organizations. By assessing personality characteristics in job candidates, employers can predict their motivation and make better informed hiring decisions.

Sounds good in theory, but does it really work? PreVisor's 2007 Business Outcomes Report indicates pre-employment personality tests, when implemented and used effectively, predict key performance outcomes and improve organizational effectiveness. For example, when Starwood Hotels redesigned its hiring solution to include personality testing for the right attitude, it saw a two and a half times increase in performance for one customer facing role. A nationwide auto-parts distributor showed retention improved more than 80 percent for high-scoring candidates. Among warehouse associates taking a customized job-fit test, 43 percent of those who scored high remained on the job after 90 days, whereas only 23 percent of those who scored low on the assessment were retained. Higher retention leads to reduced costs, higher productivity and better organizational performance.

What is Motivation, Anyway?
We hear about motivation all of the time - in school, at work, in sports, in the context of motivational speaking. However, it is curiously difficult to pin down exactly what motivation is and how it works. While it has many definitions among scientists, motivation boils down to wanting something to be different.

Motivation is an energizing, mobilizing force related to striving toward goals and satisfying needs - everything from food to sex to self-esteem. From an employee perspective, this means work is the environment where they strive toward and achieve many of life's goals. Motivation can lead people to work hard and manage their interactions with others. On the other hand, a lack of motivation can lead to carelessness and callousness at work. A recent Career Builder survey found 32 percent of workers called in sick with fake excuses in the past 12 months, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of strong work ethic or job satisfaction.

From the employer's perspective, employee motivation impacts performance. Scientists describe performance as a function of a person's ability and motivation:

a) Ability or "can-do" is based largely on general cognitive ability or intelligence. Cognitive ability contributes to acquisition of job skills and knowledge through experience. Tests of these areas predict job performance.

b) Motivation or "will-do" is driven mainly by personality. Personality describes a person's disposition, interests and recurring behavior patterns.

Both ability and motivation are necessary for successful performance. By testing for personality, we can measure an important determinant of talent and success, one that is often overlooked in hiring processes that emphasize only technical skills, learning ability or past achievements.

As a key predictor of success in many people-facing roles, personality is particularly important in management and senior leadership positions, where one individual can have a strong impact on the whole organization.

PreVisor's 2007 Business Outcomes Report showed senior leaders who scored high on director/senior manager assessment - which assesses both ability and motivation factors - were promoted at a 30 percent faster rate than those who scored poorly.

The Maze of Employment Testing
Employment testing combines the power of science and technology to help organizations make better informed hiring decisions. Professionally developed tests are routinely used during the hiring process to measure candidates' job skills, technical knowledge, learning ability and motivation. The value proposition underlying scientific hiring practices is: Individual performance drives organizational performance.

"It is important to remember that job success almost always depends on several different kinds of performance," said Dr. Charles Handler, founder and president of Rocket-Hire, a consultancy specializing in online screening and assessments. "For example, an employee who is very good at customer service will be of little value if her or she frequently misses work. You can measure these traits by combining assessment tools that predict different types of job performance. For instance, combining a personality test with an ability test can increase the overall predictive ability of your selection system by a significant amount."

Personality Testing: Science or Alchemy?
Personality testing is a decades-old application of behavioral science undergoing a renaissance among both employers and researchers due to improvements in technology and a deeper understanding of its potential value. At its best, personality testing reliably predicts on-the-job performance. At its worst, companies may use poorly researched but well-marketed personality testing tools or use good tools (e.g., designed for team building) for the wrong thing (e.g., hiring). Only by carefully aligning testing programs with hiring needs will employers maximize prediction and ROI.

Scientists have known or suspected for some 30 years there are just five major dimensions of personality, called the Big 5 factors of personality.

a) Openness: Appreciation for creativity, adventure, unusual ideas and variety of experience.

b) Conscientiousness: A tendency to plan rather than be spontaneous, to show self- discipline, caution and to seek achievement.

c) Extraversion: The tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others, energy, positive emotions.

d) Agreeableness: A tendency to be pleasant and accommodating in social situations.

e) Neuroticism: The ongoing tendency to experience negative emotional states.

Within these broad factors, additional characteristics can be tested, such as dependability, a part of conscientiousness, and stress tolerance, a part of neuroticism.

The effective use of personality testing in the hiring process can lead to a workforce that is more motivated, more disciplined and better with customers.

For example, a major high-end retailer needed help hiring managers and staff whose personal motivation was to sell, not steal. Sales locations staffed with associates who scored high on a conscientiousness assessment experienced less shrinkage - almost $50,000 less per year - than other locations. Across the chain's 1,500-plus stores nationwide, this translated into nearly a $78 million difference in annual shrinkage.

"It is important to choose assessment tools that predict the various kinds of performance that are most critical to the job," Dr. Handler said. "As a general rule, it is good to focus on having assessment tools that predict both what candidates 'can do' and what they 'will do.' This usually means having a mix of assessment tools that measure hard skills, such as knowledge and problem-solving ability, as well as soft skills, such as reliability and customer service."

Uncovering the Research
Research clearly indicates personality testing in the hiring process works best and is most predictive when job requirements are well understood and characteristics most valuable to performance are assessed. How do we know which combination of characteristics will be most useful?

In a 2007 "Aha! Report," Dr. Wendell Williams wrote, "There are hosts of personality tests on the market, all claiming to be helpful in making hiring decisions. But before hiring and recruiting professionals commit to using personality tests, they need to understand the difference between causation and correlation. In other words, does a good personality score really indicate good performance?"

Causation means one thing causes another to happen. Throw chalk at the class bully, and you can expect to be punished. The stimulus causes the punishment.

Correlation means two things tend to occur at the same time, but one does not cause the other. Pocket protectors and mathematical ability are correlated or co-related, but having a pocket protector does not cause someone to be a math whiz. This is very important to know when using a personality test to hire someone.

In the real world, this translates into organizations finding people who not only have the necessary skills or abilities to do the job, but who really want to do the job under required conditions. Imagine two equally experienced sales manager candidates - same number of years in the field, same ability to create pricing models or presentations - but one of them scores high in agreeableness, while the other is Attila the Hun. Because of the criticality of people skills in this role, this difference in personalities likely would impact the performance of the sales organization. One manager may motivate the sales team and negotiate successfully with clients, while the other may terrorize everyone into submission or quitting.

If you are looking for the magic formula for hiring success, look to the science of assessment to help uncover the personalities of your future workforce. It will not only give you insight into their motivation, you also will be able to measure the dollar impact of better performance on your company's bottom line.


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