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Matching Employee Skills and Personality

By University Alliance
Matching Employee Skills and Personality to the Job

Putting Your Personality to Work: An Interview with Notre Dame Professor James S. O’Rourke

The ability to effectively match an employee’s skills and personality to a specific job function is a vital component of successful management and leadership. By contrast, trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole can prove costly in terms of employee performance, team dynamics and corporate return on investment.

Are you seeking management skills training in order to climb your company’s ranks? Do you want to sharpen your leadership abilities in preparation for an executive-level role? Whatever your current situation, the University of Notre Dame’s  Professional and Executive Certificate programs in Leadership and Management, offered 100% online from the esteemed Mendoza College of Business, provide the management, communication, negotiation and leadership skills necessary for success in today’s complex business world.


Professor James S. O’Rourke has taught management and corporate communication at the University of Notre Dame since 1990, and also is the Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The Fanning Center assists students and faculty in reaching their professional and academic aspirations by providing expert guidance in human communication, including team interaction.

O’Rourke has written or co-authored more than a dozen textbooks, including Leading Groups and Teams and Communication in a Virtual Organization, and also consults for major U.S. corporations. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel after two decades of service.

We spoke with O’Rourke recently about the role of psychological testing and personality traits in the hiring process, as well as the impact of digital technology in a 21st century workplace.

Is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a tool that employers should rely on when making hiring decisions?

I think the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) is a valuable tool, but, of course, it's not the only tool in your kit. If you're trying to make employment decisions, you have to look first of all at the position requirements and then, secondly, at the applicants and the skills they bring to the position.

It seems clear that personality preferences are acquired very early in life and they begin to firm up and we begin to develop a measurable personality. The tools themselves have very high reliability and validity coefficients … so that we know by age 14 really what you prefer. We know whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, and it's really working against type to give an introvert's task to an extrovert. It's even harder for an introvert to be asked to do extrovert work – to go out and raise money or host cocktail parties, or do the kinds of things that require extroversion skills, if you will.

You should hire the best qualified person to bring everything you need to a position. Is this person going to feel rewarded for being who she is? Am I setting this person up for success by offering him tasks, requirements and obligations that I know he will like? So, I would say the MBTI certainly is something employers should consider, but it's certainly not the only thing.

Can an extrovert become an introvert or vice versa over his or her lifetime?

People do change over the course of their lifetime because their lives change. You get new jobs, you get new challenges and you get new opportunities. Some of those are not all good. Some people get fired and they've got to change careers and they've got to learn a new set of skills. Other people get married. Other people move to different parts of the country or different parts of the world. And there are very significant demands on them as a result.

And so, as a result, people do change. You know, 25 years ago, I was a U.S. Air Force officer and I was rewarded for very different behaviors from those which I exhibit now as a professor of management.

Would you rely on the MBTI as a final decision-maker in a hiring choice where the two candidates have impressed you equally?

Well, you know, people always say, ‘All things being equal, hire the person who is the best fit.’ The truth is things are rarely ever equal. You've got someone who is younger and less experienced, someone who is older and more experienced, someone who has had comparable positions in another firm or industry. You've got numerous different voting criteria. And you have to decide what the most important issue is right on top. Does this person, for example, have to go into a turnaround situation?

Look at the personality characteristics and decide whether they'll fit. The MBTI certainly can be a very valuable tool and, if things are equal, I would absolutely try to put the person whose personality preferences best fit the requirements of the job into that position.

Can you tell us how factors such as team dynamics and workplace design can play a role in productivity?

First of all, there is plenty of empirical evidence indicating that the more contact you have with people on your team or in your division, the more productive you are, the more innovative you are and the broader the range of considerations in making a decision. There is some research from the University of Pennsylvania … that tracks out distance and number of interpersonal interactions. If you're within 5 meters of someone, you have a fairly high frequency of interpersonal interactions. You bump into each other; you'll literally get up from your desk and walk over and talk to somebody with some frequency. If you're 10 or 15 meters away, that drops off a bit. If you're 30 meters away, it turns out it drops off significantly. And that's not even that far. That's just down to the end of the hallway.

If you're 100 meters away, you may as well be in Utah. You’re going to send email and you might call occasionally, but you just have very few interactions. So, if sharing ideas and working collaboratively is an important part of job design for you, putting people in places where they will interact with one another becomes important.

Now, here's where personality comes in. There are some folks who don't like that. There are some folks who like having a desk, who like having something they can call their own. And there are people who will put up with not having something to call their own if they feel they're working toward a greater goal.

Steelcase [a workplace furnishings, services and products company] has a headquarters in western Michigan, and they don't have divisions or departments. They have tribes, and those tribes are composed of people with certain skill sets. You can belong to two or three tribes at once, and you may spend your time with one tribe and move on to another task that involves primarily people from a different tribe. You can work from a lounge. You can work from a cube. You can work from the cafeteria. You can work from Starbucks.

There are all kinds of working opportunities there, but your personality has to say right up front, ‘This is OK. I like this because this rewards me for being who I am.’ But if, as an introvert, I feel I need to have an office with a door on it, then, frankly this isn't going to work for me.

I think there is a lesson here for people and it is this: an organization is not going to change its values to accommodate you. You changing your values to accommodate them will be painful. So get on the right horse to begin with. Find an organization whose values parallel your own. You will be more successful. You will be more rewarded. You will feel more as though you are appreciated under those circumstances.

The advent of the Millennial generation and the rise of the technology industry appear to be bringing a shift in philosophy as it regards the workplace. Do you see an evolution in the way that businesses, especially big corporations, are operating?

There's no question about that. Even old-line firms that have been around 100 years or more are beginning to rethink their workspace. I would offer you two examples: 3M in Minnesota and DuPont in Delaware are both rethinking the way they organize how people work.

Marissa Meyer at Yahoo and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard have both said there isn't going to be any working from home, [but] other companies are fine with you working from home. They hold you accountable in different ways. They measure different things, so they're measuring something other than presence.

It's an old aphorism, but it's certainly true: What gets measured gets managed. So you have to ask up front as an executive what metrics you will use to measure the success of your employees. And then you should go find employees who have the personality, training and skill to maximize those metrics.

So, you’re matching skills first and personality second?

Yes, absolutely. I can't bring in an airline pilot just because I think he's detailed and on task if he doesn't know how to fly. You need skill first.

Every employer is going to measure as much as he can for one reason – risk reduction. The risk of a bad hire is so high – the costs are so high – that you want to avoid even one hiring mistake. And in small groups where you have high-visibility, high-risk enterprises, you cannot afford to have somebody on the team who is a bad fit.  Emotions are infections.

Has the increasing automation of the recruitment process affected the use of personality tests?

It is certainly easier to bring up key metrics that will tell you at a glance what kind of person this applicant is. And so, technology, database management and high-speed data processing have all made the hiring process more precise.

Do you think we'll reach a point where there is no human interaction in hiring decisions?

Well, in many ways, we've already gotten there. A woman at a very large global pharmaceutical firm told me that during the hiring rush – which is kind of September, October and November – they start getting a lot of applications, a lot of resumes. By November, they may have 30,000 resumes. And she said, ‘We have key search criteria and we eliminate people who simply don't meet those key search criteria.'

At some companies, it may be that they only recruit from a certain number of universities. In other cases, they only take people with certain grade point averages. There are others still who look for keywords in your background, key kinds of experiences, and they eliminate a lot of applicants before a human being ever looks at them.

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