Predictions of success have always had a lot of cachet. Indeed, as a management consultant on numerous occasions my clients asked me to interview a team member for the sole reason of predicting success. It was usually framed as “How ambitious is this guy?” “Do you think she’s a quick study?” “What do you think about (insert any name) for that job?” A recent study of that question plowed some fascinating, fruitful new ground.
The research by Minbashian, Earl and Bright initially rehearses the bad news, information that’s been around for awhile. For the typical person, performance increases decelerated over time, plateaued at 2.93 years, and then started to decline thereafter.” I’ll add another statistic: major learning for most employees comes to an end approximately six years into their career. Entropy seems to be the more typical response to one’s career. And that’s not true merely of business professionals. Add lawyers, physicians and accountants to the same mix. Presumably, these findings reflect the effects of learning and changes in motivation that occur over time.
BUT THE GOOD NEWS IS. . . this most recent research ignores performance capability and focuses on mind-sets that enhance long-term learning and the acquisition of new skills. That focus jives with what we know about Ericsson’s deliberate practice, Dweck’s mindsets and how to be brilliant. The researchers take one of the Big Five personality dimensions, openness to experience (the others are neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness) and study 228 recent university graduates in a single large Australian-based professional services company. The participants were studied over a four-year period, using feedback from their managers as well as the participants.
The consultants in the sample accelerated their growth, learning much faster than typical business folk. And, inevitably, they also decelerated their learning much slower than most business people. The researchers suggested—rightly, I believe—that for these individuals, learning and acquisition of new knowledge and skills becomes a goal in itself, not simply performance. The researchers also suggest that work success patterns may only emerge over time. Since there are related studies, both supportive and critical, I’d like to see a bit of research replication to fully confirm the findings and add some how-to insights.
The sample consisted of consultants operating in a relatively complex environment that provided many opportunities for growth. The researchers suggested that the results may not generalize to businesspeople who work in less complex situations which provide less opportunity for growth. Still, today’s work contexts and workforce face an acceleration of project complexity, making the research highly useful.
The researchers did not look at the inherent disposition of people who go into consultancy in the first place. Many, if not most who go into the consulting field are inherently oriented to complex situations where there is the excitement of learning, change and opportunity.
How can you
identify those open to newness?
Since this is early-stage research, there were no recommendations for identification of such employees, nor were there any suggestions for developing this potential.
Openness to new experience is usually understood to involve active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. I believe that the over-arching text may well be curiosity.
One of the more intriguing findings was that “conscientiousness” was not related to long term performance. That’ll go against the grain of some managers.
Although the Big Five Personality Inventory and several other assessment instruments are available to assist in employee selection, it strikes me that people with the relevant behavior can be identified by a few well-placed questions. “We have a number of very stable work settings, as well others that involve a great deal of change and new learning. What is your preference for project work?” “Tell me some stories about the different challenges you’ve faced.” That’s a simple-minded format, but it is an important focus. The questions need to be framed in such a way that the respondent believes that his past performance is equally valuable. But in most settings, I’d trust the employee’s insights and documentation on openness to new experience more than his stories about performance. It is not as readily doctored.
Although the history of selection processes has inevitably focused on examining performance-personality issues at work, the study demonstrates that this more dynamic measure can be of great value. Furthermore, I believe, as noted above, that this kind of information is often more readily accessed than looking at past performance. But if there are conflicts between actual performance and openness to experience, that’s a heads-up for further conversation and analysis.
Flickr photo: by Skorlo