Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2012 resolutions: people differ (so now what?)

This year, time to pay more attention to the fact that our people are different. Sometimes the best resolution is to not act on this - for instance, the fact that people's earnings relate to their weight almost certainly reflects a degree of bias that we would be better to shake off. And some research is currently too provisional to figure out what to do with: if a leader's facial width really is related to company success, the implications for what to do about that are far from clear.

Yet some people may suit some work better, or approach things in very different ways. Here are some thoughts on how to approach this with the evidence in mind.

1. Challenge black-and-white notions of "what good looks like" at work. For instance, two voguish notions are that emotional intelligence is a desirable trait, and impulsivity a problem one. Yet recent research shows that for some behaviours the exact opposite is true. If there is one resolution I would put above all others, it's to take recognise that a person's profile is multivalent, containing good and bad. Overall, the uniqueness of each employee is an asset if deployed correctly; a cookie cutter workplace would be a disaster.

2. Avoid driving your introverts to distraction. Work environments differ in their bustle and activity, and research suggests the introverts bear the brunt of a noisy environment.

3. Leverage the broader assets your people bring to organisations. Extroverts are likely to have large social networks that may help them spread messages or identify resources to solve organisational problems. But don't neglect introverts on this matter either: while they are likely to have fewer contacts overall, their relationships overall are just as deep.

4. Consider people's different expectations for what they get out of work. Some jobs are intrinsically pretty grim - so-called dirty work, like euthanising animals.  If it has to be done, it's worth knowing that people with lower expectations are most likely to take the down and dirty in their stride.  Indeed, high expectations and optimism carry their share of risk in other professions too, with so-called positive pollyannas more likely to leave managerial career tracks if their aspirations aren't quickly met.

5. Don't get sucked in by the claims of the arrogant; it's often they who need attention. It turns out that noisy bluster about the shortcomings of others and personal superiority masks substandard performance. Perhaps this doesn't surprise you, but noting that even their own self-ratings tend to admit to lower performance, we can take this as a starting point to intervene.

And finally...

Let's not let the above suck us into too essentialist a view of who we all are. An awful lot of our performance at work depends on  learned capabilities rather than innate talent. Now, it may be unsurprising to hear that the single most direct predictor of performance for computer programmers is their level of programming knowledge. But how about the discovery that charisma can be trained through the identification of discrete behaviours? So my final resolution for you is to be imaginative about how to develop employee's capabilities.

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