Don't always look on the bright side (of personality)

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It's just as important to pay attention to the dark side, which is unavoidable and consequential

About 75% of employers admit to having made bad hires, each with an average cost of more than £12,000. The higher the position the higher the cost – a wrong hire at the executive level can cost about 10 times his or her salary. Studies show that as many as 65% to 75% of leaders turn out to be incompetent, a rate that parallels levels of employee disengagement. Incompetent leadership is often responsible for bad corporate culture and organisational failure.

We often hear about bad leaders ruining whole organisations. Long before being in the news for lying about diesel emissions, Volkswagen was known for having a ruthless corporate culture and its former chairman, Martin Winterkorn, had been warned about his micro-managing style. These negative factors, combined with other failures, created an environment that allowed for the disastrous emissions scandal. Similarly, Marissa Mayer’s personality is also often blamed for the decline of Yahoo! She was seen as a workaholic, unable to listen to others, or to learn from her mistakes. Disgraced media tycoon Robert Maxwell was deemed a psychopath and was described as a tyrant by those around him.

The common thread among most failed leaders is they often fail because of characteristics that previously drove their success. Robert Hogan defined these characteristics as the dark side of personality, and in 1997 developed 11 dark side scales such as excitable, reserved, colourful, bold and cautious, which can cause derailment.

These behaviours are often a result of overuse of our strengths. Most people fall into the high-risk category for several of these scales. Simply put, everyone has a bright and a dark side. We show our bright side when we are at our best – such as when trying to impress someone, or even under normal but optimal working conditions. The dark side appears when someone is under stress, bored or overly comfortable in the working environment.

But what can HR do to prevent employees’ dark sides from ruining the company?

  1. Create a healthy work environment with relaxed working conditions to foster a useful balance of dark- and bright-side characteristics.
  2. Align personality with the right role. Research by Hogan Assessments shows that 'bold' managers give extraordinarily positive first impressions, and excitable people work with great passion and intensity. Some jobs benefit from an arrogant personality, such as entrepreneurs, lawyers or media figures – but that can be more problematic for service-oriented positions like care assistants, nurses and doctors.
  3. Harmonise dark side characteristics with managerial positions. 'Colourful' leaders are evaluated more favourably by their bosses than their 'reserved' counterparts. On the other hand, a manager who isn’t remotely 'excitable' can turn out to be dull and uninspiring while a low 'imaginative' score may show lack of vision. Finally, a high 'cautious' score suggests indecisiveness.
  4. Conduct formal evaluations. Pay attention not only to the skills and bright-side characteristics of your employees but their dark side as well.
  5. Challenge your colleagues who demonstrate specific dark-side traits. If someone is too 'reserved' coach them to be more proactive in offering new ideas in each meeting. If they are 'colourful' they should listen to others before sharing their brilliant new idea.

Employees are the most important asset of any company. But to function effectively the organisation must be aware of the positive and negative personality characteristics of their workforce, and try to leverage the dark side for the benefit of both the employer and the employees.

Zsolt Fehér is managing director, Europe at Hogan Assessment Systems

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