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Encourage engagement for accountability

By Sharon Birkman Fink

Executive Summary
Surveys show that many employees are disconnected from the workplace. Personality testing and team building, done correctly, can reverse this trend and make the aftermath of the Great Recession profitable and improved for both worker and boss.

Since 2007 many employers have been forced to make difficult cuts in staffing, pay and benefits that have had a major impact throughout their organizations. As the Great Recession decimated stock prices, profits, compensation and payrolls, it also dramatically weakened workplace engagement – the passion for excellence among people who want their organization to succeed because they feel connected to it emotionally. Years of workplace trauma have created an engagement crisis amply documented by numerous surveys.

One of the most respected and widely cited ones, by the Gallup polling organization, has shown that even after the economy has been in recovery for several years, engagement remains at historic lows. From the fourth quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2011, Gallup found consistently on a quarterly basis that more than 70 percent of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, meaning they are disconnected emotionally from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive. This disengagement cuts across multiple measures that define successful organizational performance: productivity, customer service, quality, retention, safety and profit.

Employers cannot mandate the engagement that creates workplace accountability. An organization may promote itself on “best places to work” lists, but a cynical, negative workforce will undermine such an image. True engagement and accountability come from understanding and satisfying workplace needs, creating a passion for excellence among people who give their best effort every day. As economic conditions improve and businesses gradually shift from contraction to expansion, the number one human resource objective should be to identify and add engaged employees who will work with accountability and be motivated to help their employers succeed. Such potential new hires will be hard to find after years of recession-induced cutbacks have taken their toll even on those persons who remained employed.

The hiring process

The goal of every organization should be not only to hire the best available talent for immediate needs, but also to select new hires who can be retained and developed for positions of greater responsibility within the organization. It requires considerable time, effort and insight to find people who not only are right for the job but right for the organization because they want to excel. That puts the pressure squarely on the hiring and evaluation process used by human resource professionals. Yet the hiring process at most organizations often assumes the existence of engagement and accountability in new hires.

Academic research highlights this danger, pointing out that employers continue to rely primarily on “gut feel” in hiring decisions. For example, one recent study of more than 200 human resources professionals, reported in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, revealed that by a ratio of more than 3-to-1 they believed that unstructured interviews allowed them to learn more about candidates by “reading between the lines.” The simple fact, however – proved often in academic research – is that there is no such thing as intuitive expertise in the prediction of human behavior. Considerable analysis over time suggests that experience does not improve predictions of human behavior, even among experienced employment interviewers.

The reasons why are clear. Decisions made in a hit-or-miss manner too often mean that the hiring manager’s own personal perceptual filters, and the judgments based on them, can be more of a hindrance than an aid in finding the right person for the job. The selection of an individual for a position always involves observation and assessment of human behavior based on the intuitive perceptions that were developed by those making the selection. But these intuitive skills inevitably are inadequate because they are subjective and unique to each person’s experience.

As human beings we most often are attracted to the personality style and type that most closely resembles our own, thus we may be tempted to hire accordingly. Those responsible for hiring only can understand the motivation of others if they understand their own motivational drivers and how they may be different from those of the persons they hire. Consider, for example, that human resources professionals responsible for hiring typically are among the most engaged members of any organization. It is their job to be keepers of their employer’s brand – the organization’s image as a “great place to work” in the minds of current employees, potential job candidates, clients, customers and the business media. They have the responsibility to use the tools that motivate others through career advancement, learning opportunities and personal respect.

Bridging the gap

Yet recall that the opposite emotions – disengagement and cynicism in the post-recession business world – are widespread. Hiring managers may know and live their organization’s values, but employers cannot mandate engagement with mission statements. A cynical new hire prospect with plenty of informal networking and communication resources to find out about a company may slip through a quick, “gut-feel” interview process and quickly prove to be a poor organizational fit. Both company and individual lose if this happens.

Bridging the gap between hiring needs and job seeker attitudes is a fundamental benefit that can come from using assessment testing in the new hire process. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of midsize and large companies use personality and ability assessments of new hires for entry and midlevel positions. The goal may be to help the employer hire a specific type of individual, or to rule out someone who does not fit. Either way, by identifying candidates with the potential to excel and the type of top performers they can be, personality testing makes hiring systematic, not hit-and-miss.

“Testing” can cover a wide range of structured programs. Employers can identify and evaluate a battery of assessments, from general mental ability and skills (the “can do” type of tests) to personality assessment (the “will do” evaluation). If a personality assessment categorizes individuals based solely on aptitude characteristics and omits all of the situational factors for the jobs, the result is an incomplete picture. Similarly, assessments that do not account for the intensity of each personality trait measured, or how different situations that arise on the job raise or lower intensity level, will throw no light on how a person will react to stressful versus normal job situations, no matter what their skills for the job.

Testing provides job candidates and employers with a common language to neutralize assumptions that people often make about each other, creating a foundation for trust and integration. Hiring managers who understand the testing dynamic can use the tests to help their companies fit employees where they will be most effective and most likely to succeed. That helps the employee and the employer and is a better motivator of engagement than mission statements or newsletters. Objective personality testing, by analyzing individual responses against the results from thousands of other people who have taken the test instrument, by definition offers a far better perspective on insights into individual motivations, styles and needs.

The testing process

Personality testing is not a rigid, by-the-numbers process; it offers considerable flexibility in demonstrating how personal strengths and job requirements align. Test results allow assigning new hires to jobs that they are good at and passionate about. Defining a person’s underlying needs and motivations shows what drives his or her behavior and how best to establish and grow an emotional workplace connection. Personality assessment thus creates a frame of reference to assess interests, job needs, work style and career satisfaction.

When done right, testing identifies traits that help any organization to assess employees’ ability to be accountable and engaged in the workplace by answering these questions:

  • Do they work better alone or on a team?
  • Do they prefer a structured or flexible work environment?
  • Do they take initiative or need guidance?
  • Do they think in terms of details or the big picture?

Each person has unique strengths, weaknesses, productive behaviors and stress behaviors that may be similar to or differ from peers. Personality testing identifies and brings those characteristics into focus, and employers that use testing to understand what drives the people they hire and promote can be more effective at competitive performance and profitable growth.

Building trust

Hiring, of course, is just half of the equation. Maintaining engagement and accountability among existing employees is the other half. Trust is the foundation for such an effort. Employers can build it through open communication, collaboration and understanding employee needs. Improved employee engagement begins in relationships between managers and work teams and among work team members.

Executives cannot create positive relationships with mission or value statements because these things do not address the real dynamics between employee and employer. That dynamic – the source of any employee engagement – depends on trust. It comes from the hearts and minds of employees who feel connected emotionally to their organization’s mission and purpose.

Improved relationships and communications within teams have significant impact on employee engagement and accountability by building trust in three ways:

  1. Enhancing efficiency, as accurate information shared among team members builds the foundation for acting immediately and with confidence
  2. Increasing clarity, by showing team members how their work fits into the big picture and helping them see their own roles and importance
  3. Maximizing motivation, when employees understand the importance of their contributions to the organization’s success because managers have explained it to them

Good communication does not always have to be positive, but it always should be candid so employees understand the issues that affect them. Sometimes a manager’s message of, “I don’t know, and we will not know for a while,” is better than, “All is fine, and we have nothing to worry about,” when the latter statement has no basis in fact.

Good communication also is two-way. Consider a manager who says to team members: “This project needs to be completed by next week. Do you see any problems in making that happen?” The resulting input will increase not only the chances of success, but the engagement of the team in achieving that success. Similarly, if managers emphasize that detailed planning is essential to projects but in reality they operate using whim and indecision, it will be fatal to trust, performance and engagement. Rebuilding engagement only can be done from the ground up by an affirmative effort to satisfy workplace needs and create enthusiasm among people who want their organization to succeed. Then your workforce is motivated to achieve that success.

Such a process doesn’t just happen. It requires a combination of tools, such as employee surveys and behavioral assessments, that provide objective insights about the needs and expectations of the organization’s team members. Testing and assessment can facilitate assigning team members to jobs that they are good at and passionate about, creating the core dynamic of engagement and optimizing accountability.

Managers who are provided with effective assessment tools to understand what motivates the people they supervise can better structure team assignments that help employees remain engaged. When objective measurements like this give employees and supervisors a common language for trust and communication, accountability and engagement will follow.

Personality assessment tools are indispensable in this effort because the more an assessment measures, the more useful it is to predict workplace behavior and the greater insight on how best to boost the performance of individuals and the teams of which they’re a part. Test results allow assigning team members vjobs that they are good at and passionate about, creating the core dynamic of engagement. These are the things to consider in using tests effectively:

  • Look for a comprehensive test. The more an assessment measures, the more useful it is to boost the performance of individuals and the teams of which they’re a part.
  • Use testing to reinforce team dynamics. Testing results support assigning team members to jobs that they want and excel at. Such enthusiasm will create an environment where employees support the employer brand, even in the midst of restructuring.
  • Ensure that testing measures the three factors most critical to job satisfaction and resulting job performance. These are individual characteristics, job situations, and how individuals and situations interact to get the right person in the right place.
  • Maintain objectivity. Tests should be a confidential assessment, offering each person the chance to communicate honestly in a no-blame environment.

Real-life accountability and engagement

Here is how the process can work in the real world. A supervisor at one of the world’s largest aerospace companies was given charge of a $2 billion product group that had low customer satisfaction because of cost, schedule, quality and labor issues. In seeking to understand how to lead and motivate the group better, he took a personality assessment test that provided him with the equivalent of a personality fingerprint. From the report and coaching sessions, he gained insight into his own motivations and learned that individual assessments could be used to compare the personalities of two or more individuals. They even could be aggregated to define a team landscape.

The results were so meaningful to him that he had his entire team take the same assessment. This data demonstrated that personality fit, not likes or dislikes, shaped how the team worked, or rather failed to work, together. The supervisor then went the next step to assess what skills might be missing and to screen potential team members from outside the company. He also used the data to reposition individuals into roles in which they would be matched better with their assignments. As new members were added, it was with a deliberate focus on diversifying the group and gaining balance.

The ongoing results were impressive. The unit grew more collaborative, addressed quality and communication issues, and improved financial performance. Team trust increased because differences were dealt with in an open and honest fashion instead of being allowed to fester. The unit went from being a place where few people wanted to work to a place known for generating future leaders. And the supervisor was promoted, eventually becoming president of a major operating group of the company.

Despite the benefits from personality testing, some employees may fear test results being used against them. But when supervisors use testing to understand what motivates the people they supervise, they can be more effective at structuring team assignments that help employees support the employer brand. Tests give employees and supervisors a common language to neutralize negative assumptions, creating a foundation for trust and collaboration in which employees can be supervised most effectively and will be most likely to succeed.

Testing and team building create a reinforcing dynamic with recruitment to help those responsible for hiring to evaluate whether job candidates will support the employer brand when interacting with fellow employees, clients and customers. Such affirmative identification will keep the retention pipeline full with the people best qualified to spur the improvements in quality and service that every company will need in the competitive future business environment.

Sharon Birkman Fink has served as the president and CEO of Birkman International Inc. since 2002. Throughout the 1990s, she helped with company training and feedback. She attended the owner/president management program at Harvard Business School. She is a National Merit Scholar and Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and she completed a master’s degree in music at the University of Texas.

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