Quality is something we all want to see in job candidates, but when does it become perfectionism? We champion ambition and recruit for it, but when does it become impatience, entitlement, or a warning sign of short tenure? Proactive employees are a prized commodity, but when does taking the initiative become a liability to the organization or lead to crossing boundaries?
Assessments for hiring and development are often based on the assumption that higher scores in positive behaviors are better, but this is not always the case. In a 2013 article in the Journal of Management, Jason Pierce and Herman Aguinis introduced an idea called the “Too-Much-of-a-Good-Thing Effect,” whereby positive employee traits can reach an upper limit of effectiveness. Beyond that point, possessing more of these traits can have a negative impact on organizational outcomes. Pierce and Aguinis apply this approach to a broad spectrum of areas, including organizational growth rate, operational diversification, and personnel selection.
Here at PRADCO, we see this happening when leaders put extreme emphasis on “positive” behaviors that are typically encouraged on the job. One example of this when assessing sales professionals is the impact of building relationships on sales. To a certain extent, cultivating strong connections with prospective or current customers is critical to earning trust and business. However, too much time spent building customer relationships could detract from productivity, territory coverage, and service delivery to other accounts. Other types of jobs we assess for are no exception. Manufacturing employees can be so focused on results that attention to detail slips. Leaders and managers can put so much emphasis on hitting their targets that facilitating the success of others takes a back seat. Safety forces professionals can be so confident in their judgment that they’re resistant to considering alternatives that their colleagues or superiors suggest. For all these reasons, we recognize that positive behaviors and “high scores” can pose as many challenges as negative behaviors or “low scores.”
So what can you do if you suspect you might be seeing “too much of a good thing” in someone being assessed for a job or development? When clients ask this question, we try to answer three questions based on other data and evidence we have for the individual:
1. IS IT THEM?
As a general rule, no single data point should stand alone in being the basis for a conclusion. So, when a candidate scores incredibly high on Quality, we want to look for other evidence that confirms or denies the existence of perfectionistic tendencies. What do other assessments say? What do people who have worked with this person say? What has your experience of the person been? The goal here is to draw a sound and robust conclusion based on multiple observations.
2. IS IT THEIR CIRCUMSTANCES?
There are times when we have confirmed an “extremely good” behavior in a candidate, only to learn that it is a product of their current job or life experiences. This instance is particularly important to pay attention to when someone is switching jobs or transitioning from an educational setting to a work setting. Craft questions that draw out examples of instances where this behavior wasn’t extreme. Take the person’s current context into account and consider how it impacts what behaviors they emphasize. Here, we are trying to separate behaviors your candidate will emphasize consistently from those that are more context-driven.
3. IS IT SOMETHING YOU CAN WORK AROUND?
Of course, this is the operative question. The central thing to determine here is whether your candidate is coachable, meaning that they have the motivation, ability, and capacity to adapt their behavior. We often look for things like learning agility, improvement focus, and openness to feedback to inform this opinion. Assuming someone can be coached, moving them toward an emphasis on other behaviors is generally more effective than getting them to focus on minimizing positive behaviors they have taken too far.
People with “extremely good” behaviors can still be excellent employees and candidates for development. Knowing whether that is true or not is a product of effective assessments, of which there can never be “too much of a good thing.”