Understanding personality and its role in performance

When it comes to performance – a topic that is constantly on the agenda of most modern businesses – there are a number of different approaches, explains behavioural strategist Warren Kennaugh

One approach to performance is to focus on the talent – we are told that if we are serious about improving performance, we need to find and keep talented individuals who will somehow elevate everyone else around them. As a strategy, however, this is not very effective. Enron is an example of a company that took the talent solution to heart, and look what happened to them.

Plus, this approach is expensive, time-consuming and divisive. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the individual who is supposed to single-handedly turn things around, and at the same time alienates the rest of the workforce, who are clearly viewed as second-class citizens.

The alternative approach is to focus on team performance with the understanding that if everyone lifts their game just a little, then collectively, performance improvements will materialize. Teams may even be sent on team-building or training programs to help facilitate this outcome.

Polarities, not problems
What we first need to appreciate is that individual performance and team performance are not separate problems to be solved; rather, according to consultant Barry Johnson, they are polarities to be managed. Polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable. And often, attempting to address them with traditional problem-solving skills only makes things worse. Team versus individual performance is a classic example of a polarity.

When faced with performance problems, most business leaders will favour one type of intervention over the other – hire more talent or invest in team-building. The reality, however, is that elevated performance is dependent on individual contribution and collective effort, not one or the other.

Too much focus on individual performance may drive greater individual initiative and creativity, as well as fewer and shorter meetings, but it may also simultaneously activate the downside of individual focus – operating in silos, increased internal competition, and no shared goals or synergy. Too much focus on team performance, on the other hand, may create more cohesive units, but at the same time decrease innovation, increase conformity and slow down decision-making.

By seeing team and individual performance as two separate problems, we engage in the ‘polarity two-step’ – we recruit expensive, talented individuals to solve the individual performance issue, only to inadvertently impair team performance by doing so. And when we ‘solve’ team performance by facilitating greater cooperation and cohesion, we can inadvertently stifle the high performers in the team.

This endless swing from individual to collective focus and back again is time-consuming and costly. And, perhaps most importantly, it continues to ignore the importance of personality on performance.

Personality and performance
When we look at individuals, we see a seemingly infinite array of complex and unpredictable thoughts, emotions and behaviours. This apparent randomness is often so daunting and confusing that personality is considered fodder for the ‘too hard’ basket. So it’s little wonder that everyone sticks with performance improvement theories that are based around individual or collective behaviour.

However, behaviour is massively influenced by personality. Sure, if you want to get people to do different things or get them to do those things better, you can occasionally alter that behaviour through rewards, incentives or threats, but it’s usually unsustainable. When no one is looking or the bonus cheque has been banked, they will revert to type and go back to doing what comes naturally to them based on their own unique personalities.

When we uncover specific personality markers – namely, ‘inside,’ ‘bright side’ and ‘dark side’ characteristics – we give ourselves the power to orchestrate fit. Fit is the key to elevated consistent performance. The more our natural strengths, characteristics, skill set and values fit with what is required in the role and fit with the culture and organization itself, the higher the performance will be.

‘Inside’ personality characteristics help to identify what naturally motivates and inspires us. Clearly, if what we are required to do in our role is something we are already motivated by or value, then incentives or threats are unnecessary. ‘Bright side’ personality characteristics describe us on our best days. These are our natural strengths and dispositions, which can indicate behavioural strengths. And our ‘dark side’ characteristics are the behaviours that show up when we are under pressure or stressed – they can easily derail our career unless we know about them and take steps to mitigate their impact.

What I’ve found across more than 3,000 profiles of elite performers and by working in this area for over 23 years are that everyone has four or five behaviours that evolve as a result of their unique personality. These patterns of behaviours are the way we have learned to ‘get along,’ ‘get ahead’ and ‘make meaning’ in the world, and we will use those same four or five behaviours consistently.

The only difference between a high performer and everyone else is that a high performer knows what their bespoke behaviours are, or simply deploys them innately at the right time and in the right place most of the time. By contrast, an average or inconsistent performer is not aware of exactly what those behaviours are, so they are either deployed inconsistently or deployed in a role or environment that doesn’t need or value those particular behaviours.

As a result, performance is often down to chance. This is why sports are so littered with superstitions. In the absence of any real insight into what makes a player good or bad, they fall back on lucky socks and quirky pre-game routines.

What we so often fail to appreciate is that behaviour is behaviour, and it rarely changes. Whether that behaviour manifests as a value-adding asset or a career-limiting liability largely depends on how and where it’s used and, therefore, whether we achieve fit or not.

High performance is not so much about what you do; it’s about how you do what you do, why you do what you do and where you do what you do. In fact, the only important consideration regarding what you do is what you do to screw things up.

We don’t need performance coaches to foster talent in every separate area of our life. What we need is a genuine awareness and understanding of our ‘inside,’ ‘bright side’ and ‘dark side’ characteristics so we can match the best of who we already are to a role and environment that values that contribution. When we do that, the result is consistent, repeatable high performance.