Personality: Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing?

— February 14, 2017


Within the talent management community, there is often the perception that having more of a desirable personality trait is always better. After all, if friendly, conscientious individuals do well in a particular role, shouldn’t extra friendly and extra conscientious individuals do extra-extra well? To a certain extent, this logic holds true.


If a job requires significant interaction with clients throughout the day, then someone who is moderately pleasant is probably going to be a better fit than someone who is not at all pleasant. However, there is a caveat to the “more is better” idea when considering individuals’ characteristics: there are cases in which being at the highest ends of the spectrum may actually be less desirable. Put another way, there is often a sweet spot when it comes to identifying top talent.


Although it could be argued that a sweet spot exists for any given job and trait combination, there are certain traits that more frequently exhibit this tendency in practice. Some examples include:



  • Empathy: Greater empathy means a greater ability to connect with others and feel what they feel, which can be beneficial in customer service positions. The problem? Burnout. Highly empathetic individuals who work in positions where they routinely deal with customers who are irate, sad, or exhibiting some other non-positive emotion may burnout because of the otherwise desirable emotional connectivity.
  • Emotional stability: Nobody wants an employee who is going to fly off the handle at any moment, making emotionally stable employees generally attractive for hiring. However, an employee who is too emotionally stable may lack a sense of urgency and drive that would be necessary in certain positions. Is the super-chill surfer dude going to make a good stock trader? Probably not.
  • Conscientiousness: Conscientious individuals tends to be highly sought after in the workplace. Highly conscientious individuals are punctual, organized, and detail-oriented, all of which are likely to be related to success in a variety of jobs. With that said, it is also possible for conscientiousness to be a barrier to top performance. Highly conscientious employees may spend so much time fretting the details that they allow perfection to get in the way of timely task completion. Similarly, their preference for order and following procedure could be a double-edged sword, as they may struggle when required to make decisions in high pressure situations.
  • Achievement motivation: Recruiters and managers often express a desire for go-getters and those with a natural drive for success. They want people who want to do the job and want do it well. The reasoning behind this is quite sound, as motivation is a key component of success in any job. At the same time, achievement motivation can display an undesirable relationship with turnover at the highest level of the spectrum. The most highly driven individuals are only likely to remain satisfied when they have something to achieve: bonuses, certificates or awards, or promotions. When they perceive that they will no longer receive a return on their efforts, they may either back off their effort or decide to leave altogether.

What can talent management professionals do with the knowledge that these traits, as well as others, may not always conform to “bigger is better” when it comes to predicting both performance and attrition? Below are 3 key points of action.



  1. Be aware— Simply being aware that selecting people with the highest amount of a desirable characteristic is not always the best course of action is an important step toward creating a more nuanced understanding of roles within an organization. Be mindful of falling in to the “more is better” thinking trap.
  2. Be data-driven— Best practices would suggest that talent management teams regularly collect and analyze data to assess links between traits assessed during hiring (be it through assessments, interviews, or other methods) and the resulting performance and attrition of hires. If such a process is not already in place, consider instituting one. This will provide not only a big picture understanding of the effectiveness of the hiring process, but a way to more effectively refine the process year over year. If such a process is in place, then it is simply a matter of considering the possibility of sweet spots when making strategic changes.
  3. Be thoughtful— Are there consistent patterns that may point to the possibility of a sweet spot? If so, be thoughtful about whether this is best handled through hiring, through post-hire efforts, or some combination. For example, if individuals who stood out as being particularly ambitious are tending to leave the organization, it could be that there is a legitimate sweet spot and hiring practices for that job should focus on pinpointing that. Alternately, it could be that changes to the training or reward structure of the job, creation of a clearer career advancement program, or similar changes may be preferable.
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