Why Employers Need to Screen out �Toxic' Job Candidates

Don Tennant

My recent post, led to a lot of discussion of the role that having a positive attitude plays in gaining employment. Maybe it's time to take the discussion a step further and ask: Should employers make an effort to identify negativity in job candidates and consider that trait as a potential disqualifier?

According to Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher, founder and CEO of Good Think Inc. and an expert in the field of positive psychology, the answer is a resounding, 'absolutely.'

Achor, who is also the author of 'The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work,' told me in an interview earlier this week that not enough companies are making an attempt to screen out negative, pessimistic, unhappy people in the hiring process:

We talk to so many companies who hire brilliant people who are toxic, meaning they decrease the productivity of the people around them, and they raise job dissatisfaction rates. That's the greatest predictor of unwanted turnover and of high health care costs. Part of what we're finding is if the company wants to become more efficient, it needs to be much better at selecting people to hire that will not only be more successful, but will be more positive as well. The conclusion of my research is that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged work force. If a company really wants to be what it's capable of being, it has to first ensure that its work force is positive and engaged. If they're ignoring that in their hiring practices and in their training policies, they're risking not only lower productivity, but losing out to their competition.

The problem, Achor said, is that most employers are overlooking what matters most:

Most companies hire based upon intelligence, technical skills, and resume. Unfortunately, that only comprises about 25 percent of the predictors of job success. Seventy-five percent of job success is predicted not by intelligence and technical skills, but by three other factors: the belief that your behavior matters, which is optimism; your social support at work; and whether or not you see stress as a challenge or as a threat. This is why we're starting to see some companies begin to assess potential hires based upon those attributes. They're better predictors than some of the scales they've been using in the past. But oftentimes we hire people, and aren't even looking at their disposition. We're not looking at their attitude; we're looking at their aptitude. As a result of that, we miss out on making sure that we hire the best people for the job.

Achor agreed with an assumption I presented to him, that a job candidate who goes into an interview with a happy and positive frame of mind is more likely to be hired than a candidate who doesn't. He noted that when people are positive in interviews, it increases the likelihood of being perceived as trustworthy and charismatic. The issue companies need to be aware of, Achor said, is that in interviews, job candidates try to act more positive than they really are:

What companies need to be able to do is use scientific tools that help them with that process, to assess these employees on a few of these metrics. One of the things we've done in our company is we've designed four metrics that in total take five to seven minutes online to complete, but predict 75 percent of job success. Not only that, they predict which hires will be seven times more productive, with 10 times less of a chance of burnout than the people who are low on the scale. The reason we do that is people are not presenting their true selves during the interview process. This enables you to get around that by asking questions that we know are predictive in the long run of how people will perceive their work and their coworkers.

All of that begged an obvious question: Let's say I'm an IT professional who's been unemployed for a year. I'm watching jobs being outsourced offshore and being filled by workers here on temporary visas. Maybe my age is working against me, and I'm incredibly discouraged. How do I go into a job interview genuinely happy and positive? Achor's response:

I think there are two options. One is you can go into a job interview discouraged, frustrated and hopeless about the job situation and the job market. And people pick up on that stress and negativity very quickly. It's just like in a dating situation-people who act desperate when they're dating, because they feel like they haven't dated in a while, we find that decreases the chance of them finding a date. So what we want people to do is to believe that their behavior still matters-believe that if they keep trying, they will get the job they want. And believe that they have the resources necessary to make that job a more positive job. What that allows people to do is when they go in, they're not focused on the fact that they're discouraged or the fact that unemployment rates are high, but they're focused on their strengths-why they think they would be a good candidate for the job, and why they would not only be adding their skills, but would be bringing a positive mental attitude with them. What we find is that if people think, 'I'll be happier once I find a job,' it decreases the likelihood of them having the success rates needed to be able to find that job. If people reverse the order, if they think, 'I'm going to focus on being positive, on developing good personal habits while I'm unemployed to raise my level of happiness,' that not only increases the likelihood of them being hired, but it increases the likelihood of them being promoted, as well.

Achor also noted, for what it's worth, that people who have a religious belief are happier than people who don't:

The lens through which you see the world changes the way you not only act in reality, but the way reality affects you. Whether you view the world from an optimistic or a pessimistic standpoint dramatically changes how much you can change reality. What we've found is that regardless of what the religion is, when people have a lens through which they see the world that has meaning, like a religious structure, it significantly increases their levels of happiness. Religious involvement highly correlates with happiness levels. That's due not only to the spiritual side of it, but to the social support, the practicing of things like gratitude or meditation, and the altruism that's embedded in most major religious traditions.

The bottom line: We've gotten it completely backwards by thinking that success breeds happiness. In truth, happiness breeds success. I asked Achor how we got it so messed up, and he said it all has to do with not understanding how our brains work:

We feel good after we have a success, so we think that that's the only type of happiness we could have. In our companies, we talk about how if we could just hit the sales target we'll be happier. What we forget in that process is that how your brain is working matters to the outcome you are seeking. So what that means is that if we can get your brain to positive, it turns out that your brain works even better. It has higher levels of productivity, its creativity level goes up, even your intelligence rises. So what we're trying to get people to do is to recognize that they need to prioritize positivity. If they can increase the amount of positivity they feel while they're doing the work, then their success rate starts to rise significantly.

Finally, I asked Achor to encapsulate the seven principles of positive psychology that he wrote about in his book. Here they are:

The Happiness Advantage. Happiness is a work ethic, and you have to train your brain for happiness, just like you train your body with exercise. I talk in the book about five positive habits that people can adopt in their lives to raise their level of optimism. These are things like meditation and writing down the things you're grateful for. But you can do anything that makes you feel more positive.

The Fulcrum and the Lever. Archimedes said, 'Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.' The same thing is true at the brain level. What we find is your brain's perception of possibility shapes how much possibility you can [recognize] in your environment. If you think that you cannot change, if you have a fixed mindset, your success rates lower dramatically. If your thinking is that your brain can improve, that you can grow and that you have a higher potential than you're currently showing, you've lengthened the lever and given yourself a stable place then to start to create the change you want in your environment.

The Tetris Effect. If you play the video game Tetris for five hours in a row, you start to try to make straight lines out of the shapes in your environment. Your brain gets stuck in these cognitive patterns. And the same thing is true with optimism and pessimism. What we've found is that many people who scan the world for all the problems first, all the negative things, those people do not scan the world at the same time for the things they're grateful for and ways to move forward. What we get people to do is create new cognitive patterns-a positive Tetris effect-where in their environment, instead of scanning first for the problems, they scan for things that can help them create solutions. In doing so, it changes the entire way they view reality.

Falling Up. What we've found is that failure and even trauma don't necessarily have only negative effects on individuals. In fact, every biography, every great business story, usually starts with a couple of failures. The difference between people who become extraordinarily successful and people who remain mediocre is how they view, in their brain, that failure. So what I talk about is how to use adversity to compel greater growth-something we call 'post-traumatic growth' instead of post-traumatic stress.

The Zorro Circle. This is based upon how Zorro was trained, where he was trying to fight an entire army and ending up in despair. And then a sword master made him fight within a one-foot-radius circle. Once he could defend that circle, then he could expand it. The same thing is true with the human brain. We often set ambitious and large goals for ourselves which overwhelm the brain, and cause something called 'emotional hijacking.' That's where you feel overwhelmed and you don't take forward steps. The Zorro Circle is about making large goals, but then breaking them into smaller, manageable circles in which you know you can defend them. And once you've seen success within that small circle, you expand it out. The goal of this is that once the brain records the victory, then it has increased resources and energy to take the next step and the following step. Basically, the Zorro Circle helps you short-circuit emotional hijacking at work.

The Twenty Second Rule. This is one of my favorites. People can know what to do, but they don't do it-information doesn't cause transformation. If you make a positive habit just 20 seconds easier to start, it significantly increases the likelihood of you keeping that positive habit. The Twenty Second Rule is about changing your environment to lower the activation energy necessary to start a positive habit.

Social Investment. Social support is the greatest predictor of happiness and success during a time of challenge. The problem is when we get stressed, like when we're unemployed, we do the opposite. What we find ourselves doing is divorcing ourselves from our social support. We eat lunch at our desks, we stop seeing our family and friends, we stop sending kind emails or talking to people. As a result of that , our success rates lower. The Harvard students I've worked with, when they get stressed they spend 16 to 18 hours in the library, and they come out and they have lower success rates. They feel frustrated, they feel depressed, and their health declines. The reason is they've shut themselves off from the greatest predictors of their success. What we've found is that the positive outliers-people above the curve that I study-those are the ones who increase their investment in their social support networks when they get stressed.



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