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October 2022

“Fast 5” with Dr. Jim Thompson, Workplace Psychologist

The first of my Fast 5 series highlights a conversation with a colleague who specializes in candidate profiling.

Dr. Jim Thompson and I quickly cover five key areas – including his advice on how focusing on workplace values versus mere technical skills will help leaders to make faster and better hires for senior roles. Enjoy!

In picture: Dr. Jim Thompson, Workplace Psychologist

1. How do role and cultural fit differ?

Role fit considers the candidate’s past roles and related skills. This approach suggests that a person who has held a CFO role in a smaller company and then moved into broader CFO roles in other companies within similar industries is more likely to fit in with the larger role at a new company.

Unfortunately, there’s a long history of people hired for their knowledge and skills only to crash and burn because of their interpersonal or managerial style. When you listen to examples of situations that stemmed from the style that ultimately led to the candidate’s failure, it often involves something like, “she rubbed people the wrong way,” or, “he had poor EQ.” The actual issue often involves violations of the new company’s norms of behavior or culture.

As a personal example, I had a colleague who served many years as EVP of Leadership Development for a large company. A key aspect of the company culture was expecting executives to engage in lively debates at senior team meetings, after which they all went to lunch together. You were supposed to throw your best arguments for or against some proposed action or decision and ‘have it out’ to resolve the areas of disagreement and move on.

He was hired for a similar position at a larger company. In the first senior team meeting, he started challenging the ideas of other execs and posed penetrating questions like he did at his previous company. He was happy with his performance, but the CEO asked him after the meeting to walk with him down the hall. The CEO explained how his behavior was, “not how we do things here.” It was further explained that proposals were to be sent out ahead of meetings and anyone having an issue with them was expected to go individually to that person and work it out with them. This ensured that everyone together in the meeting is civil and agreeable. 

He quickly learned how to survive in this new company culture with its vastly different drivers and values. Otherwise, the culture would’ve rejected him, or his frustration would’ve caused him to leave. This exemplifies the more critical issue of cultural fit.

2.   Why do successful hires depend critically on professional “values”?

When someone enters a new work environment, there’s usually an adjustment period when the person’s ‘normal’ way of doing things clashes with the co-workers’ expectations. If these differences are subtle versus extreme, the newcomer can calibrate and successfully mesh in with the culture. But, in many cases, the differences are much larger, and the correction may require the newcomer to pay a price too high to remain there – that price being to compromise some deeply held values. 

For example, I worked with an executive who was hired to build more discipline around business processes. Unfortunately, the company’s culture strongly valued ‘winging it’ and being quick to circumvent or ignore established processes and procedures, believing that speed of adapting to changing circumstances was the key to their success. Unsurprisingly, his efforts to reign in these ‘cowboys’ and hold them accountable to processes and procedures met with great resistance. The team voiced myriad exceptions and excuses for not following procedures that they even helped develop. This illustrates how difficult it is for a lone person to come into an organization and make fundamental changes to the values held by most people in that culture. This explains why there’s much turnover when a change agent is brought in to “shape or shake things up” —either the employee leaves or the change agent leaves.

3.   How many relevant professional values have you identified?

My approach to identifying crucial workplace values is mostly intuitive. Based on my varied experiences in organizations, ranging from municipal to entrepreneurial, I listened intently to the values discussed among actual employees. I then screened them based on which ones were most relevant to organizations. Once this was done, I found that some values competed, or were incompatible, with some of the other values. Ultimately, there were 49 pairs of competing value statements.

For example, one of the value pairs is Outspokenness vs. Discretion. In one workplace culture, people are encouraged to speak their minds, without a filter. An open expression of ideas, opinions, and viewpoints. On the other side is Discretion, where people are expected to carefully craft their views, especially where others could take offense at the idea or bluntness with which the idea is expressed. I’ve found that more political work environments (government agencies in particular) have no tolerance for criticism of superiors or their ideas. In contrast, I’ve worked with entrepreneurial companies where people freely expressed criticism or disagreement in lively interactions, often in groups.

4.   How can companies best evaluate a candidate’s cultural compatibility?

It’s standard practice when screening candidates only to interview or assess things like technical skills, knowledge areas, and personality traits. But this formula misses the vital ingredient of a value fit.

Unwanted turnover at a senior level results from poor cultural compatibility, not a lack of technical expertise. Assessments and interviews that compare a candidate’s professional values to those of the organization are best practice methods to ensure a sustained fit.

5.   What red flags should service-driven companies note when screening candidates for executive roles?

The research behind my “dark side test” revealed seven factors associated with failed executive placements. These are called, “Forceful, Confident, Sensitive, Rebellious, Sociable, Cooperative, and Excitable.” Some of these even seem to cluster together. Forceful means aggressive; Confident means narcissistic; Sensitive means passive-aggressive; Rebellious means anti-social; Sociable means histrionic; Cooperative means co-dependent (only rarely is this one found elevated); and Excitable means extremely moody (the worst one).

For instance, an investor-CEO once asked me to figure out why his company’s sales department was unproductive and in turmoil. The department members all completed the “dark side test.” I was shocked that the woman who headed the sales team scored beyond the 75th percentile on being Forceful, Confident, and Excitable. 

Interviews with the sales staff, likewise, uncovered examples of her bullying the males, forcing herself on them, pitting them against each other, and punishing those who failed to comply with her demands – including several complaints to HR of sexual harassment of the male sales reps. Because she was the highest-performing sales rep, the CEO moved her completely out of management and put her on the road to selling. The bottom line is that ‘positive’ traits and tendencies are often detrimental when taken to extremes.