Work styles that work best

July 26, 2007
We once hired a promising young engineer who had a physics degree from a well-known school. He was obviously sharp and could grasp new concepts quickly.

He also was unusually outgoing for an engineer. With his combination of academic and interpersonal skills, he looked like a winner who would go far.

Surprise. He turned out to be almost totally worthless as an engineer. After a year, we were forced to let him go. His problem was one of being easily distracted from tasks at hand. He preferred to interact with people instead of focusing on the nitty-gritty of technical problems. So it was tough to get any work out of him.

I recalled this guy as I read a recent report by economists who studied how a person's interpersonal style affects their earning potential. One conclusion was that not all people skills are created equal, something we learned the hard way with our bad hire.

The job market simply values certain kinds of interpersonal styles more than others. Researchers figured this out by analyzing long-term studies of U.K. youths and how they eventually fared in the job market. It was possible to divide the people skills they demonstrated into two broad areas: directness and empathy. Directness is important for instructing, persuading, and presenting. Empathy is important for counseling, caring for others, and working with teams.

Granted, both kinds of interpersonal skills play a role in all jobs, but there are big differences in which one tends to be more important in which job. People adjust their behavior to circumstances, but the degree to which they can adapt depends on their personality.

For people who score high on the empathy and caring scale, tough luck. Researchers found those in professions where direct communication is important get rewarded more handsomely than those where empathy and cooperation are key. Another finding: People also earn less (and, I suspect, don't last long) when circumstances force them to switch into jobs that don't fit the way they interact with others. People are most productive when they are not square pegs in round holes.

More important, though, are the economists' conclusions about sociability and youth. By age 16, personality is pretty much set. The economists found they could look at the social tendencies of 16-year olds and accurately predict what kind of jobs they'd wind up in.

That might be a point to note for parents of academically gifted kids attracted toward care-giving professions where compensation levels are uninspiring. An individual's personality rather than their academic achievements are a stronger predictor of the direction they'll ultimately take.

Or at least that's the way it worked out for a friend of mine. Roy got all the way through engineering school and into the workforce before he realized his mistake. He then completely switched gears and found his true calling. The world lost a mediocre chemical engineer but gained a great minister.

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