Wearing Genes at Work

By Ed Cohen | Winter 2011

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Professor Tim Judge is uncovering the hard-wiring behind career success

If Tim Judge ran a company, the last thing he’d do in filling job openings is look at a bunch of resumes.

He’d rather know the applicants’ responses to questions like, “Which THREE of the following words have similar meanings – Observable, Manifest, Hypothetical, Indefinite, Theoretical.”

And, “How accurately does the following statement describe you: ‘If my boss told me to do two contradictory things, I would not know what to do.’”

That’s because Judge, Notre Dame’s new Franklin D. Schurz Professor of Management, is convinced that years of training and experience are not the best predictors of whether someone will excel in a certain role. The person’s genes are.

What an employer ought to do, he says, is find the smartest applicant (“Intelligent people are quick learners, so even if they don’t have the needed experience they can learn it very quickly”) whose personality also suits the job’s responsibilities.

To identify that person requires testing, and Judge, one of the most widely published researchers on how people’s individual differences—psychological and physical—affect success in the workplace, is especially high on two written tests. Both are referenced above.

The first question, about words with similar meanings, is a sample from the Wonderlic Contemporary Cognitive Ability Test. This is a high-pressure, timed test; the questions get progressively harder. NFL teams have started using it to gauge whether a college quarterback can think quickly enough on his feet to merit drafting.

The second question comes from the Big 5 Personality Test, which is an online knockoff of the famous (and copyrighted, so the questions can’t be reprinted) Revised NEO Personality Inventory. “Big Five” refers to the five dimensions of personality widely recognized by psychologists.

Judge, a psychologist himself, has spent most of his life trying to understand why some people succeed at work more often than others. A lot of it comes down to personality, he’s concluded.

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, he says he noticed that even animals raised together displayed different temperaments. Leaders inevitably emerged in herds. A dominant cow would enforce her will by pushing other cows around a pasture.

Later as a 23-year-old assistant manager of a Kohl’s department store he noticed that his smart and conscientious manager of the sporting goods department nevertheless tended to stir up unrest among fellow employees.

“As I got to know her better I realized that in a way it wasn’t personal and it wasn’t about Kohl’s. She was pretty critical of most things in her life,” Judge recalls. “When I went into a Ph.D. program … that’s what I wanted to study, how affective temperament may influence how we see work and influence work.”

His search led him to the results of the NEO Personality Inventory. He discovered that of the five major personality traits measured by the test, extroversion is the best predictor of whether someone will emerge as a leader.

 “With introverts it is not necessarily that you’re submissive, but you are individualistic and prefer to go your own way and are not comfortable exercising influence over other people,” he says.

He is also convinced that if you are born an introvert, you’re going to stay an introvert.

That’s because in the nature versus nurture debate, Judge is an immovable resident of the nature camp.

This comes from having read hundreds of studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments. In case after case, the genetically identical siblings turn out to have very similar personalities despite having grown up around different influences.

That doesn’t mean environment plays no role, he cautions.

“People have genetic predispositions to certain types of cancer; it doesn’t mean you can’t do things to change those probabilities.”

But it means that intelligence and personality are mostly hard-wired. Which is why Judge is so keen on testing applicants before hiring.
Unfortunately, only 15 to 20 percent of employers do, he says.

Judge is also dismayed by the optimism most people and organizations have that they can “fix” a personality type to improve job performance. Because of the hard wiring, they usually can’t, he says.

Judge says management would be better off recognizing people’s different strengths and shaping jobs and work rules to fit personalities rather than trying to force square pegs into round holes.

“So much of what we do is based on remediating inefficiencies. ‘You’re awful in this, and this is what you need to do.’ Just as often we’d achieve positive results if we tried to leverage people’s strengths,” he says.

The researcher thinks this would cut down on dismissals and improve effectiveness across an organization. One problem, he says, would be making sure everyone feels they are being treated fairly when they are no longer being treated identically.

Another issue is that this would require a radical change in management philosophy. Managers are taught to standardize everything. They have thick binders full of rules to keep it that way, he says. A company might think it was too much work to customize jobs and rules to suit individual employees.

“I would say, ‘Do you want it easy or do you want it good?’” Judge says. “To get the most out of people you do have to treat them as individuals.”