As an occupational/industrial/business psychologist, my holy grail has always been: What traits, or combination of traits, predict effective job performance?
There are a number of different paradigms one can adopt for performance prediction.
A highly specified, detailed job analysis. Here, we extrapolate very complicated relationships with a taxonomy of traits, carefully crafting our prediction model to weight each trait according to its predictive power.
A company-supplied competency framework. In this case, we assume that high performance on those competencies considered important by the organization will result in effective job performance across roles. This approach gives coherence with the company culture and values and offers a standard framework on which to assess all employees.
Generally accepted abilities and traits predictive of job performance. This is a more straightforward approach, where we, as psychologists, know that certain traits are widely predictive of job performance and have been for years. These include cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and extroversion. It is generally true that a smart (cognitive ability), hardworking (conscientious), and engaging (extrovert) person will be able to perform to an acceptable standard in a very wide range of jobs. If you think of job performance as a pizza, most psychologists would agree that these key elements represent a good number of slices on their own.
Given we already have a myriad of possible predictors, through a myriad of methodologies, why I am writing a blog about future performance predictors? Well, it’s possible that at least some of those performance slices are changing, because the world of work is not only changing, but thanks to COVID-19, it is also changing at a pace that has never been anticipated.
In 2020, what makes a good employee and what makes a great one has had to be somewhat re-imaged. We already knew that Learning Agility, the capacity to learn from experience and apply that learning to new situations, is going to be critical in the future of work. COVID-19 has made that trend even more apparent – never have we, as a workforce, had to learn and adapt to new situations at such a pace. It doesn’t take more than a cursory read of the social, economic, and political landscape to know the world is likely to get more hectic, not less. Therefore, that learning agility we’ve all been applying in COVID-19 is going to be front and center for successful performance moving forward. Learning agility in 2020 and beyond is more than just a generic leadership trait, it is central to success in almost every role with any level of cognitive complexity.
Creativity is listed as the tenth most important skill in 2015, but 3rd most important in 2020 by the World Economic Forum – and this was before the pandemic hit. It is irrefutably true that our creativity has been tested to its limit during this time. With new ways to do our existing jobs, different problems to solve, creative ways to balance work and home schooling, businesses are adapting to deliver previous face-to-face services in a myriad of remote or contactless ways. We’re all used to measuring problem solving (creativity in some ways is an extension of that) as the problems we have to solve in 2020 and beyond are more complex, multi-faceted, and fast changing than we’ve previously experienced.
What is particularly interesting about creativity as a pandemic/future of work skill is we’ve witnessed all kinds of occupations that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as creative displaying exceptionally creative problem solving. The hospitality industry, the sports industry, education – and those that have thrived have all found unique and wonderful ways to deliver their services to us. What has separated the great from the good is how they have used their imaginations and problem solving to find a way to keep their business going. These skills will continue to be of critical importance in the recovery and beyond as the 2020’s throw up their next set of challenges.
Emotional Intelligence is another skill which has crept up the World Economic Forum’s charts, and one we’ve all had to apply during this recent crisis. Being mindful of the different reactions and feelings of co-workers, clients, and suppliers, being aware of our own emotional well-being, and finding new ways to connect with each other have all been critical to get through 2020’s challenges: from the obvious, such as making space to check in on our highly extroverted co-workers struggling with the isolation of remote work, to the less obvious, such as how to manage the social niceties of food delivery, while simultaneously respecting social distancing and conveying gratitude and respect. Going forward, as we continue with increased remote working, the ever-expanding gig economy, and more diverse societies, emotional intelligence will be critical in a very wide range of roles.
So, what about the role of conscientiousness, previously the most critical personality trait for success in the workplace? Is that at odds with creativity and learning agility? If you follow the rules and focus on the details, can you be truly creative and agile? COVID-19 has surfaced another critical workplace behavior: Safety Consciousness. As we return to work, we are responsible for keeping one another safe, and the only way we can do this is follow the rules, an integral part of conscientiousness.
As we move beyond protecting one another from a virus, there will still be rule following needed in our new world – cyber security being a powerful example. We may have to reimagine conscientiousness as a job performance predictor. Those who are able to push the boundaries, rather than follow the frameworks, to solve problems (Creativity), prioritize being agile over being structured (Learning Agility), but at the same time are able to deliver work reliably and keep those critical rules to the letter will likely flourish in the future.
So, based all on these musings, in order to rise to the challenge of predicting future job performance, it is likely that talent management professionals need to do some, or all, of the following:
Be prepared to "murder their darlings." Many of us have a pet trait we like to measure or a few competencies that have snuck into our competency framework because the CEO liked them. Effective future job performance prediction is likely more reliant on measuring a number of complex and rather contradictory domains. There won’t be space for anything in your measurement model that isn’t critical and evidence-based.
These changes are NOT restricted to leadership or cognitively complex roles. If the recent crisis has taught us anything, it is that even the most junior or straightforward of roles needs to be agile and creative to keep functioning when the chips are down.
Be prepared to update what they are measuring more frequently. Up until recently, we’ve focused on predicting some very well-established, stable domains, but as the world changes more rapidly, so does what we need to measure to predict effective job performance
Accept the challenges of future job performance prediction. While measuring constructs such as Learning Agility, Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and Safety Consciousness may seem daunting, it is critical to remember that all human beings are only a combination of their cognitive ability and personality. Values, competencies, strengths, and other meta-constructs all fall out from these two critical jigsaw pieces. Get the measurement of these right with robust, valid tools and then let your talent management solutions provider guide you as to how to extrapolate these building blocks into those more complex domains.
You don’t need a futuristic style or a virtual-reality-enabled process to measure this stuff. Get the basics right and the rest will follow, even as things change and evolve even more.