Personality and Productivity in the Workplace: When Grumpy is Good

NoWhen it comes to which characteristics people consider the most important for being successful in the working world, we hear same traits cited so often, it becomes like a litany.

A recent survey of ~500 business managers in the communications and technology fields, conducted by digital education company Hyper Island, confirms it yet again.

When the survey respondents were asked to identify which traits were most important, here were their top answers:

  • A winning personality (e.g., creative, open-minded, positive):  ~78% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  Cultural alignment (making decisions that reflect the values shared with their organization):  ~53% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  The skill-sets of the worker:  Only ~39% identified this as the most important trait.

Regarding skill-sets, it seems that despite the inexorable increase in technical expertise and acumen required of workers in nearly every business discipline, many people continue to believe that personality, attitude and a team mentality trump capabilities and expertise.

In other words, it’s the notion that it’s easier to educate someone with a positive attitude than it is to work with someone who really knows his or her stuff, but has a bad attitude, is a wet dishrag, or whatever.

unhelpful employeeWell, hold that thought.  Because now we have new research from analysts at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois which is giving us another angle to consider.

In their studies, these researchers have found that workers with “net-negative” personality traits appear to be more efficient in their jobs than those who possess “net-positive” personalities.

What’s going on?

To come to this conclusion, the university researchers had their study participants meticulously document all of their activities over a prescribed period of time, along with completing a survey that measured attitudes about their jobs, their workplace and their colleagues.

As it turns out, it’s not that one group puts in more time than the other at the office.  It’s that workers with “sunnier” dispositions are more open to performing tasks that may be outside of their comfort zone.

They’re more inclined to “have a go” at different activities, because they’re naturally more curious … and more willing to step in and support the larger work team.

… Especially if their boss requests it.

By contrast, grumpier employees are less open to novelty … more suspicious of taking on other tasks … and more likely to put up subtle (or not-so-subtle) psychological barriers when it comes to being approachable about taking on those tasks.

By their behavior and body language, they may often be successful in dissuading their superiors from even asking them to take on new and different job tasks.

And if they’re asked, they’re less likely to acquiesce.

As a result, these employees tend to spend more time on a fewer variety of tasks – the ones they already know.  Which, in turn, makes them more likely to further hone their skills in those areas.

I don’t think these new findings challenge the underlying idea that employees with a positive attitude are a strong asset to companies.

But perhaps a smidgeon more credit may be due to the employees who are on the other end of the scale.  When you find them sitting alone in the break room, or avoiding gathering around the water cooler, they may be investing more amount of time in their work tasks — and developing a higher level of skill as a result.

I guess every cloud has a silver lining …

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