Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 257
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Question of Fit

Recent finding challenges a long-standing tenet of hiring.

Peter Drucker used to remind his business clients that the most important decisions they make involve hiring, and most of us agree with him. Accordingly, managers are very careful when they hire. They take their time, carefully consider different candidates, and they follow rules.

Rules for hiring can originate in experience, common sense, and beliefs about people, but occasionally, they don't agree. When this happens, managers must weigh the evidence that supports competing rules and then decide how to proceed. Research evidence can be helpful.

One ongoing disagreement involves conscientiousness verses fit. Is one more important than the other and should it guide our hiring decisions?

The proponents of conscientiousness insist that good people who work hard and care about their work will grow into their jobs and continue growing as their jobs evolve. The proponents of fit insist that people and jobs have qualities that can either fit or not fit, and placing a person in a job that fits benefits both the person and the business.

The logic for both rules seems solid. What's a manager to do? Should he select qualified people who display outstanding qualities of conscientiousness, or look beyond basic qualifications and select people who match a long list of skills and qualities that seem important? Marcia Simmering, from Louisiana State University, recently completed research that may help us.

Professor Simmering followed students in an executive MBA program and examined the relationships between conscientiousness, fit, self-directed development, and change in the firms in which her students worked. Her findings may surprise you.

A good fit stifled self-development in the most conscientious of her students.

A misfit stimulated self-development. It did not cause them to seek employment elsewhere as is commonly thought to happen.

A misfit also stimulated her most conscientious students who engaged in the most self-development to change their work settings for the better.

Common sense leads to the conclusion that a good fit would have only benefits and a misfit would have only penalties. Ms. Simmering's research suggests different conclusions. A good fit robs people of a good reason to develop themselves and their firms, but a misfit provides it. When conscientious people feel a misfit with their jobs and their employers, they get to work and reduce these feelings. They change themselves, and they change their work settings. In the settings Simmering studied, it was for the better.

The most obvious implication to be drawn from Simmering's research is to favor conscientiousness over fit in making hiring decisions. However, there is more to be drawn from this research that is helpful.

Conscientious employees who feel a misfit between themselves and their work settings will want to develop themselves. They will want to take classes and try new assignments. Managers can be alert to these desires and can provide a supportive atmosphere that will encourage them.

Misfit also occurs periodically in the careers of those who receive promotions, for example, first-line supervisors. Supervisors are good people who know the work and the firm and are called upon to manage employees. When they make the transition from employee to supervisor, they experience misfit. Managers can anticipate these feelings and plan appropriate training and development experiences. For new supervisors, this feeling of misfit provides the "teachable moment" when people are receptive to new learning.

Finally, managers can deliberately create feelings of misfit in order to stimulate both individuals and their firms. For example, although the internet provides access to potential customers that is the envy of sales people from ages past, it has proven to be a disappointment. Many have wondered why, but a look at many web sites often reveals the trouble. The people who design them have no understanding of basic selling. They fail to qualify buyers. They do nothing to create a sense of need for the product or a desire for it.

Try this tactic. Assign your web manager a sales territory - a small one. Get him away from his computer. Have him talk to people who just might buy your product. He'll experience misfit, but he may just learn enough about what he's doing to transform your web site into a real selling tool.

Reference: Simmering, Marcia J., Jason Colquitt, Raymond Noe, and Christoper Porter (2003) Conscientiousness, Autonomy, Fit, and Development: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(5), 954-963.

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