Authors, consultants and organizations have started to pay more attention to the value of exemplary employees. Some of this is probably due to competitive pressures, some is probably due to work like Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Unfortunately, a great deal of the focus on exemplars has been–from my perspective–misguided.
There is a tendency to view exemplars in terms of their personalities. So we describe them by their attitude (refusal to quit, optimistic) or the personality trait (inquisitive, creative). And of course the problem with doing so that personality doesn’t make a superb perform. There may be traits and attitudes that are valuable to have. But what performance analysis tells us is that you can’t just parachute someone with particular traits into a particular job and automatically get success. And that two performers with very different personalities can achieve similar outstanding results (especially with white collar work).
It’s not that we should ignore personality or attitude. It’s that we should start first by looking at outcomes, identifying what produces that outcome for the specific job and then looking at how behavior or attitude or personality may help influence performance on a specific task. Otherwise, we devise personality assessments that tell us to screen for particular personalities and ignore the reality that people can have similar personalities yet be radically different in terms of results.
Thomas Gilbert covered this issue extensively in his book Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Gilbert talked about the fallacy of the “cult of behavior” in which people assume that if only workers would behave a particular way, than great performance would result.
If people focus on exemplars but continue to emphasize behavior or personality as the key elements, then we will have no advanced performance. Gilbert’s insights are still true today.