We’ve previously discussed the characteristics of good people and how to select them for your organization. Without the right people, you’ll never have a culture that attracts more of them and encourages growth and success. Although anyone can improve, some things take too long to change enough to make a difference in the business context and timeframe. So we must select people with specific fundamental and stable traits and aptitudes. These are the foundation competencies: intellectual, interpersonal, integrity and intensity. Or Head, Heart, Guts, and Will for short.

Avoiding the wrong people is equally crucial to success. This is simple and important: don’t hire bad apples. If you have them, get rid of them. One toxic person can do more damage to an executive team than all your star performers can overcome. Allowing abrasive or ineffective people to remain in place sends the message that you are too timid to confront the issue, that you are out of touch, or that you don’t care. The long term implications for your culture are evident.

Of course poor performance can be related to poor management practices, but on an individual level it is often related directly to problems with the I-Competencies described above. Although all ineffective people have a detrimental effect, a particular category of bad apple deserves special attention. They can do more than just damage internal morale and performance. These people are most likely to get into ethical and legal difficulties. If they’re at an executive level, they can do real damage to the organization, up to and including destroying it. Beware of the Dark Triad cluster of traits related to manipulative, antagonistic and socially undesirable behavior: Machiavellianism; Narcissism; and Psychopathy.

  • Machiavellianism. Nicolo Machiavelli, a Florentine poet, musician, playwright, and keen observer of political power, is best remembered for The Prince, a biting but accurate treatise on the practical application of power in politics. Machiavellianism is defined as the proclivity to manipulate and exploit using power, intimidation, charm, or other such methods to get what they want. People high on this trait tend to be strategic and prioritize their own interests above those of others. They see others as instruments to help them get their way. But they can also have a smooth and persuasive exterior.
  • Narcissism. In mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissism is the quality of being self-absorbed to the point of pathology. Narcissistic personalities are characterized by an inflated self-concept and self-centeredness. They lack empathy for others and typically assume that they are entitled. Their view of themselves is grandiose. They are sometimes flamboyant and have a sense of superiority.
  • Psychopathy. As with other antisocial personality disorders, psychopathy and sociopathy are deep-seated and quite resistant to change. Psychopathy includes lack of concern for others, disregard for social norms, low tolerance for frustration, and a keen ability to rationalize problems by placing blame elsewhere. Psychopaths don’t experience guilt, and consequently don’t learn much from punishment. They are thrill-seeking and impulsive.

The worst examples of people with these characteristics rarely make it to the executive suite because their antisocial behaviors de-rail them earlier in their careers. However, milder and more attenuated expressions of these pathologies can be a competitive advantage, at least in the short run. A charming psychopath can do a great deal of damage in an organization, especially if he or she is bright.

Get rid of lazy, incompetent, or toxic people. Better yet, don’t hire them in the first place. While some bad actors can slip through any selection system, below are some techniques to help weed them out during the selection process.

  • Testing is central to effective selection systems, especially for entry-level jobs. The different types of tests include personality inventories, cognitive tests (e.g., reasoning, math skills, and vocabulary assessments), role-plays (such as inbox assessments), skills testing (such as programming language proficiency), among others. Testing is most defensible when used to measure factors that have been determined by a structured job analysis and appropriately rigorous statistical procedures to have an impact on successful job performance. Job analysis is typically most useful for lower level positions, where the competencies are clear and simple. It’s more difficult to define a limited and tightly delineated set of competencies for managerial and executive level positions. In these cases, we rely more on the broader foundational I-Competencies, which are best evaluated by a full psychological assessment.
  • The Realistic Job Preview is an effective way to determine the goodness-of-fit between the person and the position. It gives the candidate a good sense of what daily life in the organization would be like, thereby minimizing potential surprises. However, if structured as a mini consulting gig or project (with appropriate compensation), it can also give hiring managers and potential coworkers behavioral examples of what it would be like to work with the person. It can help to get beyond the façade of the interview questioning and the sometimes-undeserved halo of credentials. This gives you a chance to evaluate the candidate according to whatever standards, skills, or aptitudes are important for success on the job, as well as to evaluate that person for general interpersonal and cultural fit.
  • The Structured Behavioral Interview is a process based on the observation that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior in similar circumstances. It can tap into dimensions important to the job, not only specific surface competencies, but also the deeper foundations of personality and ability. It improves the consistency of your process by focusing on behavior in previous, similar situations. This helps ensure consistency, fairness, and validity. However, as structured behavioral interviewing has become a staple of selection processes in many large companies, there is now a cottage industry focused on coaching candidates to handle behavioral interview questions.
  • Background and Reference Checks are especially useful when you are charmed by the candidate and feel that such a step would be a waste of time. Psychopaths are skilled at gaining the confidence of others, and bright ones usually do it quite well. Be very careful when you feel especially good about a candidate and fear you might lose him or her if you delay. Remember the adage: “Hire in haste, repent at leisure.” Structured behavioral interviewing, testing programs, and psychological assessment can provide a wealth of useful data, but some bad apples can slip through. For a complete and robust screening system, you need more. Although former employers will be reluctant to share useful information, when candidates think you are checking references carefully, they are more likely to be truthful. Asking something like, “When we check your references, what do you think they’ll say your major strengths and major needs for improvement are?” will elicit more thoughtful answers than, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” The implied warning that you verify interview data typically gets attention.

Diligent hiring practices are crucial in cultivating a positive organizational culture. Seek out people with strong intellectual, interpersonal, integrity, and intensity competencies, and vigilantly avoid people with traits associated with the Dark Triad. That roadmap leads to resilient teams that foster growth, success, and ethical conduct. Comprehensive testing, realistic job previews, structured interviews, and thorough background checks offer the roadmap for steering clear of toxic influences and fostering a workplace of collaboration, innovation, and long-term prosperity.

We help managers make better decisions, especially when it comes to hiring and developing people. Call for a free, no obligation consultation about your current selection practices and unique problems or issues you may be facing.