Pinpoint Key Behaviors and Traits of Engaged Employees

It’s often amazing the misguided focus of hiring managers, who place too much emphasis on education and skills and not nearly enough on behaviors and traits. The fact is, the most engaged employees are engaged because of behaviors and traits they exhibit, not because of their skill set or the educational degrees they hold.

Indeed, the truth is that employees are promoted for displaying specific behaviors and traits — namely, those that define high performance and high engagement.

Sure, education and skills are important. Having the necessary education and skills is similar to having Jacks or better — you need them just to stay in the poker game! But often, it's the intangibles, like behaviors and traits, that get people promoted in the workplace.

In fact, if you were to ask a leadership team to define the common attributes of the top 10 percent of their workforce, or to define their most engaged employees, they would most likely outline a common set of behaviors and traits — rather than education or skills — that all these individuals possess.

To determine what behaviors and traits are most important for your organization, gather a cross-sectional group of leaders and list the employees who consistently embody excellence at your company. (The actual number of names will depend on the company's size; target the top 10 percent.)

It doesn't matter how junior or senior the employees are, or whether they're from research and development (R&D), retail, finance, or HR. Then start listing the behaviors and traits that make these individuals shine, making sure to limit your list to personal qualities rather than achievements.

For example, let's say an employee on your list, John, an architect, always comes up with the best numbers. Why? Is it because he's a great architect, which you could attribute to education and skills? No. It's because he's tenacious, creative, and resourceful. These are traits.

In addition, John surrounds himself with the best people, chases clients the company never would have pursued otherwise, modifies his business development plan to incorporate new findings based on proposal wins and losses and subsequent contact with clients, and is dogged in following up and following through. These are behaviors.

If the people on your list all possess the same 15 behaviors or traits, you can assume these are the distinguishing characteristics you should be looking for in new hires and candidates for promotion. Of course, education and skills are important. But those are what's needed merely to get a candidate's foot in the door or to suggest adequate performance. You don't want adequate — you want excellent.

Here are several behaviors and traits commonly associated with high performance and high engagement (your requirements may differ):

  • Is enthusiastic

  • Is solution oriented

  • Is team oriented

  • Is selfless

  • Is optimistic

  • Shows a passion for learning

  • Asks “Why not?” instead of simply saying, “That won't work”

  • Passes along credit but accepts blame

  • Goes above and beyond

Behaviors and traits also have an effect on the opposite end of the employment spectrum: getting fired or laid off. Often, the first employees to be let go exhibit certain behaviors and traits — in this case, those that define low performance and low engagement.

If you were to ask a group of HR executives if they've ever fired an accountant because she couldn't add or fired a designer because he couldn't design, their answers would likely be a resounding no. But if you were to ask that same audience if they had ever fired an accountant or designer because of a certain behavior or trait, the heads would nod in a definitive yes.

Following are several behaviors and traits commonly associated with low performance and low engagement. Naturally, these are behaviors and traits you want to avoid:

  • Is negative

  • Is pessimistic

  • Has a history of absenteeism

  • Shows a “me first” attitude

  • Is egocentric

  • Accepts credit but passes along blame

  • Focuses on monetary worth (“I'm not being paid to do that”)

Usually, people who model the aforementioned high-performing traits will accelerate their careers, while those who model the low-performing behaviors and traits… well, they won't.

The good news is, just as employees can add to their education and improve their skills, they can, with effort, modify their behaviors — when they know which behaviors your organization considers valuable. You can help them along by recognizing and rewarding the behaviors you want to promote (and punishing the ones you want to discourage).

Note, however, that traits are a little more difficult to modify. For example, say you work in hospitality, and your organization values extroverted personality types. Odds are, any introverts in your midst will have a hard time becoming extroverts.

In that case, the correct response may be to counsel introverted employees to shift their careers toward a less extroverted career path within the business — say, switching from the front desk to the finance department.

List the traits that you'd like to see in an employee. Then list the behavior you think demonstrates each trait.

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