The Kinds of Employees You Want to Hire.

appleThose who are innately confident and self-directed routinely outperform co-workers, regardless of their backgrounds. By Nick Tasler at BusinessWeek.

There are two kinds of employees. Some believe they can make things happen, and the others believe that things happen to them. The first group believes that the outcome of their life and career is more or less in their own hands, and they wouldn't have it any other way. The other group takes more of a Forrest Gump approach: They sit around and wait for a bus to take them somewhere. This distinguishing feature is captured by something called a "core self-evaluation." After more than a decade of research, psychologist Tim Judge has discovered that virtually all superstar employees—from rainmakers in the field to line workers on the floor all the way to big guns in the boardroom—have one thing in common: a high core self-evaluation. Judge describes core self-evaulation as "a person's fundamental bottom line evaluation of their abilities."

Judge and his colleagues have shown overwhelmingly that employees who feel like they control the events in their lives more than events control them and generally believe that they can make things turn out in their favor end up doing better on nearly every important measure of work performance. They sell more than other employees do. They give better customer service. They adjust better to foreign assignments. They are more motivated. They bring in an average of 50% to 150% more annual income than people who feel less control over the fate of their careers. Not surprisingly, these employees also like their jobs a lot more than the Gumps do.

Better Performers In Good Times And Bad In one study, Judge and his team tracked the progress of more than 12,000 people from their teenage years to middle age. He found that core self-evaluations predicted who did and didn't capitalize on the advantages life dealt them. With only a bleak view of their capacity to handle life's challenges and opportunities, even the brightest kids born to executives and engineers failed to reach as high an annual income as their less fortunate classmates.

By contrast, the supremely confident sons and daughters of roofers and plumbers who had only mediocre SAT scores and below average grades earned a 30%-60% higher income than the smart kids with dreary views of their abilities. And those kids with all the advantages of intelligence and pedigree plus a firm belief in their competence earned three times as much money as their otherwise equally blessed peers.

It seems that the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful employees has as much to do with an employee's beliefs about her ability as the reality of that ability. Considering that this difference is based as much on illusion as on reality, you might think the employee's performance would take a serious nosedive under challenging circumstances.

After all, if you think you're special, what happens when your superior or your board tells you about the areas in which you're falling short? Worse yet, what happens when the self-described superstar finds himself laid off or responsible for a division with tanking revenues? In other words, what happens when people who believe they are capable of controlling the world find themselves in an economy that is out of control? It turns out that this is when the true stars shine. Tough times weed out both those with low self-evaluations and those poseurs who only pretend to have a high self-evaluation—the narcissists. Judge finds that only about one in five people with a high core self-evaluation also scores high on measures of narcissism. That's probably why researchers continually find that those with a high self-evaluation do so much better in turbulent times compared with those with a dimmer view of their abilities, and compared with those narcissists with fragile egos.

In a series of studies by different researchers, employees with high self-evaluations have been found to respond better to corrective feedback. They also experience less stress and burnout than other employees, struggle less with work-life balance, and persevere more when searching for a job. Rather than shattering their beliefs in their abilities, it seems that a high self-evaluation creates a mental toughness that makes these people stronger and more resilient even when the chips are down.

The Core of Your Recovery Strategy To identify these stars who can take charge of your organization's rebound, you can use Judge's simple 12-question "Core Self-Evaluations Scale." (You can learn more about the scale and download it for free on Tim Judge's Web site.) It would also be a good idea to start keeping an eye out for these positive go-getters already working for you and consider giving them more responsibility and visibility in your recovery efforts. Here is how to spot them:

  • "I Think I Can" Attitude: Kindergarten never taught a lesson more supported by empirical evidence than this: People who believe they can overcome challenges are more successful in virtually every sphere of life, including work.
  • In Control: Does this employee take control of his work, or does he always point to outside circumstances when his projects go astray?
  • Confident, Not Narcissistic: There is an important difference between having a high self-evaluation and being a narcissist. Does the employee pitch in when teammates need help, or bad-mouth co-workers they view as threats? Are they receptive or defensive when you give them feedback?
  • Emotionally Stable: Employees who aren't easily discouraged are less likely to succumb to stress and burnout. They solve problems instead of saying, "See, I knew it wouldn't work!"

You could argue that getting these winners and their can-do attitudes on board still can't do much about a dismal economy. After more than a year of watching the economy go the way of the Titanic, nobody would blame you for trying to wait out the hard times. But do you really want to spend the coming months soothing your anxieties with a box of chocolates, and hoping that your bus arrives before the wind picks up?

Nick Tasler is a writer, researcher, and organizational psychologist. Tasler began his career at Andersen Consulting, was director of global research and development for think tank TalentSmart, and has consulted for Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller public and private enterprises. His book The Impulse Factor was named Best Career Book of 2008.