It turns out Shrek was right, but not just about Ogres. People are also like onions. Onions are made up of many layers, semi-translucent and sometimes harder to look into. On the outside we are smooth, whole and unassuming but inside ring upon ring we are complex and deep. People have multiple layers and understanding who that person really is can’t be revealed until you peel back the layers and get to know their inner self. In business, understanding the invisible work behavior layers of the person you hire is essential.
At hfi we look at the layers of our human onion by first looking at behavior. Behavior is the outer layer. Easy to see, behavior can be measured simply by watching someone. But behavior is also easy to change. Indeed our behavior changes from situation to situation. Work behavior is likely to be quite different from how we behave at home. And crucially, how a person behaves in a job interview might be quite different from how they behave once they start the job.
The next layer comprises knowledge and skills. Being deeper in the onion, this layer takes a little more effort to measure. You cannot tell what knowledge someone has just by watching them and watching their work behavior. You need to test them, to ask questions. For example, you can measure someone’s knowledge of finance by asking them to explain the difference between a balance sheet and a P&L account. You can find out how good someone is at Excel by asking them to build you a spreadsheet. It also takes a little more effort for people to change their knowledge and skills. If you don’t know the difference between a balance sheet and a P&L account, you can look it up in a book, and now you are developing some knowledge. But this doesn’t tell you what people are going to do with their knowledge and skills. To find that out you need to dig deeper into the onion. And the deeper you get harder it is to see.
The next layer of the onion is values and beliefs. Our values develop slowly over time in response to the experiences that we encounter. Values take months or years to change. And to understand this layer requires considerably more effort. Simply asking someone rarely works. Most of us would find it very hard to articulate our personal values and beliefs. It requires rather clever, indirect questioning to identify and categorize a person’s values and beliefs.
Finally, at the heart of the onion we have personality and ability. Genetics plays a part in establishing these traits. But during adolescence, as our brains are developing, our personalities and our cognitive ability continue to vary considerably. Then, as we reach our twenties our brain development ceases and our personality and intellectual capability essentially set. After that it takes a major traumatic event to have any impact on our core characteristics. Measuring personality and ability is difficult because it is so masked by the other layers. It requires sophisticated psychometric assessment to fully measure an individual’s personality and ability.
Our personalities define what values and beliefs we are willing to accept or adopt. Cognitive ability defines how quickly we can learn new skills and knowledge, and how good we are at applying them to new situations. And all of these things have a huge impact on how we behave. So, whilst measuring how someone is behaving right now is easy, it is a poor predictor of how they are likely to behave in the future. Only by understanding the full onion of a person that we can really get an idea of their work behavior.
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