Ian MacRae is an organizational psychology consultant and psychometrician and writer who works internationally. Ian has conducted research with tens of thousands of participants in over 40 countries. He has written 4 books about practical work psychology. He is an advisor at Thomas International, Research Manager at Sage Transitions in Canada, and Director of High Potential Psychology Ltd.
Four years have passed since High Potential was first published, why did you feel the time was right for a second edition? What have been the most notable developments in the research since then?
The first edition of High Potential was published in 2014, and although many of the fundamentals of work psychology remain constant, the new areas of research have been expanding rapidly.
High Potential draws heavily on research from the High Potential Traits Inventory (HPTI), which is used to measure personality in the workplace. The research on this tool is far more comprehensive than it was in 2014 – tens of thousands of additional people from dozens of countries have taken the test in the past few years and the evidence shows even more clearly and comprehensively how these personality traits are linked to success and potential in the workplace.
The other notable development is the research on new technologies and the assessment of people at work. In the first edition of High Potential, psychological research on social media was an emerging area but now the field has grown substantially. For example, mobile technology is having an even more profound impact on the way people communicate and work.
Is there a sense that the dog-eat-dog world of career progression is changing, with more emphasis now being placed on managers supporting their employees – even if it means they may leave to join another company?
In some senses yes, there tends to be wider recognition that employees who have support from management, strong training and development programs, and are healthy and engaged at work are more productive. However, working with good people, good management and a company that values their people makes it much less likely for employees to leave that job.
People are more likely to leave jobs when they are managed badly or work with bad managers. Leaders and managers who care about their employees end up with more committed and loyal employees. Reciprocity is extremely important; when workers are treated as disposable, they won’t hesitate to leave for a better opportunity (and why shouldn’t they?). The companies that provide fair compensation, good management and realistic long-term career prospects are actually more likely to keep employees.
It is also important to mention that organizational culture varies substantially, and there will always be some companies or organizations that develop a dog-eat-dog mentality. Those types of organizations and groups will always pop up. Organizations can be corrupted by bullies and backstabbers who get to the top, and when those people get to the top, they spread that culture across the organization surprisingly quickly. This is why it’s so important to have good leaders and effective systems of checks and balances which prevent selfish or self-absorbed individuals from using organizations and systems for their own personal gain.
You mention in High Potential that a “survival of the fittest” approach to potential can sometimes allow people with the “worst and most destructive tendencies” to rise to the top. How does your model prevent these dark-side personalities from progressing in the workplace?
The first and most important point is that, in the long term, honesty, reciprocity, integrity and humility are actually the most effective or “fittest” traits in a leader. Lying, cheating, stealing, self-aggrandisement and backstabbing are short-term tactics which almost always turn out to be self-destructive in the long term.
Oversight and good management are also essential in preventing counter-productive, short-term strategies getting in the way of long-term goals. Everyone has some type of dark side which is generally quite benign – a necessary (and sometimes overlooked) part of management is avoiding the conditions and culture that allow destructive behaviour to thrive. When an organizational culture spreads fear or mistrust, removes accountability, or promotes short-term targets over long-term thinking, it can create a carte blanche for bad behaviour.
You spend a lot of time in both Canada and the UK, have you noticed any cultural differences between the two in terms of workplace behaviours or personality scope? How about other countries worldwide – are there any notable examples or, globally, do we tend to exhibit the same balance of behaviours?
I grew up on the West Coast of Canada, and some of the stereotypes about the West Coast of North America are true. There’s a lot of yoga and kale and aggressive optimism. But if you go a bit deeper, there’s a range of people with different personality traits in every country.
Research very clearly shows that the range of personality traits and the overall structure of personality is extraordinarily similar around the world. There are far more differences within any country than there are between two countries. The same is true when you compare gender or age or ethnicity. People vary a lot within certain groups, but the overall personality differences between any demographic groups are insignificant.
Interestingly, sometimes the differences in talking about personality traits come from where you would least expect. The HPTI has been used and translated around the world, but the most challenging language so far has been with Quebecois French in Canada. German, Finnish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Portuguese translated quite easily. The underlying structure of personality remains very consistent, but the way people communicate and talk about their work can vary substantially.
If you’d like to find out more about High Potential testing and professional personalities, watch Ian discussing the book on Talking Business with Aaron Heslehurst.
High Potential is available on Bloomsbury.com