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Looking for the perfect fit? Start with these 2 traits.

crowd of women in black and white with one in the center in color, smiling

Whether you’re hiring, on the job market, or looking for a partner, seek out people with these two personality traits to increase your rate of success.

Google Goof

In its early days, Google hired people with high SAT scores, fantastic grade-point averages, and impressive PhDs from places like Stanford, MIT, and Caltech. Fancy stuff. Unfortunately for Google, all the fancy didn’t add up to a productive team and the ‘net giant realized it needed some fresh talent.

In his book A Rare Find: How Great Talent Stands Out, my friend George Anders writes about how Google’s early focus on narrow measures like education levels and SAT scores filled its desks with very smart – but ineffective – hires.

Realizing the mistake, Anders writes, Google “stopped reading résumés the usual way.” Instead of starting at the top, hiring expert Todd Carlisle paged down to the bottom of résumés to look for “hidden winners.”

“That’s where [Carlisle] might find out that someone had competed in four Alaska marathons … or had made it into The Guinness Book of World Records … or had published three software manuals by age twenty-five. For the right job, those weren’t peripheral details. They might be powerful insights into someone’s character or on-the-job potential.”

Finding those “powerful insights,” i.e. assessing someone accurately in a short amount of time, is an age-old need. Psychological testing was invented for this very purpose; armies asked WWI scientists to devise an exam that could weed out potential officers from a wide pool of enlisted men and assign the rest to duties well-suited to their skills (or lack thereof).

Yet testing, interviewing, and padded résumés only take us so far. Ultimately we’re left to make our best guess about people. A fool-proof formula eludes us, but by using a key hint from the realm of Counseling Psychology, we may be able to jump-start our search.

Marriage Secrets

Marriage researcher John Gottman claims that he can predict the marriage-survival rate of newlywed couples based on observing the couple argue for just a few minutes. If the couple exhibited 4 specific negative behaviors – stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt, and emotional withdrawal – Dr. Gottman predicted the couple would be divorced within five or six years. Repeated studies replicated the results, with up to 94% accuracy.

Dr. Gottman’s seminal work is the basis of most marital therapy today. The Gottman Method Couples Therapy works to increase the occurrence of the following behaviors:

  • respect
  • affection
  • closeness
  • breaking through/resolving of conflict
  • greater understanding
  • keeping conflict discussions calm

These traits aren’t just good for marriages; they’re good for the workplace. But what fundamental properties lie beneath these winning features? What basic personality building block does one need before they can grow to be respectful, understanding, and calm under pressure? I think there are 2: formal reasoning and creativity.

TRAIT #1: Formal Reasoning

In grad school, Jean Piaget was one of my favorites. An early developmental theorist, the frenchman divided human development into 4 stages: The baby stage (sensorimotor), the kid stage (pre-operational), the older kid stage (concrete operational) and the mature stage (formal operational). In brief, concrete thinkers are the black/white, right/wrong types. The formal thinkers can see more nuance and are comfortable with gray areas.

One day our professor was lecturing and writing some detailed factors of these stages on the board when he abruptly stopped and turned to us with a half-puzzled, half-surprised look. “You do realize,” he said, “that most people don’t actually reach formal operations?” A wave of clarity swept over me: Most people cannot think logically and abstractly. Suddenly things like tax assessments and Congress made sense.

Let’s say that again: Not everyone can consistently demonstrate formal reasoning. Also, my professor reminded us, because biases often keep people from expanding their impressions of certain subjects, many people aren’t able to use conceptual thinking across all areas. Regularly deploying a logical and highly abstract thought process is more rare than we’d like to think, but it’s the key trait you’re after when looking to fill a challenging position. If a person can reason and relax in gray areas, then she can probably learn quickly any job requirements that she lacks.

Your job as a hiring manager is to determine which requirements, if any, truly need a conceptual thinker. Can the job be broken into two jobs, one requiring more basic skills and the other higher order skills? (Hint: breaking a job into two separate – perhaps even part-time – jobs is a good way to bring in some diversity into IT organizations and train future leaders).

Uncovering the presence of formal reasoning can be done in different ways. Once you know what you’re looking for, usually a conversation about a workplace or personal challenge will bring it out. On the résumé, look for experience in complex situations. (Hint: don’t overlook volunteer positions. I was a VP of a public library’s Board of Trustees. Handling taxpayer money, negotiating with town politicos, and fielding patron complaints all required a higher understanding of how the little picture works inside a big one.) If you interview, ask the person to quickly summarize two sides of a highly politicized current event. Does she have the ability to see both view points and present them fairly? Does he become overly passionate for one side or the other? A person with a good handle on formal reasoning will understand why you are asking, what you are asking for, and will answer accordingly.

TRAIT #2: Creativity

orange background, white paper cut out men with one upside-down

Each year in Germany, small neo-nazi groups conduct marches to commemorate Nazi leaders and ideals. Many years, the marches were met with more anger and protest by the majority of Germans who can’t tolerate the hate. This year, the Washington Post reports, the small town of Wunsiedel turned things around. For every step the neo-nazis took, the town’s businesses would donate money to Rights versus Rights, an organization that helps reform neo-nazis and bring them out of their prejudiced and violent ideologies. So the neo-nazis’ march ended up contributing to their own destruction. Now that’s a creative solution!

Creativity is the new sexy. In light of stories like Wunsiedel, it’s easy to see why. Proceed with caution, though. Creativity is a wild and elusive beast. Since Positive Psychology’s (inexplicable and infuriating) rise in popularity among the C-suite, Creativity has become the Holy Grail of employee traits. And to be sure, creativity does seem to be the deciding factor between who succeeds and who fails.

In the age of keywords and hashtags, looking for “creativity” in a résumé is problematic. One could simply place “#creative” on her LinkedIn profile and recruiters or the HR department would give the link a thumbs up. Here’s where Google’s “bottom up” practice might help. Skim the bottom of the C.V. What are the candidate’s other interests? Do they cosplay? Game? What kind of organizations do they belong to? On the flip side, if you’re a job-seeker, don’t forget to list hobbies no matter how niche they may be (and – do I have to say this? – leave out any NSFW details). That 1st-place ribbon in the Speed Continental Knitting Competition may be the stand-out factor that gets you noticed. Plus, every interviewer wants a better ice-breaker question than “So what brings you here?”

Winning Combo

Conceptual thinking and “thinking-outside-the-box” are actions that give people the freedom to learn something new. If people are inherently drawn to creative endeavors and they’re able to draw connections between abstract concepts, then they’re usually the curious and passionate people who are eager to move forward. Hire them for your more skilled positions.

Examine your job descriptions. Are you expecting a creative type to do repetitive tasks? Break that position into two different jobs. Nothing kills a creative spirit and philosophical mind faster than mundane work.Many lower skilled workers would love to take on that dull data processing and rote server maintenance. As Daniel Pink says in his book, DRiVE: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are the factors that keep your creative and smart employees engaged and productive.


One may want to tack on traits like “kindness” and “patience” but I feel formal reasoning and creativity are the basis of those traits, too. What do you look for in an employee? Heck, what do you look for in a lover? For as much time as we spend with our co-workers, this is directly relatable, don’t you think?

Let me know in the comments.


Also posted on LinkedIn.

Photo Credit: Header image: Christine Cavalier (me, the author. I’m one of those creative media types! I shoot things. That pic was from the Women in Tech Conference Philly 2013. I ‘shopped it for relevance.)

Photo Credit: “Get creative” by JD Hancock on Flickr