The Peril of Excess: Why Moderate Levels of Many Traits Might be Best (Human Resource Management)

Topic: Assessment, Performance, Selection, Human Resource Management
Publication: Perspectives on Psychological Science (JAN 2011)
Article: Too Much of a Good Thing: The Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U
Authors: Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B.
Reviewed By: Thaddeus Rada

A common assumption in personnel selection practice (and research) in IO psychology is that increasingly high levels of desirable traits are always a good thing. For instance, the Big 5 personality trait conscientiousness has been found to be a good predictor of job performance, such that highly-conscientiousness employees tend to be the best performers. As such, our selection systems are typically designed to identify applicants who are highest on these positive traits, so that they can be selected into the organization.

However, some authors have suggested that very high levels of some traits may actually produce “diminishing returns” and be detrimental to performance. This is the position taken up by Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz in a recent paper that evaluates this phenomenon. Expanding on arguments that can be traced back to Aristotle, the authors point out that for many traits and characteristics, extremely low or high levels of such qualities (such that courage becomes cowardice or recklessness, etc.) can be detrimental to performance and optimal functioning.

Although Grant and Schwartz do not focus specifically on organizations or personnel selection, it is clear that their main ideas have relevance to human resource management. These ideas point to the fact that we may want to consider the possibility of curvilinear relationships between traits and performance, such that the highest performers fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum from low to high possession of a trait.

Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 61-76.

human resource management,organizational industrial psychology, organizational management