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Building a New Employee Experience With Personal Narratives

A different approach to personality at work could help employers retain workers.

Key points

  • It's not unusual for business leaders to struggle to attract and retain talented employees.
  • While personality assessments can help improve the process, they don't go deep enough.
  • Getting to know employees' personal life narratives can help leaders build a more appealing work experience for them.
Alexander Grey/Pexels
Source: Alexander Grey/Pexels

Near the top of the list of concerns for business leaders is attracting people to join their workforce and then keeping those workers long-term (see recent polls from the Conference Board, Gartner, and NCSU). Employers are struggling to find ways to meet workers where they are—to provide benefits packages, schedules, and/or daily tasks that satisfy what workers want out of their jobs.

Personality Traits

One tool that employers have used to understand their workforce is personality traits. Employers measure job applicants’ personality traits to help them choose whom to hire and also to help teammates understand how best to work together or succeed in new roles.

In these contexts, personality is almost exclusively thought of in terms of trait scores. In other words, workers’ and applicants’ personalities are described with a set of numbers that capture their levels of certain traits. (If you have ever taken a personality test and received trait scores, you know this approach.)

Measuring personality as trait scores makes sense: Because traits can be measured somewhat accurately, they generally predict how well people will perform at certain jobs, and they are quick and easy to measure. This means that organizations can improve their decisions about, for example, who to hire and promote relatively cheaply.

But there is a problem with relying on traits to capture personality: They do not tell the whole story of who an individual uniquely is.

What Traits Miss

Traits are just one aspect of one’s personality. Other aspects include behavioral habits, characteristic ways of adapting to certain contexts, or philosophical beliefs that guide decisions.

One important aspect of personality that psychologists study is personal life narratives. These are “the stories we construct to make sense of our lives” (McAdams, 2008). They are narratives that explain how we got where we are and how we fit into our culture, our groups, and our organizations. They describe how each of us has figured out our roles and responsibilities in society.

A Deeper Understanding

A workplace that understands where each worker is in their life’s story and helps to develop that story could give those workers an experience they don’t want to leave. In this way, work could be more fulfilling and a more important part of one’s identity.

More than a set of trait scores or a 360-degreeassessment, personal narratives can describe what is important to people and how they navigate their roles in life. Those are the aspects of personality that may be most important to get to know in order to provide great work experiences.

There’s a problem inherent in this idea: This approach cannot be scaled up. It cannot be carried out efficiently with large groups of employees. There is no easy instrument to measure personal life narratives and then add them to workforce analytical models. Personal life narratives can’t be algorithmized. Fortunately, there is a mechanism for enacting this idea that organizations already have in place—their network of leaders, managers, and supervisors. Anyone responsible for leading others needs to interact with their followers, get to know them, deliver feedback and instructions to them, and have some concern about their success. As part of how leaders are trained to do these things, they could be trained to get to know others’ life narratives and provide work experiences that fit them.

To be sure, this is not an easy fix. It is not a switch that can easily be flipped to provide a new kind of work experience. It could, however, be an investment that has long-term payoffs through retention and engagement, as well as attracting talent.

Of course, some workers do not want to blend their personal and professional lives. They don’t see their work as central to their identity. But that’s OK; attempts by managers to understand that life narrative would reveal those preferences and still could provide a work experience that best fits the worker’s aims in life.

Personality at Work

As organizations struggle to find and keep the employees they want, it may be time to expand how personality is understood. Traits are important and useful to know. But personal life narratives might be the way to provide a unique experience that satisfies what workers are looking for now.

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