The Brain at Work

By Adrienne Fox Mar 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, March 2008 Inherent Abilities

Westfield Group, an insurance and financial services firm based in Westfield Center, Ohio, and Crowder Construction Co. in Charlotte, N.C., number among the organizations that embrace neurological findings in organizational development activities.

Both organizations use assessment tools to help employees understand their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses. Among the tools: the Five-Factor Model, a widely accepted scientific model for assessing traits also known as the Big Five. Many companies, including the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, N.C., have developed tools for the Big Five. To conduct a free online assessment, go to or

Through questions, the tool assesses individuals on the following five factors:

N: Need for stability. The degree to which people respond to stress.

E: Extraversion. The degree to which people enjoy sensory bombardments.

O: Originality. The degree to which people are open to new experiences and ways of doing things.

A: Accommodation. The degree to which people defer to others.

C: Consolidation. The degree to which people can focus on the task at hand.

The test scores people on a scale of 0 to 100 on each of the five factors, so someone may be rated a high N, middle N or low N. Unlike the results of some other personality tests, Five-Factor Model results tend to remain stable throughout a person’s career with marginal changes, studies show.

“We use this tool because of the neuroscience behind it and the philosophy imbedded in it,” says Mark Whitmore, human resource executive at Westfield Group. “Virtually every other personality test is based on someone’s theory, such as Myers-Briggs being based on Carl Jung. This assessment is completely scientific-based, and that helps with acceptance.”

Whitmore, who holds a doctorate in industrial psychology, has been using the tool at Westfield for five years for development purposes, and to determine when to invest in training and, more important, when not to. “There are some areas that require development where the individual isn’t going to be capable of developing,” he explains. “You can accommodate for that; however, you may not want to invest too much in training for it.”

Instead of providing training, Whitmore helps employees find ways to overcome the problems. “If you have someone who isn’t good at planning, rather than spending a lot of money developing that skill and only getting an incremental increase in that, we find ways to accommodate for that,” says Whitmore. “We may look at other people in their area who are good at planning and delegate those duties.”

Whitmore began using the Big Five assessment tool in the selection process about a year ago, he says, based on profiles of successful traits in each job. “We don’t use it as a hurdle approach, but it’s very helpful in the interview process,” he says. “If we find planning is very important in the job and we find the person lacks this trait based on the assessment, we would discuss this in the interview. I just hired a manager where this was the case, and I was impressed by how well she had created processes for herself to overcome her lack of planning skills.”

Crowder Construction assesses all 800 of its employees on the Big Five traits--from the chief executive officer to the crane operator. The company uses the results to manage performance, fit people in the right jobs, determine training needs and delivery methods, resolve conflict, and build teams.

Performance management. If a Crowder employee is having a performance issue, HR will pull up the Big Five results and try to figure out what’s holding the employee back. “We realize [the performance issue] is not something they’re choosing to do or not to do,” says Christa Davenport, people development manager at Crowder. “It’s an innate issue, and we want to provide them with ways to overcome those issues.”

Job fit. Like Westfield, Crowder has compiled profiles on the common traits of people who have been successful in the company’s roles, such as project engineers, estimators or foremen. If someone wants to move into a position that doesn’t fit well with his or her traits, Davenport--along with Claudia Dodgen, SPHR, vice president of people development and employee services--will coach the employee. 

“It’s a matter of going in with our eyes open,” says Dodgen. “We tell people they may have anxiety or stress if they go into a position that does not match with their natural traits. If they choose to take the position, we manage those expectations.”

But sometimes the employee will be coached into a position that is a better fit. For example, “We have a project engineer who is very introverted and has traits that fit project estimating better, and we are looking into moving him,” explains Dodgen. 

Training. Crowder employees are instructed to bring their Big Five results to training sessions and share their traits with others. This allows Dodgen to figure out who will need help on certain areas of development. “So if we are training for something that requires a low accommodation score, we will point to those with a higher score that they need to pay closer attention to the techniques,” says Dodgen.

Dodgen and Davenport also tailor training delivery methods based on profiles. “We would never offer computer-based training for our foremen because we know they don’t prefer learning that way,” says Dodgen. “We think being able to tailor our training definitely helps improve our return on investment.”

Conflict resolution. Construction projects assemble different types of people, some of whom have never worked together before, for a short period of time. Rather than wait the usual three to six months for everyone to get to know each other, the company shares the results of everyone’s Big Five scores immediately. “That way, one person can look at another’s results and say, ‘OK, I know I may have trouble communicating with that person. I’ll need to spend more time doing that,’ ” says Dodgen. “It helps anticipate conflict and resolve it in a proactive way.”

Team building. Crowder has also developed teams based on traits. “If we have a project that requires an ability to think outside the box, we will look for people with high O [openness to new ideas] scores,” says Dodgen. “That doesn’t mean we exclude people who don’t have the right profile. If they have the experience we need, we will include them but will know going in that they will struggle with that trait.”

For more types of assessment tools, visit the SHRM Testing Center.

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