Here’s What Your Hiring Managers Can Learn from the Major League Baseball Playoffs

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Oct 6, 2015

Hiring employees who are naturally gifted is only half the battle. It used to be that physical ability mattered most. Today, however, employers are realizing that personality — mental toughness, discipline, positivity — is just as, if not more, critical for meaningful success, sustained performance, and career mobility. With the MLB playoffs starting, I’d like to explore how this same concept has played out on the baseball diamond, as well as in the office.

The surprising success of the New York Mets this season contains a number of subplots, but, most would agree that it is the performance of a young pitching staff that remains at the heart of the story. The physical talent possessed by these ballplayers is undeniable, even causing Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz to comment that this staff is more talented than the Atlanta Braves staff he was a part of in the 1990s, which included a total of three eventual hall-of-famers.

However, the path by which this staff arrives at the 2015 post season illustrates the need to look beyond just physical talent when forming a high-performing team. In baseball, as well as in business, sometimes you need to look deeper than the conventional scouting report/employee selection process to get it right. After consulting with thousands of companies and sports teams in assessing, selecting, and managing talent, we’ve found that capitalizing on the best opportunities to select top talent often requires bucking conventional wisdom. The usual way of hiring is very often not the most effective.

The unlikely success of the Oakland A’s baseball club in the early to mid-2000s (as illustrated in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball) is perhaps one of the best examples of this. By eschewing the traditional criteria of assessing Major League potential, Billy Beane and the A’s found a way to remain highly competitive within the constraints of a much smaller market and budget. Assessing talent in this unconventional way allowed them to see potential where others did not, and the A’s could therefore avoid overpaying for talent while selecting players who were much more likely to contribute to team wins. Another lesson that can be taken from this example is that physical ability is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor related to success in sports.

The career of Beane himself is a clear example: a five-tool player and first-round draft pick of the Mets, he batted only .219 over six seasons in the major leagues. Getting on base and consistently thriving in the Major League environment involves many non-physical behaviors such as showing patience, maintaining composure, managing stress, reading game situations, and predicting what type of pitch will be thrown. This is now being attacked with data analytics, as seen in this research from UC Berkeley.

This Mets staff is also a great example of how going beyond just the physical talent is often required to better predict who will be successful in the major leagues. With the example of Bartolo Colon (who has exhibited the grit of an individual who has been remained a winner in a highly competitive environment for over 20 years), the average age of the staff is less than 26 years old.

This is a group of ballplayers who are just beginning to realize their life-long dream of playing major league baseball. But they are experiencing this dream for the first time in one of the biggest spotlights in all of sports … a pennant race in New York, a work environment in which we have seen many more seasoned professionals buckle under the pressure. Additionally, one is bouncing back from the physical and psychological impact of a ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear (and recovery from Tommy John surgery), and another who was drafted as a shortstop and is now dealing with the heightened expectations associated with being named National League rookie of the year.

This all speaks to personality traits and motivational factors that allow these top athletes to rise to the occasion and to seize their moment.

Research supports the notion that there are tendencies and behavioral patterns that differentiate successful from less-than-successful performers across many performance contexts. Much like there is a clear relationship between physical strength and the frequency of driving a baseball 400-plus feet, so too are there clear relationships in business such as being strong in persuasiveness and strategic thinking and successful consultative selling.

Personality assessment has been widely used for decades throughout the business world in predicting on-the-job performance, and its use is starting to gain attention from those assessing potential for success in sports. Consistent top performers, whether they are on the field or the production floor, in the office or the boardroom, are very often those who are lucky enough to perform in environments and contexts that are congruent with their personality and motivational strengths. An individual’s personality dynamics provide the psychological mechanism that gives rise to the behaviors that lead to strong performance. One of the clearest paths to top performance is to maximize the congruence between an individual’s personality and the tasks and work environment in which they are expected to perform.

Even “traditional” baseball scouts try to make their own evaluations, albeit highly subjective, of such constructs as work ethic, self-discipline, concentration and focus, competitiveness, self-confidence, and humility. Recent research provides confirming scientific evidence of a relationship between athletic performance and a wide-range of personality traits, such as tendency toward risk, self-confidence, and coping style.

We’ve assessed the personality dynamics of thousands of athletes and millions of employees, and these assessments lend tremendous insight into a wide range of competency areas for business such as being an impactful communicator, leading change, thinking strategically, maintaining focus on results, developing strong business relationships, and managing time effectively. Similarly, we find that top-performing athletes can be assessed on competencies relevant to winning their respective sports, such as being coachable, competitive, confident, and a team player. While there are obvious performance dynamics that differ between athletes and employees, there are some lessons to be learned through some of the similarities we find between athletes and leaders in business, including:

Mental toughness: Resilient, level-headed, and stress tolerant — Strong performers are more likely than average to bounce back quickly from failure, manage stress levels, and control their own emotional state for optimal performance.

Assertive and positively aggressive — Top performers in both athletics and business are more likely to want to take control and ownership of their situations and are likely to bring a constructive competitiveness to their game.

Disciplined and detailed oriented — Top performers are those who are more inclined to engage in long, focused practice, attend to all of the details required to become world-class in their area, and strive to find the one best way to accomplish their goals.

Strong problem solvers and decision makers — Top performers in both sports and business are more apt to recognize patterns and exhibit a high level of learning agility. They are also more likely to be effective in their decision making, exhibit more patience, and show long-term orientation. That is, both balance the drive to take calculated risk with the need to be more thought out, deliberative, and patient.

So what we find is that physical ability is necessary, but not always sufficient, in predicting who is going to be a top performer in the major leagues. Similarly, we often find that resumes that contain advanced degrees, a track record of experience, professional certifications, technical knowledge, and large networks of contacts may not tell the whole story. That is, we are often well served to consider “the intangibles,” those individual characteristics that tell us such things as how gritty and resilient an individual will be in adverse situations, how comfortable the individual will be in asserting ideas, how disciplined and focused he/she will be, and how willing he/she will be to take calculated risks to achieve goals.

By continually questioning conventional wisdom, both teams and companies can use objective performance and predictor variables that go beyond traditional scouting and recruiting to identify athletes’ and employees’ potential to contribute to team and company wins.

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