Stop fitting square pegs into round holes

May 05, 2020 1 Min Read

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work – Aristotle

I am always surprised by human resources departments trying to fit ‘square pegs into round holes’, instead of matching people’s interests, aptitudes and default personalities to the requirements of the job.

This wasteful effort is justified on two grounds. The first is that career promotion depends on climbing a managerial ladder, without recognising most people do not want to manage other people.

The second is that people should undergo training and development to close identified performance gaps, without considering whether closing such gaps is sensible, given the negative impact of default personalities on productivity, if people are forced into temperamentally unsuitable roles.

Most people do not want to be managers

The number of people who really do not want to manage other people is surprisingly high, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review in 2014. There may be two reasons for this:

  1. The lack of training of managers in managing others:

A recent study by shows that a whopping 58% of managers said they didn’t receive any management training. Digest that for a second. Most managers in the workforce were promoted because they were good at what they did, and not necessarily good at making the people around them better.” – Sturt D, and Nordstrom T in 10 Shocking Workplace Stats You Need To Know, Forbes, March 8, 2018.

Although this was in the US, experience suggests the situation is the same in Malaysia.

  1. Many people actually do not like managing others because it takes them away from what they love, which is ‘doing’ rather than getting others to do:

“I was merely managing the people who actually did and made things. I no longer operated in my personal sweet spot, where my sense of accomplishment after closing a difficult sale or launching a new product was contingent on my having had a concrete deliverable and the sense that my efforts were integral to its success. Being a manager caused me to feel disconnected from… autonomy, mastery and purpose…

default personalities

default personalities

Why do we reward success on the job with a promotion out of the job and into management?

Companies continue to cling to the notion that one of the only mechanisms they have to acknowledge employees’ talent is to make them managers and then to continue to promote them into ever-higher levels of management – reflecting the misguided assumption that being good at something also means being able to (and wanting to) manage others doing the same thing.

Once in management, its trappings…don’t really satisfy many of us who, like me, miss the doing…“…I know now … that as a corporate executive I felt like I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t – I didn’t like being a manager, but I was a manager, so I had to appear to be interested in all the stuff that went along with being a manager.

“This is something social scientists call ‘emotion labour’ – what you experience when you feel obliged to act differently from your natural inclinations.” – Kreamer A, What If You Don’t Want to Be a Manager? Harvard Business Review.

One of the most common mistakes of this type is to promote the best salesperson to become an indifferent sales manager, damaging performance twice: once, by losing the results of the best salesperson; twice, by putting them in a position where they can demotivate their subordinates.

The same applies to moving researchers or engineers into management. The skills, involvement and aptitudes for selling, research, or engineering are quite different from those needed for managing subordinates.

SEE ALSO: Six Things That Kill Morale

Invest in parallel career ladders

The best way to avoid making such a mistake is to invest in two career ladders: the traditional managerial ladder which has an ever-increasing number of people to be managed as individuals climb the ladder; and to have a parallel technical ladder where individuals grow and are promoted based on their technical expertise, allowing them to focus on what they do best and like doing.

default personalities

default personalities

Professional service firms have long practised this approach, where careers are based on becoming the ‘go-to’ technical experts (practice leaders), effective ‘rainmakers’ (client leaders), as well as managerial leaders (office managers).

Harness the power of default personalities

Too often, management advised by HR departments spend time trying to close staff performance gaps caused by their default personalities. Instead they should spend more time harnessing the power of those personalities by putting employees in roles they will enjoy doing. As Aristotle noted: Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.

A job we do not like is a chore, whereas a job we enjoy doing does not feel like work; it is something we look forward to doing, for which we do not have to be compensated. This difference can be reinforced by employees feeling temperamentally at home in roles they are asked to perform; otherwise they expend too much emotional energy reconciling who they are with the emotional demands of the role; energy better spent on becoming more productive. This is even truer of millennials.

Boards need to recognise there are four primary default personalities, based on a simplification of the Meyers-Briggs profiling tool, called the DOPE Four Bird Personality Test where D stands for dove, O for owl, P for peacock and E for eagle.

default personalities

default personalities

The dove is a people-oriented introvert motivated by security, whose focus is maintaining harmony. The owl is a task-oriented introvert motivated by processes; whose focus is accurate data. The peacock is a people-oriented extrovert motivated by recognition, whose focus is visioning the future. The eagle is a task-oriented extrovert motivated by challenge, whose focus is achieving results.

Nobody is pure dove, owl, peacock or eagle. We are all a mix of each of these four birds.

However, the proportion these birds represent in our psychological default make-up differs, affecting our temperamental suitability for given roles. Just as people are a mix of the four birds, roles require different amounts of the bird characteristics to be done well.

For example, introverted bird default personalities (dove and owl) feel stressed when placed in roles requiring extrovert behaviour such as presenting to a large audience. These are roles extroverted bird default personalities (peacock and eagle) would feel comfortable doing.

It is far more productive to match personality requirements of the role with people with the corresponding default personalities than to force-fit people who do not belong and train them to become someone they are not.

Where people sit on the task people-orientation spectrum matters. People-oriented default personalities (dove and peacock) empathise easily, maybe too easily, and feel the pain of others when they are required to put them under pressure to get things done. Task-oriented default personalities (eagle and owl) may feel no such inhibitions, focusing on doing whatever is needed to get people to make things happen.

It is far more productive to match personality requirements of the role with people with the corresponding default personalities than to force-fit people who do not belong and train them to become someone they are not.

They can focus on enjoying doing the job rather than overcoming ‘emotion labour’.

To conclude

Companies should stop trying to fit square pegs into round holes. They should recognise most people do not want to climb managerial ladders and create parallel ladders for personal growth. They should appoint people by matching their default personalities with the demands of the job.

READ: You Can’t Afford Not To Be In The ‘Talent’ Business

Datuk John Zinkin is managing director of Zinkin Ettinger Sdn. Bhd. and author of Better Governance Across the Board. Get in touch with him at

This article first appeared on Focus Malaysia

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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