Performance or attitude: what’s more important when hiring staff?

We weigh up the perennial recruitment conundrum: track record vs. personality

Whether you’re recruiting, appraising or promoting, deciding whether to go for track record or personality is a perennial conundrum. Gerard Burke of the Your Business Your Future programme offers advice on striking a balance

To grow a great business, you need great people. In smaller businesses, where there are fewer employees, ensuring that you have the most effective people is even more important than in larger businesses.  That’s because the effect of poor recruitment can’t be easily absorbed, and is often destructive. An underperformer can have a major impact on the performance of the business and the morale of those around them. So recruiting and managing staff are crucial issues in any growing business.

When we talk to ambitious owner-managers about recruiting new employees and managing existing ones, the subjects of performance  and attitude often come up. So, which should you look for?

This is a common dilemma for owner-managers when recruiting or promoting: do they go for attitude (a good cultural fit, someone who you think you can work with), or a proven track record? In small companies, attitude is always going to be more important. It is vital everyone gets on well and communicates with each other, plus you need people who will respond positively to difficulties. This is particularly relevant in smaller businesses, where there is nowhere to hide. In my experience, it is better to find people with the right approach and train them. Raw talent and a capacity and willingness to learn is better than a great track record.


A whole area of psychological research is devoted to ‘attitude’. How much does a person’s attitude depend on environment, which can be managed, and how much is wired-in already, which is much harder to change? When recruiting and promoting, look for evidence of a positive attitude – a person who feels the cup is half full, not half empty. But be aware that people can lose this approach temporarily in the wrong context – if, for example, they are working for an unpleasant, nit-picking boss.

Bill Swan is managing director of Paper Round, a company that provides recycling services for paper and other materials to offices throughout London. Attitude wins every time, he says, because it is often deep-seated and very difficult to shift, but you can often improve performance. “By attitude, I mean a good work ethic, willingness to conform to the company ethos and an ability to work with their team,” he says. “In a small company – I employ 75 people – it is vital that everyone gets on.”

Swan has learnt this the hard way, after recruiting a woman for a senior role only to fire her after a month. “She had a very good track record and at the interview came over with the right attitude,” he recalls. “After one week at work, we started to see the real person behind the interview face, and I received complaints from every one of my management team. She was good with the clients, but abrasive, awkward and a ‘jobs-worth’ in the workplace. There was a culture clash: she came from the public sector and I took her word that she’d have no problems adapting to a different culture. This was not the case.”


On the other hand, performance can be worked on and improved. This is particularly important at Paper Round, which employs numerous immigrant workers.

“Take Magda,” says Swan, “who had an amazingly positive and enthusiastic approach, but whose performance was lacking at the start, as English was her second language. A year later, after we helped her work on her English, she is one of our best employees.”

Swan’s point of view is that if someone is trying, even if they are not doing that well, then they deserve your support. If someone can clearly do the job, but is lazy or difficult to work with, then cut your losses. However, he accepts that there has to be a minimum level of performance. “I have had experience of working with people who have been over-promoted,” he says. “They have the right attitude, but cannot reach the level of performance required for the job. That’s not satisfactory, either.”

Swan conducts appraisals three times a year and considers attitude as well as performance. “You can’t break the two apart,” he says. “A top-level performance with the wrong attitude is no good, nor is a great attitude without achievement.”

As Swan says, performance and attitude are inextricably linked. This is true also for Dave Abraham, who runs Signify, a company that helps organisations to secure their computer networks. He has had success in transforming several employees in his 13-strong company from average, but lacklustre, performance levels. They considered Abraham’s targets unrealistic and were satisfied with their performances. They couldn’t see they were not achieving their potential.

One of these people is Kate. “Her job in the sales department is to liaise with existing customers,” Abraham explains. “She thought she did her job as well as she could, had it all under her control and was quite happy. She knew her targets, but felt there was little chance of achieving them. She didn’t worry about it too much and didn’t look ahead strategically. She was not inclined to put any notable effort into doing better, as she couldn’t see any room for improvement. She worked on her own and saw the sales administrator as a potential threat rather than a helper. However, performance was inadequate, and there was nothing I could put my finger on to improve her approach.”


While on Cranfield School of Management’s Business Growth and Development Programme (BGP), Abraham sat down with Kate to work out what she did each week, whether she liked it and if it was worthwhile, identifying what she could do better. They agreed objectives quarter by quarter and met once a week to review progress. Previously, targets had all been financial, but now they decided to track how many customers she spoke to in a month, and to undertake a survey of existing clients, neither of which they had done before. Kate had to hit a 20% response rate by a set date.

“Kate achieved or exceeded all her objectives by the end of the quarter,” says Abraham. “She followed up the customers until she got the survey response rate we wanted. Now she is enthused and interested, and wants to do more and more. She works closely with the sales administrator and sets targets for her.” In fact, both the previously ‘average’ staff members have now exceeded the objectives set by Abraham, and are now setting their own for the coming year. They now have the enthusiasm to push changes in themselves to achieve far more.

So how did Abraham achieve this? “It was a completely disproportionate effect from such a small effort,” he says. “BGP taught me that developing SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) with employees could inspire them to help me achieve what I wanted for the business. BGP also taught me that we needed to understand our customers more and work on our relationships with our key clients. These two things came together to transform Kate’s attitude and performance.”

Since 2001, Gerard Burke has helped over 1,000 ambitious owner managers create the future they want for their businesses and for themselves. He is the founder and managing director of Your Business Your Future, the UK’s leading specialist provider of development programmes for ambitious owner-managers. Your Business Your Future programmes are delivered in partnership with Cass Business School in London.


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