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A Character Game Plan... On and Off the Field

May 15, 2014 by ·

There was a recent article in the New York Times, “Manning or Leaf? A Lesson in Intangibles”, that reviewed one of the biggest moments in NFL draft history- the choice between two of the top quarterbacks at the time- Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf. The coaches and administration had to decide- who would better serve their team?

After reading the article I realized that employers, whether they are a small mom and pop shop or a huge organization such as the NFL, all struggle to understand who people are at their core and then, based on that understanding, make good hiring decisions. The NYT article described the National Football League’s attempt to better understand people through their recently adopted evaluation system that seeks to probe a prospect’s personality using somewhat nebulous qualities like motivation, passion and mental toughness. The article compares the careers of the 1998 #1 NFL draft pick Peyton Manning with that of the #2 pick Ryan Leaf. At the time of the draft, the expectation would have been that the two men would both go on to highly successful careers as they were judged to have practically the same amount of talent. But, as in many stories, one succeeded and the other failed. But, why? In the end, the article concludes something that recruiters and coaches – in fact most of us – have known all along, namely, that in hiring decisions, as in the rest of life, character matters.

But, it matters in ways different than most people recognize. Thanks to advances in the science of character that have resulted from over a decade of research, we now know that character has many dimensions and is not a black or white, good or bad issue. We now know that the most important aspect of character is not if it is present in someone or not or if it is strong or weak, but instead it is one of alignment – how well is one’s character strengths aligned with the task at hand and the team he or she is on.

Each of us has 24 distinct character strengths, some of which have more to do with acquiring and using knowledge, some that have more to do with relating well with others, and others that have more to do with getting things done, yet we have them to different degrees and how and when and with whom we use them is the key to our success or failure. It no longer suffices to try to surmise whether someone is a “person of character” or not. Instead, it matters more to know what their profile of 24 character strengths looks like – which strengths are high, which ones are low – and how those character strengths might work well, or not, in particular circumstances.

The challenge for all employers, including those in the NFL, is to understand the complexity of each candidate’s character profile, and think about how the chemistry of the many profiles of the team members might work well together. It is also important to consider how the unique constellation of the individual candidate’s character strengths will fit with the goals and objectives they will be tasked to achieve.

If we knew the character strength’s profiles of Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf at the time of the draft, would we have made different predictions about their future success or failures? Probably not. But, let’s not get stuck in the old school approach to character and make decisions about people based on whether they are strong in particular character traits or based on whether they transgress from time to time. None of us possess our character strengths to perfection. We all fall short at different times. What matters is the arc of a person’s behavior over time. What matters is how a person’s strengths of talent and character match the situation and with others.

So, how do you determine the unique character web of your team members? The first step is learning each individual’s distinct character strengths profile. Instruct your employees to complete the VIA Survey, a free, online personality test that measures a person’s character strengths. After assessing each person individually think about ways these strength profiles can complement and support one another to make a more productive and efficient work environment. The individual results of the survey can even be combined into a comprehensive Team Report to view the groups’ strengths as a whole. The key is to understand, nurture and ultimately capitalize on the best qualities of each employee (or NFL football player) to create the most cohesive, successful unit. Following this approach can make any organization “Super Bowl-bound”.

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