Knowing how to identify the traits of the perfect employee is the holy grail of HR but, like finding the grail, this challenge is not for the faint of heart. Of course, everyone has an opinion on the matter: a quick Google search reveals an overwhelming plethora of lists of desirable employee traits. Unfortunately, all of these lists differ in the details, leaving us in the dark about which employee traits are really the most important. So in this post, I turn to another approach to find an answer: I turn to the wisdom of the crowd.
The idea behind the wisdom of the crowd is that while one mind is good, more minds are better. So for this post I found eight of the best lists of employee traits that were already out there (the original sources are listed at the bottom of this post). Each list was on the first page of Google and has been socially validated by hundreds of thousands of shares. I combined them by giving traits a point each time they appeared on one of the lists. Below I present the seven traits that received the highest scores: the seven most important traits of amazing employees.
The Buck Stops Here (5 points)
An excellent employee is the sort of person that gets things done. If they have a valuable idea they don’t stay quiet. If they see a problem, they solve it.
This sort of employee knows what responsibility really means. To some people, responsibility is about what they do and do not have to deal with (that’s not my responsibility!). To a great employee, responsibility is something that is taken, not given. If they notice a problem, they take responsibility for making sure it gets fixed. To a great employee, the buck stops with them.
Could Be a Lone Wolf (5 points)
A great employee is able to be trusted to work independently. In fact, this trait is important enough to have appeared on one of the original lists three times (under slightly different guises). And this should be no surprise: so many of the characteristics that we look for in an employee relate to this capacity. An employee who can be trusted to work independently needs to not only be smart and competent but also trustworthy and reliable.
If you find someone that would get excellent work done as a lone wolf then you’ve found someone with some of the most important characteristics of a great employee.
But is Actually a Part of the Pack (5 points)
Of course you don’t actually want your employees to be lone wolves. A great employee is able to work alone but they’re also a team player: they offer help where it’s needed, they get on well with others, they’re good at coordinating on shared tasks. It’s not just about colleagues either, a great employee should fit in with the whole team, including management.
A Swiss Army Employee (5 points)
There’s an old saying that describes a “Jack of all trades, master of none”. You don’t want an employee like this (“master of none” is the problem here). However, the saying has another form: “Jack of all trades, master of some” and this is what you want in an employee.
Obviously you need your employees to be excellent at their core jobs but versatility, agility and flexibility is key too. Someone who has a range of skills will be more able to assist outside of their core area and will have more range to grow within the company.
You Could Take Them Home to Meet Your Mom (or a Key Client) (4 points)
In almost any business, employees will be meeting someone that you want to impress at some point, whether it be a client, senior management or someone else important. So a great employee needs to be both presentable and good at communicating with others. Of course, the second of these features is key to someone being a great team player as well so it’s doubly important!
My Test: if you would be happy to introduce someone to both your mum and to an important client then they’re probably doing well in this regard!
Someone Who Geeks Out (About Their Work) (4 points)
Over recent years some people have begun to wear the word geek with pride and the phrase “geeking out” is sometimes used to refer to the act of expressing enthusiastic interest for a topic (especially if it’s a topic that other people fail to be as excited by). An excellent employee geeks out about their work.
Enthusiasm, passion, drive. It doesn’t matter what word we use, the important thing is that it’s a great thing when an employee loves their work. It not only makes it more likely that they will do a great job but enthusiasm is contagious: one passionate employee helps create enthusiasm across the whole team (in fact, we think that spreading enthusiasm is so important that we’re trying to do something about it).
They Think the Glass is Half Full (and convince you that they’re right!) (3 points)
Great employees are positive thinkers. They’re not the sort of people that despair when things go wrong. Instead, they’re the people that take defeat in their stride and come out the other side convinced that the problem can be resolved and the project can be put back on track. The very best employees go one step further: they convince you that they’re right and create an epidemic of optimism within the team.
The importance of this trait should not be underestimated: there’s loads of evidence that optimism has all sorts of benefits, many of which apply in the workplace.
SOME PARTING THOUGHTS…
Is this the final word on the matter? Are these the seven traits that are unquestionably the most important traits for an employee to possess? Of course not. I had to make various judgement calls to develop this list and the wisdom of the crowd is far from infallible in any case. Still, I think this list provides a great starting point. An excellent employee? Well they’re actively driven, independent, versatile, presentable, positive and passionate team players.
Which still leaves a question. Having finished writing this post I grabbed a coffee with the rest of the WooBoard team and when I mentioned this list we ended up discussing which of the traits on this list we thought was the most important of all. If we had to hire someone with just one of these traits, which trait would we focus on?
And it turned out that we were all of the same mind on the matter: more than anything else, we would hire someone who was passionate. Because when someone is passionate about their job they will work to develop all the other skills they need to achieve excellence. They won’t just go through the motions. In many ways, passion is the key that unlocks all of the other traits of an amazing employee.
Do you think this list gets it right? If not, what do you think are the most important traits possessed by excellent employees?
About the Author:
Colin Wong heads up WooBoard where he works regularly with major clients on structuring, implementing and sustaining employee recognition / engagement programs. He is an advocate and regular speaker on all things relating to peer recognition, employee engagement strategy, gamification and behavioural change, corporate culture, values alignment, and intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation & rewards.