Trump’s election victory has been regarded as a defeat for pollsters and the liberal elite. But there’s another group who should worry about it – HR managers. This is because Trump’s presidency is a big and public test of a hypothesis: of whether past character predicts job performance.
Imagine you were hiring a senior manager. The following candidate pitches up. He has no directly relevant past experience: Trump has never held elected office. He has little understanding of what the position entails; Trump’s grasp of the constitution is shaky. His past business management has resulted in several bankruptcies and unpaid debts. He has confessed to sexual harassment. And this is not to mention the narcissism and sociopathy.
Many HR managers would tell us they wouldn’t let such a candidate through the door.
Which poses the questions. How, then, can Trump be anything other than a disaster as president? If he isn’t wouldn’t this suggest that all the effort spent screening candidates is a waste of time and money? Why not just pick them at random? (I suspect the median American is of better character than Trump).
The answer to this lies in the possibility that Trump’s character might not be a complete liability, in at least three ways:
- In a president, being representative of the people, who themselves are ignorant and prejudiced, is desirable. There’s something in the Bill Stone theory of democracy.
- There are checks and balances. Not only are there constitutional constraints on what the president can do, but the president also has access to the best advice, if he wants it. Mervyn King said that being Governor of the Bank of England “is actually the easiest job I’ve ever done…you’ve got tremendous support.” Whilst this isn’t entirely true of the presidency – he’ll find lots of opposition! – he can have a strong support network to smooth out the impact of his character flaws.
- Policy matters more than character. If Trump can invest well in infrastructure and simplify the tax code whilst his promises on protectionism and immigration control get diluted, he might not be an unmitigated catastrophe.
Psychologists believe there is only a weak link at best between measurable personality traits and job performance. And the fundamental attribution error cautions us that we often over-rate the importance of personality and under-rate that of the environment. Let’s hope Trump’s opponents are making this mistake.
Now, I must caveat this. A big part of why character matters is that it might help predict how a man responds to surprises. If we’re lucky, the surprises a Trump administration gets will not highlight his flaws. (If were’ not…)
Nevertheless, there is an important question here that applies far beyond Trump: how far does character matter? Mightn’t policy and circumstance matter more? Can personality be restrained or enhanced by institutions?
The answers, of course, differ from time to time, place to place and job to job. It is insofar as such differences exist that a successful-ish Trump presidency would not invalidate traditional hiring practices. But then again, plenty of narcissists and psychopaths do become CEOs. So perhaps the American electorate isn’t so different from HR bosses after all.