Top 4 character traits of great employees

By Robert Half 10th November 2017

On paper a future employee may look great, but we've all worked with people who came with excellent credentials but a toxic personality that made everyone on the team miserable.

On the flip side, there is a set of traits that the best employees tend to share. Not just the obvious ones, like "smart" or "trustworthy," but also subtler qualities of character that can be difficult to quantify.

When hiring, you’ll have to spend more time to identify these candidates, but you’ll be glad you did — and so will everyone else on your team. Here are four character traits of great employees:

1. A DIY attitude

Micromanagment is exhausting for all parties involved. Employees today are increasingly receiving autonomy in their work and are handed self-directed tasks and expected to complete them the best way they know how — whether at home, at the office or in a coffee shop.

The ability to maximise that autonomy — call it a do-it-yourself attitude — is a key character trait of a great employee. It's not productive having to watch over an employee's shoulder because you don't trust them to get the job done. What a relief when you can hand over a project, knowing it will be done well and on time.

And if for some reason they run into trouble, DIY types often take the initiative to reach out for help long before something blows up into a serious problem.

Check out our tips on what makes an effective manager

2. A right-sized ego

Self-important and temperamental top performers often make their managers — and colleagues — miserable. Their bad attitudes and poor soft skills tend to overshadow their strengths. Besides personality conflicts, they tend to neglect the unglamorous tasks that are vital for a smooth-running team. That being said, doormats are no fun either. Workers with fragile egos tend to shy away from challenges and get stressed out quickly.

Ideally, you want to hire people with not only the confidence to try new things but also the humility to admit their limits, ask questions, request feedback and reach out for help when they’re in over their head. A right-size ego is a trait many great employees share.

3. A finely tuned sense of humour

Work is no laughing matter. Or is it? Laughing and productivity aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. And a sense of humour is another common trait of the best employees.

Humour is contagious, and when your teams laugh more, they are happier. According to research published in our recent report, The secrets of the happiest companies and employees, employees who say they have good relationships with others in their team are 2.7 times more likely to be happy in their job than those who do not get along with colleagues. 

These positive emotions actually open parts of the brain that drive empathy, innovation and the passion required to overcome difficulties and learn new skills. With these positive emotions, employees are able to "function much better in a team environment because [their] social intelligence will go way, way up," said Dr. Christine Carter, Sociologist and senior fellow, Greater Good Science
Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Great employees know that humour can be a double-edged sword, though. They know the difference between making light of situations at work and making jokes that poke fun at others or are off-color. Employees who spread (appropriate) laughter also simplify your job as a manager, helping free up at least some of the time you would otherwise have to spend on negotiating personality conflicts.

4. Diplomatic contrarianism

The best employees are able to speak truth to power — in a constructive way. They don't bury their heads in the sand when they see problems, even when the problem comes from above.

But they don't draw lines in the sand, either. They are able to diplomatically communicate doubts in ways that are palatable to all parties, whether a boss, a colleague or a direct report.

To insecure bosses, such employees may seem like flies in the ointment. But the exact opposite is actually the case for leaders who are willing to listen and learn. In fact, these employees are extremely valuable in healthy work environments. Instead of letting questionable ideas go unchallenged or allowing issues to fester, they tend to proactively seek positive, timely solutions.

Better yet, you can rely on them to drive better team outcomes. They can often constructively identify problems as they arise and recommend fixes to colleagues before they become monster headaches.

Of course, managers can help cultivate all these traits in their employees, but hiring people who have them to begin with makes your job a whole lot easier. And, as suggested in the four traits above, you may find that great employees don't just perform well themselves — they can also bring out the best among the entire team.

Happy employees make great employees. Download our free The secrets of the happiest companies and employees report and learn how workplace happiness can improve your bottom line.

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