When you’re in the process of hiring a new employee, you typically have a laundry list of skills, qualities, and characteristics that you’d like to see in the ideal candidate. Of course, you know that it will be nearly impossible to find the perfect candidate who checks every box, but how do you distinguish between the qualities that are critical for the role and the qualities that are just “nice-to-have”? One way to parse this problem is to look at two different types of qualities: innate and acquired. Then we’ll dive into how they can help you make the best decision based on your hiring needs.
What are innate qualities? Something that is “innate” is intrinsic or inherent to a person. Similarly, an innate quality is something that is core to a person and remains relatively stable across a person’s lifetime. For example, if “Annie” is smart, funny, and courageous at age 20, it’s likely that she’ll continue to be those things at age 50.
In contrast, Annie could be frustrated and exhausted in a single moment, but she isn’t likely to be that way her whole life. These types of temporary emotions aren’t innate to the person. They are feelings that all people experience at a given time and are therefore not “innate” to any particular individual.
One quality that remains relatively constant across a person’s lifetime is cognitive aptitude, or general intelligence. This quality has to do with a person’s ability to think critically, solve problems, and learn new information. Cognitive aptitude also happens to be one of the best predictors of long-term job performance. (Check out this blog post to learn why).
When it comes to personality assessments that are used in the hiring process, the most scientifically validated assessments tend to measure innate qualities. This is because pre-employment tests are designed to assess characteristics and behavioral tendencies that are relevant to the workplace and could have a long-term impact on a candidate’s job performance.
Many “innate” qualities can also be personality traits. Personality tests can measure many different traits, but the most established personality test framework uses what is called the "Big Five" or "Five Factor Model." These are the five dimensions of personality that consistently emerge in empirical research: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Openness (to Experience), and Stress Tolerance.
An individual who takes the test once and then takes it again five years later should receive a relatively similar result. The ability to get the same result even as time passes is called test reliability, and it’s a core component for determining a test’s validity. The takeaway is, innate qualities that are relatively constant across a person’s lifetime can be very useful for identifying personality fit for certain roles, and these qualities are typically identified using a personality assessment.
What are acquired qualities, and how do they differ from innate ones? As you might assume, acquired qualities, characteristics, or skills are learned or developed over time based on your experiences. They are not innate in that people are not born with them, and they can shift over time. No one is born a fast typist or an expert coder. While some people may have some innate qualities that make them predisposed to learn certain skills faster (e.g. someone is musically inclined, or highly coordinated), most acquired skills are picked up through a combination of time, dedication, and exposure.
Acquired qualities can be evaluated in a number of ways. A candidate’s resume can provide an initial indication of a candidate’s acquired qualities. For example, the resume may say that the person has experience managing a team, or that he or she has worked in a particular industry. These all serve as evidence to signal a person’s acquired qualities, in terms of his or her ability to manage a team or demonstrate industry knowledge.
These acquired qualities can also be confirmed in an interview, whereby you can gauge a candidate’s level of expertise in certain areas. You can also confirm acquired skills through skills assessments that measure a candidate’s proficiency in a certain area – for example, proficiency in Excel or PowerPoint.
Which is more important in the workplace?
We’ve looked at both innate and acquired qualities and seen how they can evaluated in your job applicants. But are acquired and innate qualities equally important to look for in prospective employees?
The answer is that both acquired and innate qualities can provide valuable but different information about a candidate’s potential to succeed in a role.
Innate qualities are generally the most impactful for predicting a candidate’s long-term job performance. For example, an employee’s ability to think critically and learn new information will support their ability to excel in the job over time by enabling them to learn new skills. Similarly, an individual’s personality can also have long-term implications for job performance and retention. A person who is extroverted and competitive may thrive in a sales role, while a person who is innately more introverted and analytical may thrive in accounting or software development. Because these qualities are innate and lifelong, they can have a bigger impact on a person’s long-term performance and job satisfaction.
Acquired qualities, on the other hand, represent those skills that someone has picked up over time through past experience. While they don’t necessarily indicate what a person can learn in the future, they do represent what a candidate brings to the job on day one. Do they already know how to use Microsoft Outlook? If yes, they can hit the ground running on their first day. Does their skill in Outlook mean that they’ll be able to learn QuickBooks a year from now? Not necessarily. General cognitive aptitude is a better indication of someone’s ability to learn new things in the future, which is a more “innate” quality.
Knowing the difference can help you make better hiring decisions
Both acquired and innate qualities are clearly important for different reasons, but understanding the difference can help you make better hiring decisions for your company’s needs. If you have an immediate need to fill a role and won’t have time to commit to training a new person, then acquired skills may be a priority in a candidate. If you’re looking for employees who will grow with your company long-term and can commit resources to training your team, then innate qualities like cognitive aptitude and personality are critical. To be overly reductive, acquired skills can be helpful on a short horizon and an immediate need, but innate skills can help you hire successful employees on a longer horizon.