Fooled By Our own Rationality
Many of us have read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell where he postulates that chance and “gut feel” may play a bigger role in our lives than we imagine. Another book, older and more rigorously researched, entitled “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb also takes a similar position.
These books make me rethink my own belief in our ability to consistently interview and select the best.
When I think back to the middle of the 20th century, most jobs were filled fairly quickly. There were few employees who had the specific title of recruiter and those who did were often just clerks who made sure paperwork was properly completed. Most jobs were filled after a brief interview with a hiring manager who made his decision based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics. The primary criteria were often the ability to learn quickly or motivation.
There were many things wrong with this approach, but the most obvious was that it blatantly discriminated against anyone who did not fit the stereotype of the hiring manager. Greater awareness of discrimination and new legislation drove the growth of the recruiting profession and removed much of the injustice this system perpetuated.
The old way did have one virtue – it was simple and was built on a belief that attitude and performance were what really counted. Many engineers, doctors, and lawyer were trained in what amounts to an apprentice system right up until World War II. Formal skills training only gradually gained acceptance after the war when thousands of GIs went back to school on the GI bill and university-led professional schools emerged and grew.
As we moved into the 1950s and 1960s, these more causal hiring practices were replaced by the development of job requirements: things like minimum levels of education or years of experience before a person would be considered for a position. This was seen as fairer and served as a screen against hundreds of people potentially applying for the same job.
The problem with this approach is that the defined requirements were almost never connected to actual performance. They only seemed fairer because they eliminated or reduced screening people out because of race or sex. However, we have learned over the past 60 years that people who qualify for jobs based on their education or experience alone are not necessarily good performers. We now know that simply selecting people by generic measures like education and experience don’t work very well and discriminate against those with the real skills who do not have the required credentials.
Job requirements today are changing so fast that we can’t keep up. We really don’t know what skills will be in demand in the next -2-3 years to say nothing about the more distant future. We don’t know what competencies or skills we should look for. Managers are confused as to what they want in a candidate and there is a tendency to go back to selection criteria that smack a bit of the past.
This situation will become even more evident as we emerge out of the pandemic It will be very difficult to use traditional techniques or measures to determine the precise competencies and skills that are needed for a job.
So, what will we do?
Three rules seem to be forming around defining new positions as well as for redefining the more traditional ones.
Rule #1: Use data to profile jobs quickly.
Artificial intelligence can analyze a job, pick out key competencies and skills, and draw a profile of what skills teh top perorming employees have using the data you have on current employees.
Older methods might take months to produce profiles, albeit those profiles were perhaps more accurate and complete than these. The issue is how permanent are the jobs and functions you are hiring for. For example, there are a plethora of programming languages and needs often change. Programmers who want to stay current have to continuously learn new ones. How much do you want to invest in perfection? How important is deep expertise versus enough skill to do the job or is to find someone with superb skills in something that may soon be replaced with A.I. or by a new skill or technology?
What becomes more important are the skill and motivation to learn quickly and accept rapid change. This translates to many other jobs as well. The willingness and ability to learn become the most important attributes. When you need deep expertise, perhaps an external expert is a better choice as a contractor 0r consultant.
Rule #2: Be competency flexible and teach hiring managers that development is part of recruiting.
The 80/20 rule applies more than ever as new jobs and duties emerge and recruiters are forced to find ways to define them and select candidates using them. Managers will be forced to accept that they will not be able to find candidates with 100% of what they want. Managers and HR will learn that development is a core function of the firm in the 21st century. IBM put in place a development-centered mindset in the 1960s when they began hiring and developing new college grads because there were no people with the skills they needed. Remember there were no programmers when the first mainframes were produced, and so IBM had to develop them. Many companies have used development as a strategic edge – when you have people with skills and others don’t, you tend to win. Finding and developing current employees who have some, but perhaps not all, of the skills needed for a job will also become more common.
Rule #3: Have robust performance management systems in place.
By hiring people using broad competency descriptions you may hire some poor performers. And that’s okay. What is not okay is ignoring that and allowing them to stay in your organization. A good performance management system, based on whether people achieve realistic goals and meet the requirements of their position, is essential to success.
Our complex and bureaucratic screening and interviewing processes not only slow down hiring are not delivering high quality, top performing employees consistently and almost always. Out own rational, and seemingly scientific processes are hindering our creativity, speed, and ability to compete.
The hallmark of the best organizations that survive and thrive during and after this pandemic will be their approach to quickly defining the people they need by broad skills and aptitudes. Traditional measures of education, experience, attitude and cultural fit may play a small part, but what will be significantly different is a quick, flexible approach to defining competencies combined with efficient performance management systems. This will result in more fluid and less well-defined jobs, but broader and more multi-skilled and creative employees.
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