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Jul 17, 2017

The hiring mind

The simplest and the most profound idea about hiring people is that no one is perfect. While it is trivial, our mind often resist accepting it. The way we evolved makes us biased judges of people. Our hominid ancestors had to select a friend quickly, in a hostile environment, among a limited set of choices. It goes like this: our brain does is this: we select unconsciously whoever we like, and then the rational mind keeps finding more and more appealing features in whoever we have selected already. By extension, our rational minds keep finding faults with people we did not select. Anyone who has ever served on a search committee knows how mind-boggling the conversations can get. We tend to play with fact, emphasize strengths, exaggerate weaknesses – all, more or less, to justify whatever unconscious choices we have made already. If there are “real reasons” for our decisions, we are often unaware of those. And then we try to discuss those things collectively.

In fact, all the HR procedures, deep down, have the same fundamental purposes – to check our subconscious minds against some sort of structured objective process. In addition to those formal (and very important) procedures, all managers have their own bags of tricks, their private mind games, some strategies to force their own brains see more, dig deeper. My bag is no better than the next person’s but here are some of the tricks.

I always ask to tell a story or to give a specific example. Somehow, the stories are a lot more informative than the questions asked in the abstract. When someone says “I like to help students,” she or he has always something specific in mind, an image, a story. But I may have a very different image in mind, so stories help align the understanding of a concept.

When a specific skill is required, I always find a way of testing applicants for it. For example, when I needed a bilingual editor, I had to design an editing task. People who came up on top would have never had a chance in an open competition. Their competitors had much more charisma. But the skill is either there, or not there, and some of them can be tested for. If not, it is still very important to assess whether an applicant has the fundamental skills needed to be successful.

I also try to imagine the person in front of me doing her or his specific work in a day-to-day environment. Does this person look organic at the task? Sometimes it becomes clear, this person is really great, but would really get bored with the kind of a job we are trying to fill. In other words, I have to separate the “strong in general” from the “good for this job.”

I always check for the sense of humor, if it is a people position. Folks with a weak, very idiosyncratic, or overly sarcastic sense of humor rarely make good team members. They still could be great at solitary work though.

Then I always re-examine my own reactions. It is not just “I (dis)like this person,” but “why do I feel I (dis)like this person?” We all are hostages of our past. People can trigger a memory about an episode they bear no responsibility for; people bring back memories, good or back, but it is not their fault or virtue.

Unfortunately, the tendency gets stronger as we age; it is the tendency to recognize “I have seen this before.” That is a very troublesome side effect of life experience. I always try to weed out those thoughts to the extent possible. The troubling part is that experience both allows for very useful shortcuts, and increases understanding, but also imposes a kind of blindness to the new. A note to self: if I ever lose the capacity to recognize the newness, it is time to get out of leadership.

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