Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sweet Potato Fries and the Truth About Intuition

I was sitting with John Wentworth, president of The Wentworth Company/Wentworth Recruiting. We were down the street from his office at an eclectic, to say the least, restaurant, the Beach City Grill. John was on a rant again.

The good part was that he could not eat and talk at the same time, so I was able to dominate the pile of sweet potato fries between us as he dominated the conversation.

“It’s so clear!”

“What’s that?” I asked between mouthfuls, only half caring what he was talking about.

“What goes out the door, a company’s service or product, is the result of a pile of tasks having been done. If the service or product is good, the tasks have been done correctly, in sequence and on-time.”

“Agreed.” I licked the red pepper off of my fingers.

“So you have to hire people who can do the tasks in sequence, correctly and on-time. First you find them. Then you investigate them. Then you select the one you think can do this.”

“An important choice,” I said, taking a particularly fat and scrumptious fry off of the platter.

“Yes!” said John. “But here’s the problem. Given how they pick, most managers could just as well flip a coin. They make bad hires as often as they make good hires.”

“Not to hear them talk. I know lots of people who are pretty sure that they are great people pickers.”

“Me, too, and it actually has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who have illusions of superiority regarding their performance, including picking employees, have Dunning-Kruger.”

“Who knew?”

“It gets worse,” John said. While he waited for me to ask how, he scarfed a handful of fries. I didn’t ask. He took another handful.

But there was no stopping him. “They may have had a mentor who bragged about how she could know how someone would be on the job by just having lunch with them. It’s really intuition and unreliable. So the young manager wants to be like her mentor and selects new employees on intuition. Then, that person can have “hindsight bias”. She forgets all the people who bombed out and only remembers the stars. So now she is sure she’s replicated her mentor’s eagle eye for employees.”

“But neither picked well, in fact.”

“That would be correct.”

“Fun changing that behavior.”

“It hard, but it’s crucial if you want to hire the right people. Intuitive decisions are about half as good as data driven decisions. Researchers point out again and again that there is 50-100 years’ worth of research that agrees on this. If someone debates this, they don’t know much about the subject.”

“Why is it so hard to change decision making behavior? People can read these studies. Why do they ignore them?” I asked.

“People are not naturally rational all the time. One guy who studied this, Peter Ditto, PhD, wrote that, ‘People are capable of being thoughtful and rational, but our wishes, hopes, fears and motivations often tip the scales to make us more likely to accept something as true if it supports what we want to believe.’

“He was describing what’s known as ‘motivated reasoning’. That’s why people hire people like them or who share their beliefs. They think these people do better generally, so they ignore the facts about an individual’s skills and hire him or her.”

“So what’s the solution?”

“The solution is first, to use the ‘fog of recruiting’ to your advantage.” “What’s the ‘fog of recruiting’?”

“It’s like the ‘fog of war’. Too much ambiguous information. Too hard to sort out. Most hiring managers look at a pile of resumes and don’t know which differences between them are important for predicting good job behavior and which are not.

“The literature tells us to break a job into parts and form interview questions around each of the parts. Then ask every candidate for the same information, using the same questions.” “Sounds like a prescription for being really boring.”

“It does not need to be. You can do this in a chatty and very personal way. You just need to get the same information from each person, rate it the same, and then interpret the ratings the same way. Apples to apples. This consistency works best if the ratings are quantitative but supported by narrative.

“Then you need to display or convey the candidate profiles so they are easily digestible by a hiring manager who is busy and distracted. And the finalists should all be really good candidates, so the hiring manager can, in the worst case, make all the hiring errors known to science, and still get a good hire.

“Science tells us that six pieces of information about the candidates are enough, but it also tells us that hiring managers find more information comforting. We want them to buy into the rational system so they hire the best, so we want to show them enough data that they feel the process is reliable and comfortable.”

“A little Barnum and Bailey, no?”

“Yes. If the hiring manager does not embrace the system that helps them pick the best people, then it’s all a waste of time. So I’m happy to throw a little mind candy at them. Another tool is to frame the candidate ratings as a decision support tool that informs the decision. You don’t want to tell the hiring manager that she or he must hire the top score candidate. They won’t. They will rebel.”

There was a pause and the sweet potato fries were gone, so I figured I may as well summarize.

“So you deconstruct the job into parts, get information from every candidate for a job about those parts, interpret the information the same way for each candidate, have enough job parts that the hiring manager feels the process is robust and legitimate, and then present the information clearly and vividly and as guidance not a mandate. This is not how recruiting is usually done.”

“You are correct and that’s why most hiring does not deliver a superior workforce,” John said. “Those who use this process usually do get a superior workforce and all the good stuff that comes with it like employee stability and high performance. In fact, I know one organization that uses the scores to this method and almost 90% of their hires exceed what the hiring managers consider ‘qualified’.”

“Wow,” I said.

John smiled.

“You buying?” I asked. I had no expectation of actually getting him to pay. The waitress overheard me, grinned, and handed me the check.

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