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Gladwell: The Human Side of Hiring is Really, Really Hard

When it comes to hiring great talent, we've come to rely too much on statistics, says noted author Malcolm Gladwell.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017
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Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Outliers: The Story of Success and numerous other New York Times bestselling books, had some advice for attendees at the recent Indeed Interactive conference: Talent comes in all shapes and sizes, so beware of excluding candidates simply because they don't conform to pre-set notions of what "success" looks like.

"One of the big problems we have when selecting people for jobs is that our fallback is to be intolerant of human difference," said Gladwell, who delivered the closing keynote at the 2017 event earlier this month in Austin, Texas. "We want to default to a very narrow and strict definition of what we're hoping for. We act on the assumption that human talent comes in a very particular form and, as a result, we leave a lot of talent on the floor."

He cited the U.S. presidency as an obvious example, displaying a chart showing that -- with one notable exception -- those elected as president have all been tall white men.

"At a time when the job of being President of the United States is only getting more difficult, you'd think we would be throwing open the competition to as many different people as possible," said Gladwell, a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. "You want to find talent wherever it can be found, but instead, we've stuck to this incredibly narrow definition."

Professional sports teams also appear to subscribe to the theory that talent is easily recognizable -- and quantifiable, he said, citing the National Basketball Association's use of statistics to identify players with the most potential. Those statistics, said Gladwell, can't identify qualitative factors such as a willingness to learn from mistakes and work well with others that ultimately make for the best players. Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz exemplifies the sort of player who learns from mistakes and shows an eagerness to continuously improve his game that can lead to greatness, even as the body ages and becomes less agile, he said.

"I assume everyone in this room wants a Gordon Hayward in their organization, but what does a 'win share table' tell us about those character traits?" said Gladwell. "It tells us nothing."

Other commonly used metrics and tests, such as the LSAT, measure factors such as speed but reveal little about how well a person will actually perform in a job, he said.

"The LSAT is a bunch of really hard questions, so it's a power test, but at the same time it's speeded -- you have to complete it in three hours," said Gladwell. "So we've chosen to put a speed constraint on a power test for selecting people for law school. But why? An LSAT is not a spectator sport."

Lawyering requires days upon days of work on a single project and an obsessive attention to detail -- work that's best suited for what Gladwell referred to as "neurotic tortoises," or people who are so diligent and conscientious that they're willing to work slowly in order to ensure the job is done properly.

However, organizations continue to rely on these and other, similar assessments because they're seen as a fail-safe for identifying critical talent, he said.

"We have a natural tendency as human beings to want to avoid the hard part of hiring talent," said Gladwell. "But the only way to figure out how tortoises and hares are suited for a job is to sit down and listen to what they say about their own habits, motivations and desires."

Finding a Gordon Hayward – someone who possesses the rare and valuable quality of self-motivation – requires "throwing away the stats" and listening to what his coaches and team mates say about him and learn how he addresses challenges, said Gladwell. "The human side of hiring is difficult, more demanding and time consuming than these easy way outs, but we have no choice but to accept that difficulty."


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