Actions to take: Stop trusting your gut. It is far less accurate than you think, and it likely leads to choosing candidates for biased reasons. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a fantastic explanation of overconfidence in decision-making. Develop and adhere to hiring processes that are specifically crafted to minimize bias and fallibility in human decision-making.
Let's talk about radiologists for a moment, not bosses. Radiologists are quite literally experts at detecting abnormalities by examining medical imagery of the body. That's practically a definition of their job. However, experienced radiologists contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same image on separate occasions. A basic computer formula, which examines various factors and assigns a score, will predict abnormality with more accuracy than the doctor. This is true even when the doctor has access to the formula scores! Radiologists, using the formula information plus whatever information comes from their own expertise and examination, will make worse decisions than just having the formula information. (source: Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow, p. 225)
These are people who have spent years studying the science of viewing medical imagery to develop their skills. They go through expertly crafted, rigorous training to become radiologists. Let's be honest, managers go through practically zero training to become effective at choosing who to hire. Yet, somehow, every tenured manager I've met is convinced that they know how to pick the right ones. Take a mental inventory of the managers you know. How many would think they are "above average" at hiring effectively if asked? Certainly more than half. Probably all. (Which is, of course, impossible. By definition, half of us must be below average.)
Managers seem to be especially defensive when their hiring methodology is questioned, even lightly. They are convinced that their intuition about people is valuable, meaningful, and worth including in their decision-making process. To imply otherwise is met with incredulity, anger, or "proof" that they know what they are doing. Most managers simply cannot accept the (correct, scientifically proven) idea that hiring decisions should not be based on a general feeling about who they think is best.
After the session on interviewing bias in my personnel management course, one of my students chatted with her boss about it. It sounded like her boss was polite, but thoroughly dismissive of the idea that a manager cannot rely on their instincts about a candidate. The boss's reasoning: look at the people they have on their team. They has cultivated a hard-working department of people who do good work. "I hired you, after all" they said to my student.
Can you spot the is the huge problems with this manager's logic?
They have no information on people they didn't hire. If you have a decent set of minimum qualifications, everyone you interview can do the job. So, every person you hire confirms your belief that you picked the right one. It's right there in the boss's argument: "You (the person I hired) did the job well, so I must be doing something right!" But what about all of those people they didn't hire who could do the job even better?
Second, they are thinking about the people who are still on their team. If your work environment is any good at all, you recognize the bad employees after a few months. They self-select out when they realize their poor performance won't be ignored, or you eventually help them out. Of course this manager had a functional team. It says good thing about their on-the-job management, but it says nothing about their hiring ability.
Our brains are storytelling machines. We automatically attribute cause-effect relationships, even when none are there. If you have a functional team, it must be because you are good at hiring. Every manager thinks this way.
In fact, humans carry around a host of unconscious biases that influence our opinions about a job candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with the work. This is insidious. A totally well-meaning manager might be (probably is) unintentionally discriminating against people who could do the job extremely well, simply because they don't fit the manager's assumptions about what the "right" candidate is like.
How, then, do we avoid these traps in our hiring processes? That is a subject worth a dozen or more posts. I urge you to start doing research on hiring and interviewing processes that minimize bias. Here are a few starting places:
- If the pitfalls of human cognition are of any interest at all, read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It will teach you to stop trusting your brain.
- Research "behavioral interview questions." Go beyond simply looking up sample questions. Find information about how these interview questions are the most valid and reliable for choosing the best candidate. Understanding why and how they work will help you use them effectively.
- Research and develop best practices for rating candidates during the selection process. This is a richly studied area of organizational psychology and human resource management. Implementing effective rating processes will discourage or prevent various cognitive pitfalls.
- Look for training on bias and bias reduction in the workplace. If your organization is large enough, your HR department may already have training modules on the topic.
Average bosses think they have the best method for selecting great employees. Almost all of them are being misled by irrelevant information. Better bosses know that human cognition is eminently fallible. They take steps to mitigate bias by researching and sticking to scientifically proven selection methods.
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