The Only Way to Accurately Screen Applicants is to Watch Them

I have been hiring people, writing about hiring people and teaching people how to hire people for more than 30 years. Every year, I become more convinced that the only way to accurately screen people is to watch them in action. In other words, create simulations and run your most promising applicants through them before making the final decision.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. Here are three that come to mind:

First, Southwest airlines used to conduct group interviews with prospective flight attendants. (I’m not sure if they still do this.) They would sit everyone in a circle and ask each person to stand up and talk about themselves and their background for a minute or two. What the applicants did not realize was that the evaluators were not judging each person on their speaking skills. They were watching to see how well the others in the circle attended to the speaker.

What they would observe would be everything from the applicant who demonstrated genuine interest in whomever was speaking to the applicant who spent all their time preening and perhaps showing impatience about having to go through this. Their reasoning for this exercise was simple. Which would you rather have on your flights; The attendants who were paying attention to customers or those who were self-absorbed when not serving meals or performing safety demonstrations?

Second, prior to the age of factory robotics, Toyota Motors would gather groups of applicants into a room. The evaluators would explain that in the corner were large boxes containing the components for 500 flashlights. The group’s job would be to assemble all the flashlights as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then they would simply say, “Go,” and watch what happened.

By observing individual and group dynamics, the evaluators could gain insights into the natural leaders, those with organizational skills, those with a detail orientation and so on. They could also ascertain those who lacked patience, those who followed others, those who talked more than they worked, and a host of other insights you would not pick up in an interview.

As a result, the evaluators could accomplish two tasks at the same time. First, they could determine who they wished to hire. Second, they could use these insights to determine which applicants would best fit which roles in the assembly process.

Third, the owner of a machine shop in Denver once showed me an aluminum puzzle he had designed. It consisted of about a dozen pieces. It wasn’t too hard to assemble, but it wasn’t too easy either. He would place the puzzle in front of applicants and ask them to assemble it while he watched.

What he was looking for, he told me, were several factors: How was their hand/eye coordination? How well could they see spatial relationships? How perseverant were they when they got stuck? How much patience did they display? How did they approach the exercise in general? Did they look at it with curiosity or as more of a chore? (This would indicate how they might approach projects day in and day out?) Time invested to create this simulation? Just what it took to design and machine the puzzle parts.

You may not own a machine shop, work for an airline, or oversee auto assembly. But the principles behind each of these exercises is adaptable. Including simulations in your screening process, even when there are few applicants to be had, is still a heck of a lot more accurate than three interviews and a resume review.

Has the Power of Choice Distorted Our Decision Making?

Sixty years ago, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously called television “a vast wasteland.” This was at a time when there were a total of three networks. Candid Camera host, Peter Funt, recently asked Mr. Minow about his thoughts on the seemingly unlimited choices now presently available.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we don’t share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think that providing more choice was in the public interest. But I’m not sure today.”

In other words, part of society’s present polarization is being caused by a population that no longer shares common interests based on media. Thirty years ago, people watched The Tonlght Show, starring Johnny Carson. Then they discussed his monologue the next morning at the office. Now, on any given night, you can choose between more than a dozen late-night talk shows, all of which have hosts projecting partisan political viewpoints, something Johnny was careful not to do.

Another television phenomenon of thirty years ago was “Who killed JR?” on the night-time drama, Dallas. People spent weeks arguing about who pulled the trigger. Why, because millions were watching every Friday night. In essence, it created a sense of community. You could get on an elevator and ask the strangers next to you, “Who do you think shot J.R.?” and they would immediately get the reference. Today, there are so many choices, we have balkanized ourselves into micro affinity groups. The chance of an elevator stranger watching the same thing you did last night is remote. Besides, we don’t talk to strangers. We bury our heads in our smart phones.

This fractionalization is not limited to today’s media. The same thing is true with pretty much every product, topic or issue. As a result, we have not just become fractionalized, but hyper-fractionalized. Without shared experiences, it becomes so much easier to hide behind the beliefs with which we feel comfortable. We seek out others who share our beliefs and avoid those who might have a different point of view.

The problem with this, of course, is that when we all retreat to our individual corners, we lose the perspective to make truly informed decisions. This is reinforced by the highly partisan politicians, activists, media and colleagues who choose to press their beliefs on others without remaining open to alternative points of view. The best decision-makers accept that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. They ask questions, knowing that the answers or opinions they receive in response may not be to their liking. But they accept that colleagues, friends and strangers can have diverging beliefs without being wrong. Effective decision-making is the result of seeking out the best information, opening yourself to thoughtful discussion and acting, knowing that you might be proven wrong.

 

Quitting is the Best Decision You Can Make

Do you want to be known as a quitter? I do. In fact, quitting has been the best decision I’ve made on occasion. Contrary to popular opinion, quitting is what the best decision makers do regularly. Allow me to explain.

Life is full of opportunities. There are new people to meet, new groups to join, new projects to launch, and on and on and on. But there is only so much time in each of our days and only so much energy with which to navigate those days. When invited to participate in a new group or opportunity, most people say yes because of the natural desire to belong or contribute. Psychologists call it the need to be needed. For those of us who enjoy being involved, this can become overwhelming. Between the meetings, tasks, and other commitments, we can reach a point where life becomes a never-ending series of activities. Eventually, we feel like we’re doing a lot, but not getting anything done. Have you ever felt this way? Maybe you do now.

So, how do you extricate yourself from this treadmill of non-stop obligations. Follow these five steps:

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Second, give yourself permission to quit. Every decision we make is made through a lens of emotion. Even in situations where the environment is toxic or you’ve realized that the commitment is a complete waste of time, you will have developed relationships you will be reluctant to end. There will be an emotional tug that you must acknowledge. Those you are leaving may even plead with you to stay involved. “Follow this through to the end,” they might say. Once you have determined that this is a group or commitment with which you should not be involved, give yourself permission to walk away. Not every commitment has a positive outcome. Not every commitment is a good use of your time. The best decision makers are able to step away from their emotional attachments and evaluate the situation with detachment. This is a key to quitting successfully.

Third, come up with a strategy for ending the commitment. This is an essential step in reducing the burnout and sense of overwhelm you probably feel. But you need to be prepared. Simply announcing that you’re quitting will generate questions you need to be prepared to answer. By providing a reasoned explanation, you will accomplish two things: 1) You will be able to preserve the relationships you have established and 2) You will reassure yourself and others you are making a reasoned decision and not acting impulsively. If you do this, there is less likelihood your departure will become awkward or even difficult.

Fourth, execute your plan. This can be the toughest part, but only if you are unprepared. If you have developed the reasoning for quitting and the words necessary to smooth your departure, the quitting should be successful. If you are prepared to make the break, you will feel a sense of relief when you have severed the relationship. The best decision makers don’t make a big deal out of it. They simply contact the key person involved, generally outside of a larger gathering, and let this person know that they will be concluding their involvement. They will be prepared with a succinct explanation of why and be prepared to hold firm if an appeal to stay involved is made. Then they move on as planned.

Finally, anticipate the emotions you might feel. The need to be needed is a powerful emotion and can hijack our determination to quit an activity, if we let it. I know this first-hand. I served on the board of a state association for years. I developed lots of lasting friendships. I had an opportunity to guide the organization. Truthfully, I enjoyed the influence that came with the position. One board member even called me an institution. In a way, a portion of my identity was tied up with this position. But this was also time I could spend growing elsewhere. Would I feel regret when ending this tenure? Sure. I would no longer be in the inner circle. But it was time. By anticipating these emotions when resigning from the board, I was able to make a smooth transition.

I should mention here that quitting an activity should not simply result in your filling that time with another commitment. Personal balance is extremely important. The best decision makers know this and work to enforce these limits. Becoming a strategic quitter may be the best step you can take in regaining control over your life. After all, leveraging your time and energy is an essential element in becoming a success, regardless of how you define it.

Is Having Too Many Choices Exhausting You?

My wife and I decided to repaint our dining room last week. On Saturday morning, we drove over to the local home center to select a color. How hard could that be? We wanted something creamsicle-like. You know, like those ice cream bars you buy from the guy playing that repetitive song as he drives his truck through your neighborhood. (Can you hear that song in your head?)

We arrived at the paint-selection wall, and it truly is a wall, to find that the paint manufacturers have created not a few, but close to 30 variations on “creamsicle” paint. After 20 minutes trying to decide which shade we liked best, I felt like I had been through another of those nuisance exercises such as choosing from 100 toothpaste varieties or 50 kinds of salad dressing.  You’ve probably had the same experience.

In the past two decades, the number of choices we have for pretty much everything has exploded. The irony of this is that the brain dislikes choices. Why? Because the brain dislikes uncertainty and uncertainty produces discomfort.

Having too many choices has three negative impacts: 1) This uncertainty prompts the release of the stressor hormones adrenaline and cortisol; 2) We exhaust our supply of blood glucose (sugar energy) as we consider each of these choices and then say to ourselves, “No that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it,” over and over and over. 3) We have to manage the fear of giving up options as a part of sorting through these selections.

Our resistance to giving up options is one of the main causes of indecision. Sales research has even indicated that if you present customers with too many choices, they will abandon the shopping process. With the advent of digital technology, this overwhelming phenomenon has become even more intense.

So how can we effectively manage these endless choice dilemmas? Here are my five top suggestions:

Get clear on your desired outcome. The more parameters you can add to your expectation of a successful choice, the easier it will be to eliminate the many options that may initially cloud your consideration when confronted with having to make the decision.

Determine how important this choice is in the bigger picture. Have you ever found yourself spending WAY too much time making a decision of little consequence? This is probably because you got swept up in all the options. Be proactive about recognizing this phenomenon and work to ignore it. Getting clear on your desired outcome helps with this.

Accept that you will never make the perfect choice, no matter how options you have. The more significant the decision, the more pressure you will feel, especially if others are watching or depending on what you do. The best decision makers make a best faith effort and then act. You’ll never completely please everyone, including yourself.

Jot down the reasons for your decision. Buyer’s remorse is alive and well, whether it’s selecting a new car or hiring an employee. After you make a significant decision, make a list of your reasons for acting the way you did. When having second-thoughts or being challenged by others, you can reference these notes to assure yourself that you made a good faith effort.

Learn from the choices you make. Take time to reflect on both the outcome and the process you used. Author Michael Mauboussin, says “When evaluating other people’s decisions, you are better served by looking at their decision making process than their outcomes.” Try this on yourself.

Life is a series of choices. Don’t waste your energy on the ones that don’t matter. Pick a toothpaste, pick a paint, pick a salad dressing and move on.

Conquering the Trash Can in the Garage

We have a trash can in our garage, just outside the entry door to the house. I don’t know who placed it there originally, but it sure does come in handy. Trouble is, I miss it about 50% of the time. This happens even when I’m just a couple of feet away. The trash sticks to my finger. A breeze blows through the garage. I overshoot. I undershoot. I’ve even watched whatever I was tossing land right in the center of the can and then bounce out because it ricocheted off something else. This doesn’t happen with any other trash can. Just this one.

Have you faced a dilemma like this? It doesn’t have to be a trash can. Maybe it’s the co-worker with the demanding manner. Perhaps it’s the traffic signal that always turns yellow just as you approach it. Maybe it’s the boss who never arrives on time for meetings he calls. Have these challenges become self-fulfilling prophesies over time? Have you let them consume your thinking? Do you waste time trying to resolve them, even though there’s no solution?

One morning, after I had missed the can four times in a row, I started concentrating on why this could be happening. I thought about moving the can. I thought about a larger can. I thought about slowing down and really taking aim. I even considered eliminating the trash can itself.

Then I thought, “Why am I wasting energy on this?” In reality, it’s a brain game. The brain is always seeking resolution. That’s why we feel uncomfortable during times of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. The same is true with completion. The brain is looking for closure. If the trash hits the floor instead of the can, my brain will remind me endlessly to pick it up until I do.

These same kinds of triggers occur with the demanding co-worker, the irritating traffic signal or the consistently tardy boss. But we have a choice. We can allow these irritants to consume our focus or we can reframe them. How? Here are a few ideas.

First, look for the humor – From the outside, this entire trash can thing is absurd. So why not laugh at it. Yes, the traffic signal is annoying, so why not imagine the dimwit that should know better than to program it to stop you every time?

Second, distract yourself with a mantra – My favorite mantra is, “Life’s too short,” because it is. We can’t control most of what happens to us. But we can control how we respond. “Life’s too short” alters our perspective.

Third, change the circumstance – Can you alter your route to avoid that traffic light? Can you time your arrival to coincide with your consistently tardy boss? Can you reduce your contact with the demanding co-worker? One small change can make all the difference.

Will this take a bit of time? Probably, but only as long it takes for you to replace this irritation with some other thinking. So, how have I managed my trash can dilemma? Every time it happens, I laugh. Then I say, “Life’s too short,” and I move on to issues to deserve my focus. How about you?

Empathy Produces Better Decisions

A friend of mine works for a university. Commencement is coming up in the next couple of weeks and a rehearsal has been called to ensure that everything goes well. The event will be held at a community stadium about one mile from the campus. Earlier this week, everyone involved received an email announcing the rehearsal and asking them to park on the campus and walk to the stadium.

This has my friend, and lots of others, puzzled. The stadium has ample parking. The rehearsal will be held at 2PM on a Tuesday afternoon, but it’s a long walk from the campus. Aside from those who are physically unable to make the journey, my friend and her colleagues are wondering why they have been told to “take a hike.” Unfortunately, no explanation has been provided.

Chances are, you have received more than one email or memo similar to this over the years. A command comes from above, directing you to perform a task, attend a meeting, start doing something or stop doing something, without even a sentence of explanation or context. You probably wondered why, but didn’t possess the energy or curiosity to ask. So, you simply complied in a detached sort of way.

If this has happened enough, you’ve probably wondered why management seems to be tone-deaf to what its workforce must be thinking. If you’ve asked around, chances are your co-workers have felt the same way. As a result, people begin to feel like human-doings rather than human-beings.

In my 35+ years of leading, managing and consulting with business teams, I have heard the claim, “People are our greatest resource,” so many times it has become a joke. Thousands I have spoken to feel the same way. Yet this farce persists.

Much the same as the observation “people join companies, but leave managers,” people also leave cultures that don’t engender empathy. This is especially true in a job market that has employers scrambling to fill positions. In essence, it is the little things that drive people away.

Those who rise to the tops of organizations tend to be analytical types who study the numbers, not the people. It doesn’t occur to them to share details not directly relevant to the mission.

Explaining your reasoning also takes time they don’t feel they have. Besides, they’re the leaders. Everyone should just trust them. Right?

If you want people to make good decisions, you have to provide more than just bare bones instructions. If you don’t, you can’t expect them to use their common sense, develop situational awareness, offer ideas that will enhance organizational performance, or empathize with your burdens as a manager. When it comes to empathy, where do you fall on your journey to effective leadership?

How to Make Decisions When You Have Too Many Options

You know what it’s like. You stand in the toothpaste section trying to decide between ultra-white, super-white, or optic-white. Perhaps you need to choose between the 354 shades of white paint at the home center. Or maybe you’re stuck behind a person in the coffee shop who is overwhelmed by the difference between the upside-down caramel macchiato and the cookie mocha crumble macchiato with whip.

The world has too many choices. The other day, I needed to send someone a very large digital file. I Googled my options. On the first page alone, I found five alternatives, all free. They just wanted my email address. It can be exhausting to navigate through the average day when you’re bombarded by thousands of options.

So, how do you make well-considered decisions when you’re faced with too many choices? Allow me to share a few strategies from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed and observed over the past three decades.

Make fewer decisions – Every decision you make, large or small, consumes some of the blood glucose (sugar energy) your body needs to function. This is the reason you feel tired having battled traffic on the way to work. The same is true if you spend the first 30 minutes of the day clearing emails, Slack messages, texts, and Linked In notifications. The best decision-makers take stock of all the decisions they make during the typical day and work to eliminate, delegate or automate as many as they can. This leaves them with more energy to focus on the issues that count.

Focus your criteria – When was the last time you made a significant decision based on impulse? The options overwhelmed you. You might have simply surrendered because you were tired of thinking. You might have said, “Fine, I’ll just go with that option,” just to get the issue off your plate. The most effective decision makers take time to think through the elements and options before going to the meeting, entering the store, or meeting with the vendor. They also prioritize these elements to reduce the chance of getting sucked in by the “bright shiny object” rather than the critical consideration.

Ask for advice – Effective decision makers proactively ask for the input of others. Where others hesitate for fear of rejection or appearing dumb, these individuals approach anyone they think might be able to share helpful information or insights. That said, they are careful to examine the context within which the input is provided. In an unfamiliar restaurant, they will ask a nearby patron for menu recommendations rather than the waiter who wants to upsell them. In choosing a vendor, they will listen to other customers rather than the team member who keeps pushing for a particular option. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Just keep it all in perspective.

One of the main reasons people have a hard time making decisions is that they are afraid of losing options. As a result, it can be easy to get stuck out of a desire to keep your options open. This phenomenon has been magnified in recent years by the endless choices on the internet. The best thinkers recognize how easy it is to be overcome by the fear of making a mistake. In response, they work hard to make fewer decisions, focus on their priorities and ask for trustworthy advice. In concert, these three practices enable them to act with confidence and without fear of failure or regret. You should too.

Good Decision Makers Always Say Thank You

Jay Leno tells of buying a half gallon of milk at a grocery store. When he got to the checkout stand, he said, “good morning,” to the cashier. She didn’t look up. He asked, “How’s your day going?” Still no response. He gave her two dollars for the milk and the change came rolling out of the coin dispenser. He scooped up the change and said, “Have a good day.” Still nothing. At this point, he’d had enough. “Aren’t you even going to say, Thank you,” he snapped. Finally, the cashier looked up. “It’s on the bottom of the receipt,” she said.

This story always gets a good laugh, because we’ve all been there. But here’s the thing; Jay’s been telling that story since the 1980s. I have had the privilege of getting to know a lot of good decisions makers. Hopefully, you have too. One of the things that has made a lasting impression on me is how unfailingly appreciative these people are. They’ve recognized that if they say thank you, it is generally reciprocated. This plants the seeds for other opportunities.

I say “thanks” for even the smallest gestures. If nothing else, it generally brings a smile to the other person’s face. In some cases, I get a “You’re welcome” in return. Once in a while someone will say, “I really appreciate that. No one seems to say “thank you” anymore.”

I learned a long time ago that if you are appreciative, the other person is more likely to share that feeling of goodwill. I’ve been upgraded on airline flights any number of times, for instance, because I was one of the few passengers treating the gate agent with warmth. That has always bedeviled me. Why would you be gruff to the person who controls your seat assignment and level of service? Yet so many people do.

We are increasingly living in a less-than-civil world. But that doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.  The best decision-makers know this and use it to leverage their relationships and influence. Besides, it just feels good and is what a civil society requires.

When Good Enough is Good Enough

I can become consumed trying to ensure I have done the absolutely best job or made the absolutely best decision. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I know that the details count. I want to be proud of the work I’ve done. As a result, I sometimes find myself going down “rabbit holes” in pursuit of the exact words when I’m writing, the perfect look when I am recording a video, or the absolutely choice finish when I am creating something in my workshop. Sometimes I get so focused on getting it right that I look up and suddenly realize I’ve spent way too much time on an element of the effort that no one else would care about.

Of course, I am not alone in this. I’ve had colleagues tell me it took them three years to write a book because they wanted to get the words just right. As a result, they wrote and re-wrote sections and still weren’t happy when it eventually went to press. There is a place for this kind of exactness, of course. It’s been said that Ernest Hemmingway sometimes struggled for weeks in crafting a single sentence. Fred Astaire rehearsed dance routines until everyone’s feet bled. Top comedians have been known to take months to hone 15 minutes of material. Golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez used to spend hours a day on the putting green.

In those types of performance environments, I applaud their dedication. But outside of this, it is easy to be consumed by details that matter little in the overall outcome. I’ve watched teams spend hours on the details of a proposal rather than on focusing on the relationship with the prospect. I’ve participated on boards where insignificant issues have been allowed to coopt the mission or primary outcome. I suspect you have as well. When we look back on the time and effort put into some of these dalliances, will we even remember what they were about?

One of the mantras I have adopted over time is “Good enough is good enough.” (This is a cousin to the phrase, “Life’s too short.”) Most work does not need to be that precise. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy. It is important to meet the expectations of the supervisor, stakeholder or our own sense of quality and integrity.

But “good enough is good enough.” I’d rather get my project, article, product out to the people it can help rather than delaying endlessly until it is my idea of perfect. I have to balance the time and effort expended with a reasonable outcome. There will always be imperfections. This past summer, for instance, I replaced the stairwell of the deck on our house. Did I make a few minor mistakes? Yes. Do I notice them when climbing those stairs? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rebuild those steps this summer to correct errors no one else will notice. Good enough is good enough.

When I begin to realize I am hyper-focusing on the minutiae, I ask myself three questions.

Number one, “What is an acceptable outcome for this effort?” Once again, that does not mean I don’t care if I do my best work. It’s just that there are only 24 hours in each day and only so much energy. Am I making the most of it? Number two, “What are the stakeholders expecting?” This past weekend, I painted some interior window trim. Truth is I did not paint the tops of the trim because no one is going to see them. Visitors to my home are not going to climb up to see if I did so. If I stumble over my words once or twice in a 15-minute video is anyone going to notice or care? Number three, “Is what I’ve accomplished good enough?” In other words, can I live with the present result? Five years ago, I published a book that won three awards. Are there thoughts in that book I’d like to go back and refine? Sure. But the book has already won three awards, so it must be good enough.

Have I made my point perfectly here? Probably not. But I hope I have given those of you who suffer from this time-consuming pursuit of perfection permission to know when good enough is good enough and make the decision to move on.

The Magic of Goodwill in Decision-Making

This past week, I needed to find a part for a 29-year-old boiler in one of my rental properties. After searching the web for a couple of hours, I decided to make a few phone calls since the part was nowhere to be found on-line. By chance, the first number I called was to parts4heating.com. A young lady named Jessica answered the phone in a delightful manner. I explained the situation and she asked for the model number and a couple of other specifics. Then she said, “You know, this is going to take some time. Why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll do some research and call you back.” I did so and we hung up.

Over the next four hours, she called me two more times asking for additional information, each time in a friendly and enthusiastic way. “We’re going to find this part,” she insisted.

Finally, she called back one more time. “I am so sorry,” she said. “This part is nowhere to be found. I’ve tried three other distributors, the web, and asked the manufacturer. I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t think it’s available.”

I told her I knew it was a longshot going in and that I was amazed at how hard she tried especially because there was probably going to be nothing in it for her. She laughed and said, “Oh, I do that for everyone. Maybe one of these days you’ll call me back and we’ll do business then.” How positively refreshing!

Sadly, we have become a world of mostly detached and impersonal interactions. This means we make most decisions based on what’s in it for us. Granted, that is human nature. But what if we each became more like Jessica — Going the extra mile without being asked and taking time to boost the other person’s spirits?

Occasionally, I come across another person like Jessica, whether it is personally or professionally. When I do, I treasure that relationship. It has been my experience that the best decision-makers with whom I come in contact behave like Jessica, regardless of their station in life. In spite of today’s emphasis on “me, me, me,” what goes around – comes around still holds true.