The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.

Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires, by Robert Sheie
Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires.  Photo courtesy of Robert Sheie.

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

It took me considerable time and effort to come up with that clever calculation. And it makes sense for me.  Is it right to prescribe rules for others in terms of how they should organize their workplace clothing?  Especially when the math is clever?

In an April 2018 article at Quartz at Work, Leah Fessler describes the new dress code at General Motors.  It was cut down from 10 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.”  Mary Barra, the CEO at GM, had to work directly against GM’s bureaucratic corporate culture – including her own human resources department – to bring this simplified code into place.  One senior leader emailed her to object to the new rule.  That manager received a phone call from the CEO, after which they worked things out. (The rule remains in place) Barra found that first-level managers needed to learn how to develop their own in-house opinions of what constituted “appropriate,” and they each asserted some localized interpretations.  She thinks this practice helps develop first-level managers.

When I apply my own judgment as a human resources analyst, I sometimes think I have the capacity to create comprehensive rules-based systems that are best for everyone.  My first concern is, how many dress shirts should I own?  Based on the best advice, I have chosen to hang my shirts one inch apart, so they don’t wrinkle in the crush.  I have space in my closet for 24 shirts.  I can go four weeks before I have to do laundry, giving me lots of flexibility.

I replace shirts when they are three years old.  Over three years there are almost 160 weeks.  If I wear each shirt once every four weeks, I will wear each shirt 40 times.  At this pace my shirts wear-out at the same pace that they go out of style.  There are subtle shifts in patterns, colour, and cut, such that after three years a garment looks dated.  Those 40 wears cause them to get threadbare at the cuffs and shiny at the collar.

If I’m granted the authority to assert rules about clothing, I have a high likelihood of advancing my own strengths in clever mathematical calculations.  For example, if you replace shirts once every three years, and there are 24 shirts, this means that you are replacing eight shirts per year, or two shirts per season.  I make a ritual out of it, noticing the passing of the seasons and the fact that it’s okay to buy two shirts when I pass through a favorite store or find a deal.  It’s a ward against impulse buying because I know if I’m allowed to buy shirts right now.  And at any point in time, one-third of my shirts have been purchased in the past year.

It’s a great calculation and I recommend it to everyone.  If I’m ever given the authority to do so, I might just impose this calculation on others.  After all, I have put a lot more thought into this than others, and the math makes a lot of sense.  Do you work at an organization where one person did a bunch of calculations and obliged everyone else to follow rules that comply with the formula?  It’s pretty common, when you think about it.

In an April 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor compares the outcomes of businesses that have rules-based systems against those that are largely discretionary.  On United Flight 3411, when a doctor of Asian ethnicity was bloodied by security to clear space for an overbooking, the viral video and its after-effects erased $1.4 billion from the company’s stock value.  Taylor cites an in-depth analysis (which is behind a paywall) that found that “The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a ‘rules-based culture’ in which 85,000 people are ‘reluctant to make choices’…”

By contrast, I am not reluctant to make choices.  I have been granted significant freedom to advance workforce analytics in the manner I think is best.  And if you gave me a shot at it, I could save employees an awful lot of money.

If I spend $80 per shirt, with 40 wears this adds up to $2.00 per wear in purchase cost.  Ironing it yourself can save money, but I spend about $2.50 to have it ironed for me.  The combined purchase and ironing cost adds up to $4.50 per wear.  My wardrobe is carefully designed such that my cost-per-wear for office attire is $10 per day.  If you haven’t done cost-per-wear calculations, you may want to give it a try.  You may be surprised.  A $400 leather jacket might be worn 400 times, which is $1.00 per wear.  That’s a bargain.  Good leather-soled shoes have a similar calculation.  By contrast I only wear suits twice per year, and men shouldn’t keep a suit beyond ten years.  In one decade I’ll never get more than 20 wears out of all suits combined.  It costs me well over $25 to walk out the door wearing a suit, which is an unjustifiable luxury for me.  Hence I am not tempted to buy suits.  By contrast, if I wear a sports coat every day I get a large number of wears, bringing down that garment’s cost.  And I can wear each dress shirt twice, halving the cost-per-wear of my dress shirts.  Walking out the door in a nice crisp shirt is an obsession for me, so getting this right every morning really sets me up with a good start.

I particularly like the shirts that I bought at the department store Nordstrom.  Nordstrom has a single rule for customer service, which states “Use best judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.”  Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot in the retail industry.  In Bill Taylor’s article he cites research by business theorist Mark White who finds that organizations that grant employees more discretion, out-perform rules-based organizations in “service, empathy, and capacity to do the right things in difficult situations.”

It may be that judgment is a skill that is best learned with practice, and rules inhibit the ability to practice this skill.

We must choose between culture and efficiency, but strangely, pushing the power to the local level is a boon for both the bottom line as well as culture and workplace wellbeing.

You have two options if you want to be just like me.  You can make your own calculations and your own decisions about what works best for your own wardrobe.  Or you can feel the addictive influences of power and slowly impose your personal judgment calls upon others.  The irony is that the boundary between these two ways of living is not clearly marked.  You will only discover it by experience, through mistakes, and some kind of internal personal discovery.

Can you recognize that moment when you figured out what’s best, and then made a separate judgment call on whether to impose your views?  Can you remember a time when you did not make the distinction?  What did you learn about yourself?  Because that’s what employers are really struggling with these days.

What If You Can Do It All?

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Costumes. Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer.

Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand.  And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits.  There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best.  That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability.  Maybe you can join me?

The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.”  Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing.  Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart.  But that style doesn’t work for everyone.

For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning.  Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:

  1. Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
  2. Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
  3. Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.

Idea Synthesis

I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017.  Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work.  Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour.  Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.

At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines.  In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon.  I find that common language is particularly interesting.  I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue.  I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.

Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.”  She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.

Adaptability and the Growth Mindset

Adaptability is becoming an critical skill.  Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.”  Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.

Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company.  By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth.  People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow.  In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”

Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.

How Fast Can You Learn?

Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.  I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on.  If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic.  Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking.  Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill?  Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours.  But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.

  1. Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct.  In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
  4. Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours.  Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going.  In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.

Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time.  He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good.  Well done!

For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films.  I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings.  The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation.  They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.

Then they’re done.  And onward to the next adventure.  Onward to the next obsession.

Your Ideal Self Will Assign You Meaningful Work

girl-1186895_1280 cc Pixabay

I have a confession to make.  I love mundane errands.  Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm?  Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?

In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed.  My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure.  To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”.  It turns out I’ve been doing it right.

Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful.  The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.

Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State

The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first.  Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy.  When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well.  By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.

The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created.  Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved.  It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning.  But not all goals are equal.  For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities.  Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.

Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement

Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work.  David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.  In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce.  He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.

If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.

I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless.  Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.

People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated.  This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.

Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying.  Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.”  He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment.  Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so.  It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.

Pursuit of the Ideal is More Meaningful than Doing What We Ought

Sure, we ought to be hard workers.  But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck.  Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets.  The research makes a distinction between two types of self.  The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept.  The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.

Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self.  Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us.  By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much.  People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self.  But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver.  That sounds like meaningless work to me.  That sounds like disengagement.

What does this mean for our day jobs?  It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose.  Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire.  Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose.  Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal.  Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.

I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes.  But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self?  A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them.  I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.

Mini-Me Recruiting: Always Funny, Always Uncomfortable

Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer) by Bit Boy
Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer).  Photo courtesy of Bit Boy.

Who hasn’t wanted to clone themselves, especially when deep into a project that leaves a weekend in tatters. Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame hilariously and awkwardly created Mini-Me as this right-hand man. While Mini-Me failed to carry out Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination, he succeeded in illustrating a major problem in human resources that needs more scrutiny than ever.  The actor Verne Troyer – who played Mini-Me – immortalized an uncomfortable concept.

The hiring of mini-me in organizations is a problem-behaviour caused by two cognitive fallacies.  One is the affinity bias, the liking of people similar to ourselves. The other is the exposure effect, where we like things that we have been merely exposed to. In the readings of cognitive fallacies it becomes clear that the majority of such fallacies are a variant of the “availability heuristic,” when we over-value thoughts that come to mind easily.  If we choose what’s comfortable, we reproduce our own status quo.

However, it’s usually the case that an employer needs a diverse team.  Even the most excellent leaders need people who have different strengths.  In an article at entrepreneur.com, George Deeb asserts;

“Maybe you don’t need a ‘glass half full’ optimist like yourself… Maybe you need a ‘glass half empty’ realist, who will bring a sense of caution to your investment decisions. Or, you may need a similar ‘A-Type Personality’ to lead your sales team efforts… But, maybe a ‘B-Type Personality’ may be a better fit to manage your more introverted team of technology developers. …Maybe what you really need is the opposite of yourself. You need your Anti-Me to help keep yourself organized, on plan and in check. It really comes down to what you see as your personal strengths and weaknesses, and filling in any voids in your skill-sets.” (Emphasis added)

Equity and Inclusion in Hiring Decisions

The most visible consequence of unconscious bias is that organizations hire and promote people in the same demographic category as the hiring manager, increasing the momentum behind historic privilege.  In an article in the Guardian in 2016, Matthew Jenkin notes that the context of a selection interview will have an outsized impact on who is chosen.  If the context is white and middle-class, candidates who are white and middle class will be favoured.

Bias goes beyond blockbuster items like race and social class. Hobbies, personal experiences, and how we dress can be factors too. If the leadership of an organization is “all of one type” it is a reliable sign that the leadership has lost all curiosity, has no self-doubt, and does not take evidence seriously.  The leadership is not reading the news, and if they are, they are only reading it in print.

This is not the mindset of leaders who will make an organization successful in the near future.  Yes, we must achieve indicators of diversity, but we must also foster receptiveness to new information, a curiosity about diverse ideas, and ways in which an individual can be excellent in a manner that might be considered weird.

Why Structured Interviews Matter

The professional association in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), released a paper in 2015 entitled A Head for Hiring: The Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection. It looked at, amongst other things, the role of unstructured interviews.  The authors found a study that fed research participants a combination of good evidential information, plus random irrelevant information from an unstructured interview.  The research subjects upgraded the importance of the random irrelevant information and discounted the good information.  “This can be seen as evidence of sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.”

It’s not just the interviewers who are at risk of making bad judgment calls. The CIPD paper identified cognitive fallacies in the mind of the interviewee that caused them to self-select away from promising job matches.  And walking into an unfamiliar environment, where they feel like an outsider, can cause job candidates to underperform because of the additional stress.  When people are using their brains, they are vulnerable to issues of cognitive load in which a complex environment exhausts their brain prior to facing decisions.  Those coming from a different context face disadvantage in an environment that might seem “normal” to the host.

Solutions in Diversity Hiring

What is the remedy for these problems?  For one, structured interviews are key, as they narrow the range of evidence to information that is relevant.  Also, we must actively seek contrary evidence; not taking things at face-value, and seeking information that is outside of what is familiar and comfortable.  There is also diversity representation.  Charles Hipps, CEO of e-recruitment company WCN, was quoted in the Guardian article and  “…suggests having team members from the particular group you are trying to attract present during the recruitment process – whether that’s meeting and greeting candidates or on the interview panel.”  Structure a diverse context and it will set a balanced comfort-level with reduced cognitive load.

Employers are also starting to get hard-core, using new tools to improve the selection process.  The Guardian article spoke with one company, Elevate, that “uses algorithms to score every candidate’s CV, previous work experience, skills and education, and assesses their suitability for a role. It then ranks candidates much like Google’s search results…”   Another company, Joinkoru, conducts validated pre-hire assessments which provide candidate scores that are less sensitive to the candidate’s similarity to current employees.  It is also feasible to do blind selection in the process of creating a shortlist, in a manner that obscures the name and sex of the candidate.

Not all of these tools are perfect, and indeed there are emerging risks that algorithms can carry-forward the historic bias of past human behaviours.  The rise of the racist robots is a concern.  We might not be creating cloned versions of ourselves (yet), but we are at serious risk of creating artificial intelligence which has flaws identical to our broader society.

And the technology can be expensive.  Doctor Evil is the only one selling it, and he’s going to charge you (pinky to mouth) one million dollars.

Spaghetti Principle Best Way to Change Minds

IMG_0580 by Brent (2)
IMG_0580.  Photo courtesy of Brent.

Does everything change when you touch it?  Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it.  But what about people?  Do people change when you try to move them?  Sometimes.  Only sometimes.

One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel.  Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.”  So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.

When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there.  First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process.  Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table.  Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles.  You can move the noodles or move the entire plate.  The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.

For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it.  By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly.  You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now.  As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.

Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions.  Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others?  Yes indeed.  Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas.  But other times, you simply move the plate.  You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.

On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds.  Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts.  This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable.  The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence.  So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go.  You know how this goes.

Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference.  His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship.  An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.”  This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.

As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift.  He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion.  When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.

You can do this too.  Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.

Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself.  Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?)  If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?

When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table.  I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper.  Neither of them uses a spoon.  They handle the noodles as they see fit.  I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives.  Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.