Category: Leadership

Solve Problems Before They Happen by Developing an “Inner Sense of Captaincy”

Too often we reward people who solve problems while ignoring those who prevent them in the first place. This incentivizes creating problems. According to poet David Whyte, the key to taking initiative and being proactive is viewing yourself as the captain of your own “voyage of work.”

If we want to get away from glorifying those who run around putting out fires, we need to cultivate an organizational culture that empowers everyone to act responsibly at the first sign of smoke.

How do we make that shift?

We can start by looking at ourselves and how we consider the voyage that is our work. When do we feel fulfillment? Is it when we swoop in to save the day and everyone congratulates us? It’s worth asking why, if we think something is worth saving, we don’t put more effort into protecting it ahead of time.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte suggests that we should view our work as a lifelong journey. In particular, he frames it as a sea voyage in which the greatest rewards lie in what we learn through the process, as opposed to the destination.

Like a long sea voyage, the nature of our work is always changing. There are stormy days and sunny ones. There are days involving highs of delight and lows of disaster. All of this happens against the backdrop of events in our personal lives and the wider world with varying levels of influence.

On a voyage, you need to look after your boat. There isn’t always time to solve problems after they happen. You need to learn how to preempt them or risk a much rougher journey—or even the end of it.

Whyte refers to the practice of taking control of your voyage as “developing an inner sense of captaincy,” offering a metaphor we can all apply to our work. Developing an inner sense of captaincy is good for both us and the organizations we work in. We end up with more agency over our own lives, and our organizations waste fewer resources. Whyte’s story of how he learned this lesson highlights why that’s the case.

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A moment of reckoning

Any life, and any life’s work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.

Shortly after graduating, Whyte landed a dream job working as a naturalist guide on board a ship in the Galapagos Islands. One morning, he awoke and could tell at once that the vessel had drifted from its anchorage during the night. Whyte leaped up to find the captain fast asleep and the boat close to crashing into a cliff. Taking control of it just in time, he managed to steer himself and the other passengers back to safety—right as the captain awoke. Though they were safe, he was profoundly shaken both by the near miss and the realization that their leader had failed.

At first, Whyte’s reaction to the episode was to feel a smug contempt for the captain who had “slept through not only the anchor dragging but our long, long, nighttime drift.” The captain had failed to predict the problem or notice when it started. If Whyte hadn’t awakened, everyone on the ship could have died.

But something soon changed in his perspective. Whyte knew the captain was new and far less familiar with that particular boat than himself and the other crew member. Every boat has its quirks, and experience counts for more than seniority when it comes to knowing them. He’d also felt sure the night before that they needed to put down a second anchor and knew they “should have dropped another anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too.” He writes that “this moment of reckoning under the lava cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to the way we must continually forge our identities through our endeavors.”

Whyte’s experience contains lessons with wide applicability for those of us on dry land. The idea of having an inner sense of captaincy means understanding the overarching goals of your work and being willing to make decisions that support them, even if something isn’t strictly your job or you might not get rewarded for it, or sometimes even if you don’t have permission.

When you play the long game, you’re thinking of the whole voyage, not whether you’ll get a pat on the back today.

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Skin in the game

It’s all too easy to buy into the view that leaders have full responsibility for everything that happens, especially disasters. Sometimes in our work, when we’re not in a leadership position, we see a potential problem or an unnoticed existing one but choose not to take action. Instead, we stick to doing whatever we’ve been told to do because that feels safer. If it’s important, surely the person in charge will deal with it. If not, that’s their problem. Anyway, there’s already more than enough to do.

Leaders give us a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. However, when we assume all responsibility lies with them, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t have “our own personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmediated by any cushioning parental presence.

At some point, things do become our problem. No leader can do everything and see everything. The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative. If a leader can’t rely on their subordinates to take action when they see a potential problem, everything will collapse.

When we’ve been repeatedly denied agency by poor leadership and seen our efforts fall flat, we may sense we lack control. Taking action no longer feels natural. However, if we view our work as a voyage that helps us change and grow, it’s obvious why we need to overcome learned helplessness. We can’t abdicate all responsibility and blame other people for what we chose to ignore in the first place (as Whyte puts it, “The captain was there in all his inherited and burdened glory and thus convenient for the blame”). By understanding how our work helps us change and grow, we develop skin in the game.

On a ship, everyone is in it together. If something goes wrong, they’re all at risk. And it may not be easy or even possible to patch up a serious problem in the middle of the sea. As a result, everyone needs to pay attention and act on anything that seems amiss. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what happens, as Whyte goes on to detail:

“No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all contributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The undertow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle-encrusted fortress would have killed us all.”

Having an inner sense of captaincy means viewing ourselves as the ones in charge of our voyage of work. It means not acting as if there are certain areas where we are incapacitated, or ignoring potential problems, just because someone else has a particular title.

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Space and support to create success

Developing an inner sense of captaincy is not about compensating for an incompetent leader—nor does it mean thinking we always know best. The better someone is at leading people, the more they create the conditions for their team to take initiative and be proactive about preventing problems. They show by example that they inhabit a state rather than a particular role. A stronger leader can mean a more independent team.

Strong leaders instill autonomy by teaching and supervising processes with the intention of eventually not needing to oversee them. Captaincy is a way of being. It is embodied in the role of captain, but it is available to everyone. For a crew to develop it, the captain needs to step back a little and encourage them to take responsibility for outcomes. They can test themselves bit by bit, building up confidence. When people feel like it’s their responsibility to contribute to overall success, not just perform specific tasks, they can respond to the unexpected without waiting for instructions. They become ever more familiar with what their organization needs to stay healthy and use second-order thinking so potential problems are more noticeable before they happen.

Whyte realized that the near-disaster had a lot to do with their previous captain, Raphael. He was too good at his job, being “preternaturally alert and omnipresent, appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble.” The crew felt comfortable, knowing they could always rely on Raphael to handle any problems. Although this worked well at the time, once he left and they were no longer in such safe hands they were unused to taking initiative. Whyte explains:

Raphael had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area: we had given up our own inner sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside of us, we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.

Being a good leader isn’t about making sure your team doesn’t experience failure. Rather, it’s giving everyone the space and support to create success.

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The voyage of work

Having an inner sense of captaincy means caring about outcomes, not credit or blame. When Whyte realized that he should have dropped a second anchor the night before the near miss, he would have been doing something that ideally no one other than the crew, or even just him, would have known about. The captain and passengers would have enjoyed an untroubled night and woken none the wiser.

If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place. We put down a second anchor so the boat doesn’t drift, rather than steering it to safety when it’s about to crash. After all, we’re on the boat too.

Another good comparison is picking up litter. The less connected to and responsible for a place we feel, the less likely we might be to pick up trash lying on the ground. In our homes, we’re almost certain to pick it up. If we’re walking along our street or in our neighborhood, it’s a little less likely. In a movie theater or bar when we know it’s someone’s job to pick up trash, we’re less likely to bother. What’s the equivalent to leaving trash on the ground in your job?

Most organizations don’t incentivize prevention because it’s invisible. Who knows what would have happened? How do you measure something that doesn’t exist? After all, problem preventers seem relaxed. They often go home on time. They take lots of time to think. We don’t know how well they would deal with conflict, because they never seem to experience any. The invisibility of the work they do to prevent problems in the first place makes it seem like their job isn’t challenging.

When we promote problem solvers, we incentivize having problems. We fail to unite everyone towards a clear goal. Because most organizations reward problem solvers, it can seem like a better idea to let things go wrong, then fix them after. That’s how you get visibility. You run from one high-level meeting to the next, reacting to one problem after another.

It’s great to have people to solve those problems but it is better not to have them in the first place. Solving problems generally requires more resources than preventing them, not to mention the toll it takes on our stress levels. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

An inner sense of captaincy on our voyage of work is good for us and for our organizations. It changes how we think about preventing problems. It becomes a part of an overall voyage, an opportunity to build courage and face fears. We become more fully ourselves and more in touch with our nature. Whyte writes that “having the powerful characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the deeper elements of their own nature.”

The Spiral of Silence

Our desire to fit in with others means we don’t always say what we think. We only express opinions that seem safe. Here’s how the spiral of silence works and how we can discover what people really think.

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Be honest: How often do you feel as if you’re really able to express your true opinions without fearing judgment? How often do you bite your tongue because you know you hold an unpopular view? How often do you avoid voicing any opinion at all for fear of having misjudged the situation?

Even in societies with robust free speech protections, most people don’t often say what they think. Instead they take pains to weigh up the situation and adjust their views accordingly. This comes down to the “spiral of silence,” a human communication theory developed by German researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s and ’70s. The theory explains how societies form collective opinions and how we make decisions surrounding loaded topics.

Let’s take a look at how the spiral of silence works and how understanding it can give us a more realistic picture of the world.

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How the spiral of silence works

According to Noelle-Neumann’s theory, our willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be. If we think an opinion is unpopular, we will avoid expressing it. If we think it is popular, we will make a point of showing we think the same as others.

Controversy is also a factor—we may be willing to express an unpopular uncontroversial opinion but not an unpopular controversial one. We perform a complex dance whenever we share views on anything morally loaded.

Our perception of how “safe” it is to voice a particular view comes from the clues we pick up, consciously or not, about what everyone else believes. We make an internal calculation based on signs like what the mainstream media reports, what we overhear coworkers discussing on coffee breaks, what our high school friends post on Facebook, or prior responses to things we’ve said.

We also weigh up the particular context, based on factors like how anonymous we feel or whether our statements might be recorded.

As social animals, we have good reason to be aware of whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Cohesive groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or even ostracism within a particular context or in general. This may be because there are concrete consequences, such as losing a job or even legal penalties. Or there may be less official social consequences, like people being less friendly or willing to associate with you. Those with unpopular views may suppress them to avoid social isolation.

Avoiding social isolation is an important instinct. From an evolutionary biology perspective, remaining part of a group is important for survival, hence the need to at least appear to share the same views as anyone else. The only time someone will feel safe to voice a divergent opinion is if they think the group will share it or be accepting of divergence, or if they view the consequences of rejection as low. But biology doesn’t just dictate how individuals behave—it ends up shaping communities. It’s almost impossible for us to step outside of that need for acceptance.

A feedback loop pushes minority opinions towards less and less visibility—hence why Noelle-Neumann used the word “spiral.” Each time someone voices a majority opinion, they reinforce the sense that it is safe to do so. Each time someone receives a negative response for voicing a minority opinion, it signals to anyone sharing their view to avoid expressing it.

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An example of the spiral of silence

A 2014 Pew Research survey of 1,801 American adults examined the prevalence of the spiral of silence on social media. Researchers asked people about their opinions on one public issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of US government surveillance of citizens’ phones and emails. They selected this issue because, while controversial, prior surveys suggested a roughly even split in public opinion surrounding whether the leaks were justified and whether such surveillance was reasonable.

Asking respondents about their willingness to share their opinions in different contexts highlighted how the spiral of silence plays out. 86% of respondents were willing to discuss the issue in person, but only about half as many were willing to post about it on social media. Of the 14% who would not consider discussing the Snowden leaks in person, almost none (0.3%) were willing to turn to social media instead.

Both in person and online, respondents reported far greater willingness to share their views with people they knew agreed with them—three times as likely in the workplace and twice as likely in a Facebook discussion.

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The implications of the spiral of silence

The end result of the spiral of silence is a point where no one publicly voices a minority opinion, regardless of how many people believe it. The first implication of this is that the picture we have of what most people believe is not always accurate. Many people nurse opinions they would never articulate to their friends, coworkers, families, or social media followings.

A second implication is that the possibility of discord makes us less likely to voice an opinion at all, assuming we are not trying to drum up conflict. In the aforementioned Pew survey, people were more comfortable discussing a controversial story in person than online. An opinion voiced online has a much larger potential audience than one voiced face to face, and it’s harder to know exactly who will see it. Both of these factors increase the risk of someone disagreeing.

If we want to gauge what people think about something, we need to remove the possibility of negative consequences. For example, imagine a manager who often sets overly tight deadlines, causing immense stress to their team. Everyone knows this is a problem and discusses it among themselves, recognizing that more realistic deadlines would be motivating, and unrealistic ones are just demoralizing. However, no one wants to say anything because they’ve heard the manager say that people who can’t handle pressure don’t belong in that job. If the manager asks for feedback about their leadership style, they’re not going to hear what they need to hear if they know who it comes from.

A third implication is that what seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can in fact be the result of a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people actually think. A prominent public figure getting away with saying something controversial may make others feel safe to do the same. A change in legislation may make people comfortable saying what they already thought.

For instance, if recreational marijuana use is legalized where someone lives, they might freely remark to a coworker that they consume it and consider it harmless. Even if that was true before the legislation change, saying so would have been too fraught, so they might have lied or avoided the topic. The result is that mainstream opinions can appear to change a great deal in a short time.

A fourth implication is that highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse. This is especially true if that minority is within a group that already has a lot of power.

While this was less the case during Noelle-Neumann’s time, the internet makes it possible for a vocal minority to make their opinions seem far more prevalent than they actually are—and therefore more acceptable. Indeed, the most extreme views on any spectrum can end up seeming most normal online because people with a moderate take have less of an incentive to make themselves heard.

In anonymous environments, the spiral of silence can end up reversing itself, making the most fringe views the loudest.

Aim For What’s Reasonable: Leadership Lessons From Director Jean Renoir

Directing a film involves getting an enormous group of people to work together on turning the image inside your head into a reality. In this 1970 interview, director Jean Renoir dispenses time-tested wisdom for leaders everywhere on humility, accountability, goal-setting, and more.

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Many of us end up in leadership roles at some point in our career. Most of us, however, never get any training or instruction on how to actually be a good leader. But whether we end up offering formal or informal leadership, at some point we need to inspire or motivate people towards accomplishing a shared vision.

Directors are the leaders of movie productions. They assemble their team, they communicate their vision, and they manage the ups and downs of the filming process. Thus the experience of a successful director offers great insight into the qualities of a good leader. In 1970, film director Jean Renoir gave an interview with George Stevens Jr. of the American Film Institute where he discussed the leadership aspects of directing. His insights illustrate some important lessons. Renoir started out making silent films, and he continued filmmaking through to the 1960s. His two greatest cinematic achievements were the films The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). He received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1975 for his contribution to the motion picture industry.

In the interview, Renoir speaks to humility in leadership when he says, “I’m a director who has spent his life suggesting stories that nobody wanted. It’s still going on. But I’m used to it and I’m not complaining, because the ideas which were forced on me were often better than my own ideas.”

Leadership is not necessarily coming up with all the answers; it’s also important to put aside your own ego to cultivate and support the contributions from your team. Sometimes leaders have the best ideas. But often people on their team have excellent ones as well.

Renoir suggests that the role of a director is to have a clear enough vision that you can work through the imperfections involved in executing it. “A picture, often when it is good, is the result of some inner belief which is so strong that you have to show what you want, in spite of a stupid story or difficulties about the commercial side of the film.”

Good leaders don’t require perfection to achieve results. They work with what they have, often using creativity and ingenuity to fill in when reality doesn’t conform to the ideal image in their head. Having a vision is not about achieving exactly that vision. It’s about doing the best you can once you come into contact with reality.

When Renoir says, “We directors are simply midwives,” he implies that effective leadership is about giving shape to the talents and capabilities that already exist. Excellent leaders find a way to challenge and develop those on their team. In explaining how he works with actors, he says, “You must not ask an actor to do what he cannot do.” Rather, you need to work with what you have, using clear feedback and communication to find a way to bring out the best in people. Sometimes getting out of people’s way and letting their natural abilities come out is the most important thing to do.

Although Renoir says, “When I can, I shoot my scenes only once. I like to be committed, to be a slave to my decision,” he further explains, “I don’t like to make the important decisions alone.” Good leaders know when to consult others. They know to take in information from those who know more than they do and to respect different forms of expertise. But they still take accountability for their decisions because they made the final choice.

Good leaders are also mindful of the world outside the group or organization they are leading. They don’t lead in a vacuum but are sensitive to all those involved in achieving the results they are trying to deliver. For a director, it makes no sense to conceive of a film without considering the audience. Renoir explains, “I believe that the work of art where the spectator does not collaborate is not a work of art.” Similarly, we all have groups that we interact with outside of our organization, like clients or customers. We too need to run our teams with an understanding of that outside world.

No one can be good at everything, and thus effective leadership involves knowing when to ask for help. Renoir admits, “That’s where I like to have my friends help me, because I am very bad at casting.” Knowing your weaknesses is vital, because then you can find people who have strengths in those areas to assist you.

Additionally, most organizations are too complex for any one person to be an expert at all of the roles. Leaders show hubris when they assume they can do the jobs of everyone else well. Renoir explains this notion of knowing your role as a leader: “Too many directors work like this. They tell the actor, ‘Sit down, my dear friends, and look at me. I am going to act a scene, and you are going to repeat what I just did.’ He acts a scene and he acts it badly, because if he is a director instead of an actor, it’s probably because he’s a bad actor.”

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Although leadership can be all encompassing, we shouldn’t be intimidated by the ideal list of qualities and behaviors a good leader displays. Focus on how you can improve. Set goals. Reflect on your failures, and recognize your success.

“You know, there is an old slogan, very popular in our occidental civilization: you must look to an end higher than normal, and that way you will achieve something. Your aim must be very, very high. Myself, I am absolutely convinced that it is mere stupidity. The aim must be easy to reach, and by reaching it, you achieve more.”

Job Interviews Don’t Work

Better hiring leads to better work environments, less turnover, and more innovation and productivity. When you understand the limitations and pitfalls of the job interview, you improve your chances of hiring the best possible person for your needs.

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The job interview is a ritual just about every adult goes through at least once. They seem to be a ubiquitous part of most hiring processes. The funny thing about them, however, is that they take up time and resources without actually helping to select the best people to hire. Instead, they promote a homogenous workforce where everyone thinks the same.

If you have any doubt about how much you can get from an interview, think of what’s involved for the person being interviewed. We’ve all been there. The night before, you dig out your smartest outfit, iron it, and hope your hair lies flat for once. You frantically research the company, reading every last news article based on a formulaic press release, every blog post by the CEO, and every review by a disgruntled former employee.

After a sleepless night, you trek to their office, make awkward small talk, then answer a set of predictable questions. What’s your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Why do you want this job? Why are you leaving your current job? You reel off the answers you prepared the night before, highlighting the best of the best. All the while, you’re reminding yourself to sit up straight, don’t bite your nails, and keep smiling.

It’s not much better on the employer’s side of the table. When you have a role to fill, you select a list of promising candidates and invite them for an interview. Then you pull together a set of standard questions to riff off, doing a little improvising as you hear their responses. At the end of it all, you make some kind of gut judgment about the person who felt right—likely the one you connected with the most in the short time you were together.

Is it any surprise that job interviews don’t work when the whole process is based on subjective feelings? They are in no way the most effective means of deciding who to hire because they maximize the role of bias and minimize the role of evaluating competency.

What is a job interview?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.”

— Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

When we say “job interviews” throughout this post, we’re talking about the type of interview that has become standard in many industries and even in universities: free-form interviews in which candidates sit in a room with one or more people from a prospective employer (often people they might end up working with) and answer unstructured questions. Such interviews tend to focus on how a candidate behaves generally, emphasizing factors like whether they arrive on time or if they researched the company in advance. While questions may ostensibly be about predicting job performance, they tend to better select for traits like charisma rather than actual competence.

Unstructured interviews can make sense for certain roles. The ability to give a good first impression and be charming matters for a salesperson. But not all roles need charm, and just because you don’t want to hang out with someone after an interview doesn’t mean they won’t be an amazing software engineer. In a small startup with a handful of employees, someone being “one of the gang” might matter because close-knit friendships are a strong motivator when work is hard and pay is bad. But that group mentality may be less important in a larger company in need of diversity.

Considering the importance of hiring and how much harm getting it wrong can cause, it makes sense for companies to study and understand the most effective interview methods. Let’s take a look at why job interviews don’t work and what we can do instead.

Why job interviews are ineffective

Discrimination and bias

Information like someone’s age, gender, race, appearance, or social class shouldn’t dictate if they get a job or not—their competence should. But that’s unfortunately not always the case. Interviewers can end up picking the people they like the most, which often means those who are most similar to them. This ultimately means a narrower range of competencies is available to the organization.

Psychologist Ron Friedman explains in The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace some of the unconscious biases that can impact hiring. We tend to rate attractive people as more competent, intelligent, and qualified. We consider tall people to be better leaders, particularly when evaluating men. We view people with deep voices as more trustworthy than those with higher voices.

Implicit bias is pernicious because it’s challenging to spot the ways it influences interviews. Once an interviewer judges someone, they may ask questions that nudge the interviewee towards fitting that perception. For instance, if they perceive someone to be less intelligent, they may ask basic questions that don’t allow the candidate to display their expertise. Having confirmed their bias, the interviewer has no reason to question it or even notice it in the future.

Hiring often comes down to how much an interviewer likes a candidate as a person. This means that we can be manipulated by manufactured charm. If someone’s charisma is faked for an interview, an organization can be left dealing with the fallout for ages.

The map is not the territory

The representation of something is not the thing itself. A job interview is meant to be a quick snapshot to tell a company how a candidate would be at a job. However, it’s not a representative situation in terms of replicating how the person will perform in the actual work environment.

For instance, people can lie during job interviews. Indeed, the situation practically encourages it. While most people feel uncomfortable telling outright lies (and know they would face serious consequences later on for a serious fabrication), bending the truth is common. Ron Friedman writes, “Research suggests that outright lying generates too much psychological discomfort for people to do it very often. More common during interviews are more nuanced forms of deception which include embellishment (in which we take credit for things we haven’t done), tailoring (in which we adapt our answers to fit the job requirements), and constructing (in which we piece together elements from different experiences to provide better answers.)” An interviewer can’t know if someone is deceiving them in any of these ways. So they can’t know if they’re hearing the truth.

One reason why we think job interviews are representative is the fundamental attribution error. This is a logical fallacy that leads us to believe that the way people behave in one area carries over to how they will behave in other situations. We view people’s behaviors as the visible outcome of innate characteristics, and we undervalue the impact of circumstances.

Some employers report using one single detail they consider representative to make hiring decisions, such as whether a candidate sends a thank-you note after the interview or if their LinkedIn picture is a selfie. Sending a thank-you note shows manners and conscientiousness. Having a selfie on LinkedIn shows unprofessionalism. But is that really true? Can one thing carry across to every area of job performance? It’s worth debating.

Gut feelings aren’t accurate

We all like to think we can trust our intuition. The problem is that intuitive judgments tend to only work in areas where feedback is fast and cause and effect clear. Job interviews don’t fall into that category. Feedback is slow. The link between a hiring decision and a company’s success is unclear.

Overwhelmed by candidates and the pressure of choosing, interviewers may resort to making snap judgments based on limited information. And interviews introduce a lot of noise, which can dilute relevant information while leading to overconfidence. In a study entitled Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion, participants predicted the future GPA of a set of students. They either received biographical information about the students or both biographical information and an interview. In some of the cases, the interview responses were entirely random, meaning they shouldn’t have conveyed any genuine useful information.

Before the participants made their predictions, the researchers informed them that the strongest predictor of a student’s future GPA is their past GPA. Seeing as all participants had access to past GPA information, they should have factored it heavily into their predictions.

In the end, participants who were able to interview the students made worse predictions than those who only had access to biographical information. Why? Because the interviews introduced too much noise. They distracted participants with irrelevant information, making them forget the most significant predictive factor: past GPA. Of course, we do not have clear metrics like GPA for jobs. But this study indicates that interviews do not automatically lead to better judgments about a person.

We tend to think human gut judgments are superior, even when evidence doesn’t support this. We are quick to discard information that should shape our judgments in favor of less robust intuitions that we latch onto because they feel good. The less challenging information is to process, the better it feels. And we tend to associate good feelings with ‘rightness’.

Experience ≠ expertise in interviewing

In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston suddenly had to increase its incoming class size by 50 students due to a legal change requiring larger classes. Without time to interview again, they selected from the pool of candidates the school chose to interview, then rejected as unsuitable for admission. Seeing as they got through to the interview stage, they had to be among the best candidates. They just weren’t previously considered good enough to admit.

When researchers later studied the result of this unusual situation, they found that the students whom the school first rejected performed no better or worse academically than the ones they first accepted. In short, interviewing students did nothing to help select for the highest performers.

Studying the efficacy of interviews is complicated and hard to manage from an ethical standpoint. We can’t exactly give different people the same real-world job in the same conditions. We can take clues from fortuitous occurrences, like the University of Texas Medical School change in class size and the subsequent lessons learned. Without the legal change, the interviewers would never have known that the students they rejected were of equal competence to the ones they accepted. This is why building up experience in this arena is difficult. Even if someone has a lot of experience conducting interviews, it’s not straightforward to translate that into expertise. Expertise is about have a predictive model of something, not just knowing a lot about it.

Furthermore, the feedback from hiring decisions tends to be slow. An interviewer cannot know what would happen if they hired an alternate candidate. If a new hire doesn’t work out, that tends to fall on them, not the person who chose them. There are so many factors involved that it’s not terribly conducive to learning from experience.

Making interviews more effective

It’s easy to see why job interviews are so common. People want to work with people they like, so interviews allow them to scope out possible future coworkers. Candidates expect interviews, as well—wouldn’t you feel a bit peeved if a company offered you a job without the requisite “casual chat” beforehand? Going through a grueling interview can make candidates more invested in the position and likely to accept an offer. And it can be hard to imagine viable alternatives to interviews.

But it is possible to make job interviews more effective or make them the final step in the hiring process after using other techniques to gauge a potential hire’s abilities. Doing what works should take priority over what looks right or what has always been done.

Structured interviews

While unstructured interviews don’t work, structured ones can be excellent. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how he redefined the Israel Defense Force’s interviewing process as a young psychology graduate. At the time, recruiting a new soldier involved a series of psychometric tests followed by an interview to assess their personality. Interviewers then based their decision on their intuitive sense of a candidate’s fitness for a particular role. It was very similar to the method of hiring most companies use today—and it proved to be useless.

Kahneman introduced a new interviewing style in which candidates answered a predefined series of questions that were intended to measure relevant personality traits for the role (for example, responsibility and sociability). He then asked interviewers to give candidates a score for how well they seemed to exhibit each trait based on their responses. Kahneman explained that “by focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to combat the halo effect, where favorable first impressions influence later judgments.” He tasked interviewers only with providing these numbers, not with making a final decision.

Although interviewers at first disliked Kahneman’s system, structured interviews proved far more effective and soon became the standard for the IDF. In general, they are often the most useful way to hire. The key is to decide in advance on a list of questions, specifically designed to test job-specific skills, then ask them to all the candidates. In a structured interview, everyone gets the same questions with the same wording, and the interviewer doesn’t improvise.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion:

There are at least 15 different meta-analytic syntheses on the validity of job interviews published in academic research journals. These studies show that structured interviews are very useful to predict future job performance. . . . In comparison, unstructured interviews, which do not have a set of predefined rules for scoring or classifying answers and observations in a reliable and standardized manner, are considerably less accurate.

Why does it help if everyone hears the same questions? Because, as we learned previously, interviewers can make unconscious judgments about candidates, then ask questions intended to confirm their assumptions. Structured interviews help measure competency, not irrelevant factors. Ron Friedman explains this further:

It’s also worth having interviewers develop questions ahead of time so that: 1) each candidate receives the same questions, and 2) they are worded the same way. The more you do to standardize your interviews, providing the same experience to every candidate, the less influence you wield on their performance.

What, then, is an employer to do with the answers? Friedman says you must then create clear criteria for evaluating them.

Another step to help minimize your interviewing blind spots: include multiple interviewers and give them each specific criteria upon which to evaluate the candidate. Without a predefined framework for evaluating applicants—which may include relevant experience, communication skills, attention to detail—it’s hard for interviewers to know where to focus. And when this happens, fuzzy interpersonal factors hold greater weight, biasing assessments. Far better to channel interviewers’ attention in specific ways, so that the feedback they provide is precise.

Blind auditions

One way to make job interviews more effective is to find ways to “blind” the process—to disguise key information that may lead to biased judgments. Blinded interviews focus on skills alone, not who a candidate is as a person. Orchestras offer a remarkable case study in the benefits of blinding.

In the 1970s, orchestras had a gender bias problem. A mere 5% of their members were women, on average. Orchestras knew they were missing out on potential talent, but they found the audition process seemed to favor men over women. Those who were carrying out auditions couldn’t sidestep their unconscious tendency to favor men.

Instead of throwing up their hands in despair and letting this inequality stand, orchestras began carrying out blind auditions. During these, candidates would play their instruments behind a screen while a panel listened and assessed their performance. They received no identifiable information about candidates. The idea was that orchestras would be able to hire without room for bias. It took a bit of tweaking to make it work – at first, the interviewers were able to discern gender based on the sound of a candidate’s shoes. After that, they requested that people interview without their shoes.

The results? By 1997, up to 25% of orchestra members were women. Today, the figure is closer to 30%.

Although this is sometimes difficult to replicate for other types of work, blind auditions can provide an inspiration to other industries that could benefit from finding ways to make interviews more about a person’s abilities than their identity.

Competency-related evaluations

What’s the best way to test if someone can do a particular job well? Get them to carry out tasks that are part of the job. See if they can do what they say they can do. It’s much harder for someone to lie and mislead an interviewer during actual work than during an interview. Using competency tests for a blinded interview process is also possible—interviewers could look at depersonalized test results to make unbiased judgments.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential, “The science of personnel selection is over a hundred years old yet decision-makers still tend to play it by ear or believe in tools that have little academic rigor. . . . An important reason why talent isn’t measured more scientifically is the belief that rigorous tests are difficult and time-consuming to administer, and that subjective evaluations seem to do the job ‘just fine.’”

Competency tests are already quite common in many fields. But interviewers tend not to accord them sufficient importance. They come after an interview, or they’re considered secondary to it. A bad interview can override a good competency test. At best, interviewers accord them equal importance to interviews. Yet they should consider them far more important.

Ron Friedman writes, “Extraneous data such as a candidate’s appearance or charisma lose their influence when you can see the way an applicant actually performs. It’s also a better predictor of their future contributions because unlike traditional in-person interviews, it evaluates job-relevant criteria. Including an assignment can help you better identify the true winners in your applicant pool while simultaneously making them more invested in the position.”

Conclusion

If a company relies on traditional job interviews as its sole or main means of choosing employees, it simply won’t get the best people. And getting hiring right is paramount to the success of any organization. A driven team of people passionate about what they do can trump one with better funding and resources. The key to finding those people is using hiring techniques that truly work.

Why Cross-Pollinating Your Work, Works

At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.

Sandpaper Without the Sand

In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.

This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.

Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?

…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.

3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.

The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.

Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.

By adding just a little disorder, a company can give it’s employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we’re stuck in our little box.

Crop Rotation

A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.

Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.

… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.

Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises’. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock unlock another.
  2. A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention—we’re like tourists gaping at details that a local would find mundane.
  3. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed, by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.

The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)

We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.

Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.

If you want more, check out our other post on Messy, it’s a great book if you are looking for ways to facilitate a bit more creativity in your life.

Inside a Miracle: The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team

Few people know the details about one of the greatest stories in sports history. A classic David versus Goliath story that happened at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid when the U.S. Olympic Hockey team played the Soviets.

While the U.S. team had won the gold at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, they hadn’t done much since then. The only notable showing was 5th place at the 1976 games. The Soviets, on the other hand, came into the 1980 Olympics having won 12 of the previous 15 world championships and 4 Olympic gold medals in a row. The Soviet record since Squaw Valley was 27-1-1.

In fact, the Soviets were so good, that in 1979 there was no NHL all-star game. Instead they just invited the Soviets to play a three-game series called the Challenge Cup. The U.S.S.R crushed the best players in the NHL 6-0 in the deciding game.

The Soviets beating the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Olympics was as close to a sure thing as you could imagine, or so it seemed. Only things didn’t play out the way either team expected.

In his book, 99: Stories of the Game, the legendary Wayne Gretzky tells the incredible story of what transpired.

“In the United States,” Gretzky writes, “the goal was to build a team that, while not having much chance of winning, would at least not embarrass the country.”

Herb Brooks was hired as coach. If there was one guy in the program who wasn’t playing to avoid embarrassment, it was Brooks.

Eighty of the best college players were invited to Colorado Springs in July of 1979 to compete for a roster spot (remember at the time the Olympic games were for amateurs). Although it wasn’t so much a competition as formality. Brooks had won three NCAA championships coaching Minnesota, so he pretty much knew the 23 man roster he wanted.

A bit of leadership …

Brooks took one of the assistant coaches aside and said “A lot of these guys hate each other, and the only way I can think to make them a team is for all of them to hate me. You’re going to have to keep all the pieces together and be the guy they can lean on, because they’re not going to be able to lean on me. I’m going to be the same to all of them. I’m going to be tough on all of them.”

In a warm up game before the Olympics at Madison Square Garden, team USA lost to the Russians 10-3. The players were in awe of the opponent.

Brooks has spent a lot of time in Russia learning some of their systems. Herb discovered that when the Russians played hockey, they didn’t shoot the puck unless they thought they could score, and so although it might look as if they had fewer than ten shots on goal, they were shots that counted. …

[I]t was all about puck possession. The Russian team didn’t have to work as hard in defense because they had the puck so often. When a lot of people watch hockey, they don’t seem to focus on that. A big part of my game (Gretzky) was the forecheck—chasing a defenseman down, lifting his stick, and taking the puck. If you take the puck off a defenseman or player in his own end, you don’t have as many players to beat in order to score or to make a play.

An unexpected bit of ego and overconfidence …

The first medal-round game featured the Soviets and Americans. The game was played at 5 p.m. but didn’t air on ABC until 8 p.m. “One of the most memorable moments in American sports history would be watched by most Americans three hours after it happened,” Gretzky tells us.

In the locker room just ahead of the game, Herb Brooks gave the most inspirational speech of his life. He told the guys, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. The moment is yours.”

The players skated onto the ice and looked up. The arena was packed. People were waving American flags everywhere. In the first minutes, the Americans surprised the Soviets with how fast and emotionally they played. Still the Soviets scored first. Then the unexpected happened.

Buzz Schneider took a slapshot and beat the legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, tying the game. The Soviets quickly scored again and it looked like the first period would end that way when Dave Christian picked up the puck in his own zone with only five seconds left. Rather than play till the whistle, a lesson we all learn at one point or another and one that was drilled into me by my high-school football coach, the Soviets had let up thinking the period was over. Christian shot the puck up ice, Mark Johnson chased it down, deked Tretiak, and scored with only one second left. Tie game.

In the second period, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled a surprise move. He replaced Tretiak—a guy known as one of the best goalies of all time—with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. I’ve (Gretzky) had the opportunity to sit down with Tretiak and hear his opinion about it. Tretiak was the biggest star in Russia—and maybe still is, thanks to what he did in ’72 as a twenty-year-old goalie—and I think it used to drive Tikhonov crazy. He wanted to show everyone that his coaching was the reason they were winning the Olympics, not Tretiak’s goaltending. And to this day, Tretiak thinks that’s why he was pulled.

“Don’t change a thing. Don’t change a thing because they’ve changed goalies. Don’t change a thing. Play the same way,” Brooks was heard telling his team.

A lucky bounce …

In the third period, the Soviets looked dominant again. Then, on a rush, a shot from Dave Silk slipped through a Soviet defenceman’s skate right onto Mark Johnson’s stick. Before Myshkin could move, it was in the net and the score was tied (3-3). A minute later, the American captain, Mike Eruzione, scored.

Now the Americans were leading, just ten minutes away from a shot at a gold medal. Brooks kept walking up and down the bench saying, “Play your game. Play your game.” He repeated it a thousand times at least.

Jimmy Craig (the American goaltender) was in the zone. He wasn’t going to get scored on. When a goalie is in that kind of zone, especially in the playoffs, his ability to anticipate the shot is as good as the rest of his skill set. And Craig wasn’t alone—the whole team was flying out there. When you go into a series without the sense of entitlement the Russians had, it gives you the intensity you need to get to that extra level.

The gamed ended 4-3 for the U.S. The Americans swarmed the ice. They could hardly believe it—they had to keep telling themselves, “We beat them. We. Beat. Them.”

It was the first game the Soviets had lost at the Olympics in 12 years.

There are several lessons one can take away from this story—Brooks’ leadership to make the team hate him more than each other; Tikhonov’s ego pulling the legendary Tretiak to show the world how amazing he was; and the importance of playing to the whistle come to mind. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that when the conditions are right, a group of “average people” can come together and get non-average results.

99: Stories of the Game goes on to tell 98 other stories about the game of hockey.