(Based on Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘What the Dog Saw’)
Every organisation wants to attract good performers, but are we doing it in the right way? In his book 'What the Dog Saw', Malcolm Gladwell turns upside down the many ideas and practices we use to select people and predict good performance.
When we interview people, we ask questions that we hope will help us understand the person and make a decision that will result in hiring a person who performs well and fits best with the culture. Gladwell describes research by Nalini Ambady of Harvard University in which two groups of observers watching soundless videos rated the effectiveness of the teachers by their expressions and physical cues for 2 seconds and 60 seconds, respectively. The results indicated that the 2-second snap judgments were as accurate as the longer, more considered evaluation of the 60 seconds observer group.
In another study, a group of strangers were asked to rate applicants based only on a video clip of the handshake at the beginning of the interview. On nine out of eleven traits, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview, even when the interviewers were highly trained professionals who used formal, detailed questionnaires!
During interviews, we make the mistake of fixing on supposedly stable characteristics and overlook the influence of the specific environment that the person will work in. This is called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. When we meet someone in an interview who is likeable and shows up on time, we think that is the way they will be all the time. Because a person is a good communicator in the interview, we assume they will be a good communicator with everyone on the team. We use generalised characteristics to evaluate the person. Combining this with the tendency to ‘snap-judge’ suggests that traditional interviews, as a basis for job selection, have real problems – but we keep on using them.
The Questions We Ask Are Too Obvious
Gladwell interviewed Justin Menkes, an experienced human-resources consultant, who said regarding the questions asked in interviews; "The major problem is that it’s much too obvious what the interviewee is supposed to say".
Here are some of the questions that he says are commonly used:
- What would your friends say about you?
- What is your greatest weakness?
- Describe a situation in which your work was criticized. How did you handle the criticism?
- Describe a time when you had to do several things at once. How did you handle the situation? How did you decide what to do first? (Obvious answer: ‘I just had to be organised, I had to multitask. I prioritized and delegated appropriately and I checked in with my boss frequently’).
As an example, asking about weaknesses usually has an interviewee turn what might appear as a negative into a positive, ‘Well, people often tell me I work too hard!’
Using a process called ‘structured interviewing’, better questions are asked such as:
- “You’re in a situation where you have two very important responsibilities that both have a deadline that is impossible to meet. You cannot accomplish both. How do you handle this situation?”
- “At your weekly team meetings, your boss unexpectedly begins aggressively critiquing your performance on a current project. What do you do?”
In a structured interview, the questions are clearly scripted to gain information, avoid right or obvious answers, and to show how a person would deal with real dilemmas they would encounter in the role for which they are applying.
Finding Good Teachers and Using the Wrong Measures to Predict Performance
Eric Hanushek from Stanford estimates that the students with a bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one year. Students in a class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to one whole year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher quality has a greater impact on student learning than other factors such as classroom size and school. And yet a good teacher costs as much as an average one because education organisations usually pay teachers at the same level and tenure the same amount.
Hanushek estimates that if countries such as the United States and Australia, who are low in the world rankings of academic performance of their school children, simply replaced the bottom 6 to 10 percent of school teachers with teachers of average quality, they would be amongst the world's best-performing countries. The only hitch is that we need to know how to predict whether a person will be a good teacher or not.
Bob Pianta at the University of Virginia’s School of Education, after extensive studies of good performing and average, or poor, performing teachers, found four characteristics that best predict excellent teaching. These are:
- Regard for student perspective: a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the class. They kept the students active but kept the class from becoming a free-for-all. They altered the material, assignments and examples to fit each student.
- Personalizing the learning: when a student asked a question or had a problem, the teacher provided very specific answers that were relevant to them. They didn’t provide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ feedback when asked a question (which is the common form of teacher feedback) but provided deeper answers and questions for the student and the class to consider. One especially outstanding teacher, in the first five minutes of his class, had been to every student’s desk and made the purpose of the class relevant and personal for each student.
- Teaching from their experience, not: poor teachers who were teaching emotional intelligence skills, discussed their experiences and emotions while good teachers had the students to describe a happy or unhappy and to make faces that represented how they had felt. Often teachers (and trainers) give examples of their experience, where Pianta’s research shows we should get students to provide their experience and use that as a basis for learning.
- With-it-ness: A good teacher is ‘with it’. She can predict misbehaviour at the beginning of a chain of bad behaviours in a classroom. She catches it early because she is aware of the whole classroom a great deal of the time and gets students to refocus their behaviour rather than tell them, “Jane, stop that!”.
What is amazing about these four characteristics is that undergraduate or graduate degrees and teaching certificates had no correlation to the quality of teaching. It seems that people who are not qualified, trained teachers are just as likely to be good teachers as the ones who go through years of formal education and learning.
These are power lessons for managers selecting new employees, for educational organisations trying to predict good teaching performance, and for training and development companies who want to develop good presenters and facilitators.