Monday, August 22, 2011

Reinventing the way we choose students, employees, elected officials, and romantic partners

We're always selecting people, for example:
  • whom to admit to a selective school or college
  • whom to hire or promote
  • whom to vote for
  • whom to date

Wise selection matters more than one might think, for example, in choosing the students to be admitted to prestigious education institutions, from top preschools to top post-doc programs. Those are superior training grounds and door-openers to leadership and to top professional positions. Choose someone who is lazy, unethical, high-maintenance, or simply unintelligent, and society suffers.

It's important to choose people wisely even in seemingly mundane situations. For example, hiring the right middle manager at a widget company improves his/her supervisees' quality of life and helps ensure that a quality widget is produced and can be sold affordably. That benefits all the customers. Multiply that across a nation and you can see how important it is that we select people wisely.

Alas, we too often select poorly. We rely heavily on invalid criteria:

  • Resumes often are inflated and/or represent the thinking and writing ability of a hired-gun resume writer rather than the candidate's. And even if accurate, what a resume highlights-- academic qualifications and length of job experience--are poor predictors of workplace success.
  • References are often puffery: Candidates only offer references who will say positive things, even if they have to ask their sweetie to pretend s/he was his boss.
  • Often, selection is based most heavily on an interview, and its analogue, the politician speech. Why? Because we tend to trust what we personally experience more than, for example, a test score. Unfortunately, the research is clear that interviews so often lead to bad decisions.

What are better approaches to selection?

Of course, tests have their limitations. We all know people who scored high on the SAT, GRE, intelligence tests, etc., whom you wouldn't hire as a dog catcher. But predictive validity studies unambiguously indicate that those tests ( which are highly correlated with each other,) should be a criterion in selecting students or professional-level employees. Those tests are proxies for the ability to learn quickly, solve problems, and think abstractly, all of which are critical in all but low-level work. And racism and sexism are far less likely on a test than in subjective judgment. Criticisms of current tests as "culturally biased" have been dismissed by nearly all fair-minded experts.

Those tests of cognitive ability must be distinguished from tests of personality, which are notoriously invalid, for example, the Myers Briggs, the Enneagram, etc.

Beyond cognitive ability, how does one wisely assess other critical attributes of candidates: skill at the tasks s/he'll be doing, drive, emotional intelligence, flexibility, reliability, being emotionally low-maintenance?

Professional licensure exams cry out for reinvention. Those tests are the gatekeeper for our professionals from our haircutters and Realtors to our psychologists, lawyers and doctors. Alas, those exams, developed heavily by out-of-touch ivory-tower professors, too often test arcana that have little to do with competence on the job. Licensure exams should consist largely of simulations of common situations the professional would face on the job. That would not only yield better-selected professionals, it would pressure the training institutions to replace their often professor-developed, trivia-centric curriculum with material more likely to develop good practitioners.

Better selection criteria:

simulation. The interview process should minimize coachable questions such as, "Tell me about yourself?" "What are your greatest weaknesses," and "Tell me about a problem you faced?" Instead, the bulk of interviews should focus on putting the candidate in simulations of situations s/he'll commonly face. For example, graduate school applicants might be asked to participate in a classroom discussion, manager applicants to run a brief simulated meeting with their supervisees, scientists to design an experiment. Political candidates, in addition to the standard televised debate, should be asked to run a meeting with mock legislators.

engender honest responses from people who have worked with the candidate. For example, before hiring, leave voice mail for ten past bosses and coworkers including those not listed as a reference, saying, "I'm hiring for a very important position. Jane Jones has applied. If you think she's wonderful, call me. If not, no need to." Unless you get at least six callbacks, you probably shouldn't hire Jane.

select for a trial period. Select the person for a trial day or week so you can both assess if you're right for each other.

A word about using race or gender as a selection criterion. It's widely believed that it's important to have a student body and workforce at all levels that "looks like America." That's an indisputable good and in the case of two truly equal candidates, it can make sense to let diversity be the tie breaker. But too often the price paid for a "diversity pick" is in excess of the benefit derived--the selected candidate is known, upfront to be less likely than another candidate to make the most valuable contribution. Putting merit in the back seat is, of course, unfair to and engenders resentment from other candidates and from the public, but perhaps more important, it additionally devastates society because it brings about worse goods and services for all of us: worse doctors, more poorly constructed bridges, inferior financial advisors, less safe airline pilots, less reliable products, worse customer service, etc.

Picking a romantic partner

Of course, more of the ineffable is involved in choosing a romantic partner, but couples would be happier if they at least considered how a potential long-term partner scores on this Partner Report Card:

  • Compatibility in bed. Mismatched sex drive is among the most difficult-to-fix relationship problems.
  • Compatibility out of bed. How much do you enjoy spending time with this person in non-sexual situations.
  • Mutual respect. Do you view your partner as ethical, kind, intelligent enough, etc?
  • Absence of a fatal flaw: alcoholism/drug addiction, violent temper, etc.
  • Feeling: Even after the initial glow of infatuation has faded, you simply feel good being around this person.

Not only would using the Partner Report Card help create happier couples, I'd predict that it would create a better nation. I'd imagine that people who are content in their romantic relationship tend to be better on their jobs, with their friends, and as citizens.

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