Fit Happens

heart-atom1Here’s this month’s piece from neuroeconomist Paul Zak. For those who might dismiss some of our thinking as the “soft side” of management, Paul puts “hard science” behind it.

I recently taped an interview with Shanil Kaderali, chief strategy officer at Pierpoint, a global outsource staffing company, about the science of recruiting. Honestly, this infant has barely started to crawl.

We won’t be doing genetic tests or putting job candidates in MRI scanners anytime soon. Still, there are a few principles that can be gleaned from scientific studies of personality types that you can apply.

In nearly every case, hiring requires a face-to-face interview because the things we really want to know—that is, the “fit” of the individual for the organization—are difficult to measure at a distance. Fit means satisfying the 3Ps: person, place and project.

The first P is finding someone with a personality who complements the team they seek to join. Google’s “Have you been to Burning Man?” question is an example of a probe to investigate personality.

My lab’s research on the biology of social interactions suggests that another way to test for personality fit is to crowd-source interviews. Rather than have the supervisor interview and then make a choice solo, let those with whom the new employee will work interview and vote. Some innovative companies like Semco Partners use a unanimity rule in which any employee of any rank can veto a hiring decision. This approach recognizes that businesses are made of social groups, and individual productivity is group dependent. Personality matters.

The second P is for place. Will this person and his or her family be happy in the location for which you are hiring? Will partners and children acclimate easily there? During final interviews, I like to include the candidate’s partner to assess how he or she feels about the position. I also include partners in three-year reviews. If one’s family is unhappy, the employee will be, too. The other group in which employees are embedded is family. Place matters.

The final P is for project. The project fit is typically one of technical training and enthusiasm for the type of work to be done. In my experience, enthusiasm often trumps training. I want you to want to work here. To that end, identify the kinds of challenges the candidate will face and see how she or he responds to them. Does it look like the project will engage the candidate or stress him or her out? We have shown that high levels of stress inhibit productivity and collaborative work. Projects matter.

Meeting candidates in person allows you to assess “soft skills” such as empathy, trustworthiness and passion. My lab’s experiments on building high-performance teams have shown that employee engagement is the key variable at the intersection of the 3Ps and how an organization is structured.

Notably, we have found that there can be a big disconnect between what people say in surveys used for employee selection and how their brains respond when they actually undertake tasks. This is the foundation of the work we’re doing for the U.S. Department of Defense: What we say we like and what engages our brains are often quite different. Consider, then, designing active tasks to assess the 3Ps. Let your new shortstop take a few turns at bat instead of just reviewing his or her record at a different team.

Peter Drucker observed that hiring the right people for the right assignment may well be a manager’s most important job. After all, he wrote, “no other decisions are so long lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake.”

In short, fit matters.

Paul Zak is the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of The Moral Molecule.