Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interview

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interviewJob interviews are stressful and time-consuming for both the applicant and the recruiter. The most often used mechanism for selecting new staff is often a highly ritualised affair, with little room for meaningful human interaction. The job interview is an artificial environment that has no comparison in the social world, except maybe police cross-examination.

Formal job interviews are a limited tool to get to know the person seeking a new job. The main problem with this approach is that the balance of power is presumed to be on the recruiter’s side. This unbalanced relationship forces the applicant to be like a dancing monkey, performing the tricks that he or she believes will please the recruiters. The applicant is often left to second-guessing the ‘right’ answer to the questions. And although we are often told that there are no right or wrong answers, this is of course not correct. Some answers get you the job and the ones that don’t. The recruitment process is a case of double deception, both the recruiter and the applicant are not willing to have a genuine conversation because they are limited by the script of the traditional job interview.

Genuine Conversations as a job interview

Formal job interviews are popular because they provide an illusion of rationality as it is assumed that thorough questioning will lead to the truth.

The purpose of the recruitment process is to try to predict the future behaviour of the applicant. A formalised job interview is a counter-productive human interaction with limited predictive quality when it comes to getting to know a person. The artificial nature of the job interview does, however, prevent this process from being rational.

Effective job interviews should be based on the presumption of equality between the recruiter and the applicant to espouse genuine conversations between the parties. It is the task of the recruiter to make the candidate feel comfortable and treat them as an equal conversation partner. Only this way will you be able to get to know the person on the other side of the table.

All the World’s a Stage — Deception in Management

All the World's a Stage — Deception in ManagementDeception is more common in everyday life in general and management than we care to admit. Shakespeare already understood this more than four centuries ago:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts (William Shakespeare, As you like it).

Professional social network site LinkedIn has conducted a survey to analyse buzzwords in user profiles. It seems that almost everybody on LinkedIn is creative and effective. These are, however, vague statements as creativity and effectiveness are not fixed states of mind but variables on a sliding scale.

The use of meaningless buzzwords is pandemic across the globe, although there are regional differences. Professionals from countries with a high level of individualism1 prefer to be creative, i.e. have individual and original ideas. While in Spain, a country with a high tendency towards uncertainty avoidance, prefer to be perceived as ‘managerial’. Most Italians are problem solvers, which is not surprising given the perpetual state of seeming disorder.

Deception in Management

Deception and perception management form an integral part of being human. All the Deception in Management is as common as deception in the world outside the office. Our self is not an innate property of the person, it is carefully constructed. Sociologist Erving Goffman uses a theatrical metaphor, inspired by Shakespeare’s lines opening this post. We use scripts, buy props and create backdrops for the roles we lay in society.

Professional life is, however, a special case as the selves we create in the workplace are mostly very different from that which we are in personal life. Goffman once wrote that deception is common among executives2

… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.

  1. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

  2. Erving Goffman (1959), The presentation of self in everyday life, Anchor Books. 

The Consultant Shaman: Contemporary Rituals in Business

The Consultant Shaman: Contemporary Rituals in Business

Imagine you are an anthropologist, posted in a remote village in Papua New Guinea to study how people solve problems.

The village’s yam crops have been reduced dramatically, and the village is on the brink of famine. Nobody knows what has caused the crop failures—the yams just refuse to grow. One village elder says he has heard about a powerful shaman from a remote village in the mountains and wants to hire her to make sure they will not go hungry.

The shaman arrives, and everybody rejoices. She walks around the village, making strange noises, sniffing everything and dancing mysteriously. She announces to have found the cause and organises a long ritual that will remove the evil that creates crop failures. All villagers gather and sing and dance all night. Everybody feels great. The next day they go back to working the fields, knowing that the cause for the crop failures has been neutralised. The following crop is plentiful, and the famine that was nearly upon them has been magically averted. Some years later you return to the village to visit them again. Most houses are gone, and people have moved away—recent crops failed, and everybody went to the city to look for work.

The Consultant Shaman

Now imagine you are a management scientist, posted in a random corporation to study how they solve problems. The company’s revenue stream has been reduced dramatically, and they are on the brink of insolvency. Nobody knows what caused the reduction in revenue, and customers seem to ignore their products simply. One of the executives says that she has heard about a management consultant from England and proposes to engage him to make sure they avoid insolvency.

The consultant arrives, and everybody is very positive. He goes to the organisation, asking questions and studies piles of documents. He announces to have found the cause of the reduced revenue and organises motivational sessions that will make things better. All employees gather, and they share many great ideas with each other. Everybody feels elated, and the next day they go back to work, knowing that the cause for potential financial disaster has been neutralised. Pretty soon, cash flow is positive again, and even a small profit is made. Some years later you return to the same building only to find a great “For Rent” sign on the door. The company recently went bankrupt after all.

These stories are based on what happens in tribal societies and corporations around the world only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.1 These stories are not a judgement about either shamans or management consultants. They both perform important functions within their social universes.

we believe in a rational scientific approach

Medical anthropologists distinguish between sickness and disease. A disease is the physical aspect of a problem whereas sickness is a psychological dimension.2 Both consultants and shamans are good at healing sickness but are in most cases not able to heal disease. Just like scientific medicine is required to cure disease, a scientific approach is needed to improve companies.

Many managers believe that organising motivational team building sessions are sufficient to solve managerial problems. Employees are on the receiving end of an avalanche of management fads and short-lived initiatives. A positive consequence of these types of sessions is that they can build strong personal relationships, which are essential in running an excellent organisation.

At the Lucid Manager, we believe in a rational approach, based on data, to solving the hard issues. Good quality data and statistical analysis, combined with strong human relationships are the only way to find solutions to hard problems.

  1. Schuyt, T. N. M., & Schuijt, J. J. M. (1998). Rituals and rules: about magic in consultancy. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 11(5), 399–406. 

  2. Miller Van Blerkom, L. (1995). Clown Doctors: Shaman healers of Western medicine. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 9(4), 462–475. 

The Lies We Tell—Double Deception in Recruitment

The Lies We Tell—Double Deception in RecruitmentMatt was nervous. Most people are under the circumstances. Matt sat in front of the recruitment specialist, hoping that he’d end up with the job that was on offer. It was a step up from what he had done in the past—in pay, responsibility and influence.

Daniel, the Recruitment Manager, pushed a folded piece of paper and a pencil across the table to Matt and then did something appalling. He lied.

“Please answer the questions for this personality test there are no right or wrong answers”, Daniel reassured Matt.

There are no right or wrongs answers.

Mind you, Daniel had no intention of lying nor did he even realise that he had, at the time. “There are no right or wrongs answers”, is a lie that many managers and human resources professionals use from time to time. The personality tests that are conducted in workplaces throughout the world in job interviews have no answer that is intrinsically correct—as you might find in a high school mathematics exam. However, the presence of a series of questions that is included as part of the selection process for an employment role makes a lie of Daniel’s reassurance.

If a recruitment test of any kind is used in the context of an employee selection process, there is an intention to use it to justify the selection of a particular candidate and to exclude others. It has already been decided by the interviewer, recruitment expert or organisation that a particular personality is required for the role (or, conversely, that particular personality profiles are to be avoided). This means that for the organisation, particular responses on the personality test are, in fact, right or wrong.

Looking at personality tests from the candidate experiencing the job interview process, there are also right and wrong answers. In our example, Matt desperately wants the job but does not necessarily know what personality profile Daniel is looking for, nor does Matt know what responses he needs to give to present the ‘right’ personality profile for the job. Additionally, he knows that he should be honest during a job interview. When nervous, the tension created by the need, to be frank, and also the desire to meet the needs of the interviewer is unlikely to help Matt through the selection process nor help Daniel find the right candidate.

Set aside for now whether there is any validity in using Myers-Briggs, Keirsey, DISC or any other personality test or temperament sorter in a job interview, the simple message is that there are lies in the workplace that we use to smooth the path or placate people, but they are still lies.

A lucid manager will make every effort to assist Matt through the interview process and would also be aware that, truth be told, there is a right or wrong answer to every question in a job interview—the answer that demonstrates suitability for the job.

For more information and critique of personality profiles, confirmation bias and the Forer effect check out Peter’s essay, Know Thyself. Also check out Peter’s article on recruitment, arguing that every business gets the employees they deserve.

Generation Y Does Not Exist

Generation Y Does Not ExistMany articles about management are dedicated to the so-called Generation Y. Authors analyse their motivations, lament their supposed high expectations and so on. This arbitrary dividing of people into generational cohorts is, however, counterproductive.

Generation Y does not exist!

In my spare time, I occasionally perform magic shows for adults and children. Recently I was reading a booklet by David Kaye, who performs for children under the name Silly Billy.1

Through the so-called benefits of science—the impossible exploits of movie heroes, blood-curdling action stories in video games – the child is thrilled to such an extent that a magician’s bag of tricks becomes a poor substitute. All this has brought about another more malicious change. Fifteen or twenty years ago the average child was well-mannered, quiet and attentive. The magician had very little difficulty keeping them under control. Today it appears that those few exceptions have become the rule. Children are more ill-mannered. They have less respect for their elders and the conduct in public places is often far from commendable.

This quote illustrates an often heard complaint about the younger generations. But there is more to this quote that meets the eye. Just like in a magic show, I have deceived you a little:

Eddie Clever wrote this paragraph in 1939! Kaye only changed “radio shows” to “video games” and all of a sudden it looks as if it was written yesterday. We can go even further back to find similar concerns about the younger generations. There are records of Dutch priests in the 18th century lamenting the lewd and drunken behaviour of the young people in his parish. Have young people changed? I think not, it is us our perception of them that changes as we grow older.

This finding has a direct bearing on a concept that that is frequently used in our cultural landscape and contemporary management: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and other broad sweeping categorisations. In much of the management literature on this topic, it is made to believe that the young professionals of today are different to they way the authors themselves once were and should thus be treated differently.

There are distinct differences between age cohorts. As we go through the stages of life, we mature and our priorities change. There are, however, no psychological differences between age groups in the past, present or future. Our psychological make-up does not evolve fast enough for us to notice any differences.

Sure, there are people born between certain years, but to think that they are in any way psychologically different to the way Generation X or Baby Boomers were when they were at the same age as Generation Y is not supported by any evidence. The perceived generational problem is only caused by a lack of the older generations to be able to understand the others.

  1. David Kaye, The First Century of Children’s Magic