Friday, November 8, 2013

I'll Know What I Want When I See It (Part 2)

Bias: having or showing a bias : having or showing an unfair tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Last week I introduced the concept of “thin-slicing” and suggested that it plays a significant role in the hiring process. We described “thin-slicing” as the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices," or narrow windows, of experience. What we end up calling intuition or gut-feeling is a product of thin-slicing. Sometimes we know exactly where it’s coming from and sometimes it’s a mystery. Sometimes we don’t even realize that our intuition or gut is actually tipping the scales in the decision-making process. And, contrary to the advice of “just go with your gut”, we are often wrong when we allow our intuition to determine the outcome, especially when we confuse it with bias.

In Part One of this series I referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink”. One classic example he gives where “thin-slicing” fails is the history of hiring musicians for orchestras. For many years orchestras were made up mostly of men. Few women ever got in and then it would only be as second chair in certain sections. Men were assumed to be more physically able to handle the rigors of playing musical instruments at a high level; especially where a measure of strength and breath was deemed particularly critical for success. Read the book if you want the full story, but essentially what has happened is that now musicians audition behind a screen. The decision-makers have no idea if it’s a man or a woman. Great pains are taken to make sure that even the sounds of their footsteps are muffled so as not to tip off the gender of the candidate. Turns out that female musicians play better behind the screen. The truth is that they don’t play any better, but they sound better. There was such an age old built-in bias in this profession that the primary decision maker (the maestro) could not really hear the music over the subconscious noise created by the gender of the musician. Take away that noise and you can actually hear the music. Nowadays when you go to a concert, you see a lot of females in the orchestra. The screen has made all the difference.

So how much bias do we see in our industry? Frankly, a lot. Is it always bad? Well, that depends. If all you want is the best music, then biases about gender, appearance, age, race, etc. will get in the way of hiring the best musicians. If all that really matters is the music, hire the best musician. But, if you are hiring someone to lead a team or a sell something, it can be a little more complicated. Now you’ve got to deal with the biases and preferences of other people. Will the team accept a leader who looks or talks a certain way? Will a buyer do business with a sales person who is perceived to be too young or too pretty or too old or too fat or “too” whatever?

The politically correct answer and legal requirement is just don’t allow bias into the equation directly or indirectly. Have a very specific job description and hire the best person for the job. But how does that decision get made and how do we know that our “hidden” thin-slicer isn’t working overtime as we interview and evaluate candidates. How many of us are willing to hire the person behind the screen? And should we even consider doing such a thing? Perhaps. More to come next time.

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