Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Acting Quotient

Think about your favorite actor or actress. Think about their performances and the different characters they've played.

Now think about what you know about that person given their performances:

- How quickly would they learn?
- How good of a team player would they make?
- What are their customer service skills like?
- Would they show up to work punctually?

Do you have any idea what the answers to these questions are? Probably not. That's because they're good at what they do--modifying their behavior to fit different roles.

Why do I bring this up? Because lately I've been thinking about how much stock people place in the most common screening mechanisms--applications, resumes, and interviews. These selection mechanisms all allow enormous opportunities for candidates to alter their behavior to fit what they think you want to hear, or to downright fib. Another up-and-coming selection method, on-line training and experience (T&E) measures, offer similar opportunities.

This is one reason why testing doesn't perfectly predict performance--because what you see isn't always close to what you get. What's worse, we tend to think we can spot the fibbers--which just plain isn't true. We're not nearly as good at most things as we think we are.

A person's real performance can be seen as true score or typical performance, and researchers have looked into the extent to which people self-inflate. The academic term for this is impression management. But for our purposes let's just think about an individual's ability to pull the wool over the employer's eyes--their Acting Quotient (AQ).

What causes someone's AQ to be higher?

- The person is a good actor or actress. It's just a natural skill. They know what their strengths are, and the play to them. They're good at reading you, and they modify their behavior to fit the subtle cues you're giving them. In fact people can vary their acting method depending on what kind of question you ask!

- They're very motivated to get your job. This could be good (my skills match your needs), this could be bad (I'm about to get fired).

- They understand what you're looking for. Again, this could be good (they did their homework) or less impressive (they know someone who works for you already).

Okay, now the important part. What can we do to mitigate the impact of someone's AQ?

- Ask difficult technical questions whenever possible. Not all jobs lend themselves to this, but whenever you can ask questions that require job knowledge and aren't easily predictable.

- Conduct extensive reference checks. Rely heavily on off-list checks. Talk to co-workers and customers, not just supervisors.

- Triangulate and be patient. Make application/resume review and interviews a small portion of your selection process. Make no decisions until all the information is in.

- Have a bias for work sample/performance tests. Make someone show you they can do things--not just tell you they can.

Now on the bright side, many if not most people (including myself) aren't very good at acting. Sure, I can put a positive spin on my accomplishments, but I'm not very good at making things up out of whole cloth. Which is good, because it means when I interview, like most people, what you see is generally what you get. But that doesn't mean there aren't Academy Award nominees out there, and it doesn't mean we can't do better at hiring the right person.

1 comment:

Dale said...

This is a very interesting article and I like the analogy to acting. It is so important to cover all bases. A few years ago I researched workplace attitudes that can lead to potential problems and identified nine, and then developed a related pre-employment test. It is another tool for interviewers and turns the process upside down, i.e. look for the bad not the good. Dale Paulson