Hiring for Change

According to Netflix, I want to watch action movies. Bad action movies. Lots of them. Car chase flicks and shoot ’em ups and films about men who pick up the wrong bag on a luggage carousel and find themselves unwittingly thrust into the center of international intrigue.

There’s only one problem: I kind of hate action movies.

Has the recommendation engine lost its mind? Not really. On the road during a recent business trip, I felt the need to decompress, and half-asleep in my hotel room, I streamed a series of the silliest, most mindless entertainment I could find while trying to fall asleep. Like any rational algorithm, Netflix just assumes that I want more of the same.

When it comes to streaming movies, the problem can be solved by a few mouse clicks. But what about hiring? What if I was a CEO and there was an algorithm in my brain that was nearly as dysfunctional as this one, something that led me to favor "more of the same" candidates, regardless of whether they were the best-qualified option to help grow my company? Well, it turns out that there just might be.

Social psychologists have long maintained that we like people who remind us of ourselves—in friendships and romantic relationships—and industrial psychologists are amassing more and more evidence that we do precisely the same thing in the workplace. This means that during an interview process, candidates whose background, communication style and way of thinking remind the interviewer of themselves enjoy a very real—and often completely unconscious—advantage. "They just get it," a hiring manager will say. What they perhaps should say is, "I just get them."

Is this a bad thing? Not entirely. After all, effective organizations require some degree of interpersonal compatibility and cultural cohesion. But companies that move in lockstep and are unreceptive to new ways of thinking grow stagnant. For a company to be truly great, it has to evolve, not just in response to changes in the market. It has to innovate from within and that means finding some individuals whose perspective deviates from the company's norm.

In short, the best hiring managers will select some senior leaders who remind them of themselves while also bringing aboard candidates who don’t. They will complement the mainstream with the mavericks. If this sounds uncomfortable, it is. It requires those in authority to consciously choose the unfamiliar and unexpected. And—this is important—it means somehow overcoming that unconscious bias that I referenced earlier and being able to move beyond the part of their brain that sees "similar" and thinks "good" and, instantaneously, without even realizing it, ascribes all sorts of good characteristics to individuals who are actually just similar to them.

As a legal search consultant, companies turn to me and my colleagues for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a position is difficult to fill. Sometimes the future of the company hinges on a successful hire. But the clients most concerned about strategic growth also recognize that there is inherent value in creating a hiring process that understands and values a company’s culture but, at the same time, is intentionally removed from the prejudices and group thinking that may have come to characterize it. As one CLO recently told me, "I want to hire someone I can work with, but I don’t want to hire another me."

The old adage isn't actually true: If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you probably won’t get what you've always gotten. Instead, you’re likely to create a culture of unintentional conformity bereft of new ideas—and then you’ll wonder where all the innovators are.

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William Barclay is a Director in the In-House Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Los Angeles office. He consults with clients across industries on issues of strategic growth and hiring. He can be reached at (213) 689-0712 and wbarclay@mlaglobal.com.

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