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The Paradox of the Quest for Hiring Perfection

by Sep 13, 2013, 5:58 am ET

The trap of looking for the perfect candidate manifests in a few different ways.

The first manifestation is something I refer to as the Godot Effect, based on Estragon’s line in Waiting for Godot: “Personally, I wouldn’t even know him if I saw him.”

All too often, a prospective hire becomes the repository of every hope and every need of the hiring organization. The fact that the person does not yet exist in the organization only makes this worse. I’ve seen this particular phenomenon happen in front of me more than once. In particular, I was sitting in a product design meeting while the team discussed the next few hires it needed to make.

They started by observing that they needed someone who could handle some specific piece of technology. So far, so good. Then things went downhill.

“We don’t have anyone on the team who can handle […technology…] either.”

“That’ll be the next hire.”

“Wasn’t the next hire supposed to be […original problem…]?”

“We’ll need someone who can do both.”

From someone who could do “both,” it quickly morphed into someone who could do three things, then four. After a while, it did become clear that things were getting just a bit ridiculous, but that didn’t help. There still wasn’t a serious return to reality; by the time the people in the room were finished, the only person who could have met their needs was Doctor Who. In other words, they were looking for a fictional, centuries old, omni-competent Time Lord. Alternately, if he wasn’t available, they could have tried to hire the professor who teaches the most courses in a typical college catalog: a scholar known as Staff. Unfortunately, Professor Staff isn’t usually available either.

The net result is that they were so busy looking for someone with a highly improbable set of skills that they couldn’t recognize a qualified person when they walked in the door.

Closely related to the Godot Effect is the idea that, to misquote the X-Files, the perfect person is Out There and is always the person who is Not Here.

In one training exercise I ran, participants were presented with a problem and were given the names of other people who might or might not be able to help them. The trick was that not everyone was present: some of the people listed weren’t available. While some of the participants made do with the contacts that were available, many of them fixated on the people who weren’t there.

Just as Clint Eastwood, at the 2012 Republican Convention, imbued an empty chair with all the characteristics he disliked about President Barack Obama, participants in the exercise imbued the people who weren’t there with all the characteristics of the person they were looking for, including the belief that this person would be eager to help them. This idealized mythical individual prevented them from recognizing the imperfect, but physically present, individuals who could have actually helped them!

The next form of the perfection paradox is a little more subtle. Ask any hiring manager if they’d hire someone who never takes decisive action, refuses to consider alternatives, and has never challenged themselves, and the usual answer is, “Of course not!” Despite the vehemence of their response, however, that’s exactly what they are doing.

Naturally, it doesn’t look that way.

It looks like they are hiring people with strong track records and consistent employment: People who have a history of successes, not failures, and who have never been responsible for something going wrong. The problem, though, is that they rarely take the time to understand why those people have those perfect records. At best, I’ve seen managers attempt to break down someone’s record, in order to see if it was airbrushed.

While there is value to verifying that someone is being truthful on a resume, those managers are missing the point. The real problem is that the resume really is as perfect as it looks.

Basketball great Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career; I’ve lost almost 300 games; 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot — and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan is so good exactly because of his willingness to take chances, to push himself, and to act without a guarantee of success. All too often, that perfect resume is really showing you someone who carefully burnished his image or selectively chose projects which would not risk that beautiful façade.

When you focus on perfect resumes, you are quite often weeding out the people who are willing to seek out challenges and push the envelope. In other words, you are screening out the people who are most likely to be out of the box thinkers! Far more important than someone who has never failed is the person who can fail and get back up again: as one of my jujitsu instructors once said, “The fight’s not over until you can’t get up.” The ability to fail and recover is a sign of optimism and resilience, critical attributes of developing a success driven mindset. Those attributes should be part of your definition of a qualified person.

The final aspect of the perfection paradox relates to the stages of team development.

Recall that teams in early developmental stages are very focused around conformity and appearances. There is a strong tendency toward a mentality of “what you see is what you get,” or, in this case, “what you see is what you look for.” A WYSIWYLF (pronounced wizzee wolf) may sound more dangerous than a WYSIWYG, and it is. Simply put, our image of the right person to hire is shaped by the people around us. We look for people who look like us or like our coworkers. A poor manager is unlikely to hire a good manager in large part because she doesn’t know what a good manager looks like!

This is part of the interplay between organizational culture and recruiting. Suffice it for the moment to say that even advanced teams can be trapped by what our organizational culture tells us is the image of the “right” person.

The net result of all these factors is a lack of faith that the hiring process will get the results we want.

 

excerpted from Organizational Psychology for Managers

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Richard Melrose

    Well said Stephen.

    As a practical matter, every hiring effort should have three prerequisites: (i) a formal Job Analysis, focused on expected results, (ii) a Performance Model which establishes “what it takes” to get those results and (iii) an Assessment Process to compliantly determine the extent to which applicants have what it takes.

    The more direct, and the more objective, the connections between the Job Analysis, the Performance Model and the Assessment Process, the better. Subjective judgments (e.g. resume reads, application reviews, unstructured interviews and “group grope” selection decisions) undermine employee selection process performance (i.e. job performance, employee engagement, professional development and talent retention).

    For decades, hiring managers have had, at hand, the means to achieve high predictive validity for job performance and job learning. Most simply do not avail themselves of the knowledge and tools to do so. Most HR organizations do not help with guidance. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (promulgated in 1978) provide the recipe for success (i.e. job analysis, together with valid, job-related, whole-person assessment). The Guideline’s best practices for employee selection procedures also constitute the standard for regulatory compliance, a standard which very few companies make any serious effort to meet.

  • http://upwardly.me K.C. Donovan

    This post should be mandatory reading for any company that dreams of instilling an entrepreneurial spirit into their corporate culture…well done!

    I had forgotten the MJ quote, and it’s a priceless example of why stepping up to put yourself out there – knowing you may have to dust yourself off and get back up a few times – is a recipe for success. The recent Dr. Sullivan post about Facebook is a shining illustration of how it works at even our largest companies (and why it makes them so successful…).

    As for how this impacts resume’s and hiring…don’t get me started…I have work to get done today… :)

  • http://www.viletinternational.com Jacque Vilet

    Great article. I think part of the problem of hiring managers looking for “purple squirrels” is that during the recession some “survivors” took on a couple of jobs in the company to compensate for people that were laid off. After awhile hiring picks up and hiring managers believe they can find people that have multiple skill-sets —– can do multiple jobs at the same time. Agree there needs to be some soul-searching done about what the “job” really is before going off on a wild goose chase.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Stephen: Kudos for putting in Beckett, Dr. Who, Clint Eastwood, and Michael Jordan. What I try to do to “lock down” a JD is after meeting with the hiring manager, I try to provide some uncontacted bench-mark resumes to clarify what I need to look for.

    @ Richard; Very true. We need to remember that hiring managers don’t want to hire the objectively-best person for the role, they want to hire the person that will make the hiring manager look the best, or at least not look bad.
    1) As long as there is interpersonal contact/hiring managers feel a need for personal control of the hiring process, there will be considerable subjectivity involved in the hiring process,
    2) As long as there is subjectivity in the hiring process, there will be considerable errors from time to time.

    @ K.C.:”company that dreams of instilling an entrepreneurial spirit into their corporate culture”
    Entrepreneurial spirit = “The capacity to be an unstoppable drone willing to anticipate all our needs and fulfill them without question until we no longer need them.”

    Thanks also for bringing up the Facebook case. It reminds me that a good rule of thumb is that when a rich and famous company does something in hiring most of us should:
    1) Ignore it because it’s impractical if you aren’t a rich and famous company or
    2) Do the opposite, because such companies are often temples to the GAFI (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence) of the founders, CXOs, etc.

    @ Jacque: That hadn’t occurred to me but it makes a great deal of sense.

    Happy Friday and an Easy Fast (for those that do it),

    Keith

  • http://www.7stepsahead.com Stephen Balzac

    @Richard: very true. There is a great deal of solid work on assessment and measurement. Google supposedly uses a number of validated tools, and even they find their results aren’t what they want (based on an article I saw a couple months ago).

    As I discuss in the rest of the chapter, our hiring decisions are often based on organizational stories or assumptions that we may not always be aware of. Sometimes, they’re based on hiring the worst person to protect against employee stacking a la Microsoft. I have a piece on that going up on my blog in a couple days (blog.7stepsahead.com) — “Outrunning the Ballmer.”

    Thanks all for the feedback!

  • Sylvia Dahlby

    “Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jacobsmadsen Jacob Madsen

    Ahhh the BIG Purple Squirrel, 3 roles in one, sexism, ageism debate that never stops and in fact is doing better than ever before (supply and demand)

    Take a look at this Kevin Wheeler discussion here earlier this year, and read some of the many many comments about what is going on out there, – kinda shocking if you ask me, and definitely not helping anyone: http://bit.ly/17HOSKE

  • http://hcs.ind.in Pradeep Sahay

    The Perfect candidate.. the chimerical creature that is the bane of many an organization’s recruiting practice.

    It is all about nurturing a mutual admiration society…. great post

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Pradeep: “The Perfect candidate.. the chimerical creature that is the bane of many an organization’s recruiting practice.”
    However, as long as they continue to pay you to look for it, it’s a very good thing, indeed.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • http://www.myjobcompany.com Caroline Bergaud

    Very good post indeed. It’s because so many organisations keep searching for the purple squirrel that our start-up MyJobCompany developed a recruitment solution forcing both recruiters and candidates to rank the personal qualities they are looking for vs. have based on the personality type model of Holland Codes. It is clear that no one can be an outstanding doer, thinker, creator, helper, persuader and organizer all at once… unless you’re called Leonardo Da Vinci of course ;) Besides, in our sourcing and matching solution, recruiters can pick no more than 3 compulsory and 3 optional skills to match candidates with, which pushes recruiters to make choices and prioritise.
    @Keith and @Richard: I very much agree with you both. Most managers think they’re good at hiring, but in reality, they’re good at hiring people they can get along with…
    @Sylvia: my Mum repeated me this famous quote by Voltaire throughout my youth and the older I get, the more I realise that perfect is indeed the enemy of the good…
    A recovering perfectionist

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Caroline: Thanks. I think the problem not getting recruiters to make the choices, it’s getting the hiring managers to do it up front…

    Cheers,
    Keith

  • http://www.myjobcompany.com Caroline Bergaud

    @Keith: agreed. When I say ‘recruiters’, I mean the people hiring, the buyer’s side so to speak.