The Paradox of the Quest for Hiring Perfection

Sep 13, 2013

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

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