Evaluating talent: why you keep getting it wrong

Hiring and selecting great people is usually thought of as being no better than a coin flip. There are so many factors in building a great team that usually people just accept that they’ll get it wrong a big portion of the time. However, this post tries to argue that there are many reasons why you might get evaluating talent wrong and some ways to better evaluate it in the future.

Why does someone end up turning out worse after you hire them?

People lie in interviews. The consequences for lying to make yourself look better in an interview are low for the interviewee (no accountability), and the upside is very high for them because they could get a job offer. So a big part of interviewing well is figuring out whether the person is being authentic and telling the truth.

The reasons why the wrong person gets promoted

The number one reason the wrong person gets promoted is that only positive data points get shown and negative ones get hidden. So the person responsible for deciding the promotion in their own head says “this person checks all the boxes, it’s a no-brainer to get them promoted”.

The reality is that all people have big, glaring weaknesses that get shown if they’re being authentic. This is just a basic fact of human life that everyone knows just by looking at themselves.

If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Here’s how a person will only show the positive data points to obscure their weaknesses.

They only show positive data points

When you’re receiving information from the person in question, if they only bring up positive information all the time, it usually means they are lying by omission. This is a very common thing people do, somewhat understandably especially if they fear negative repercussions. But when it comes to managing people who have a lot of responsibility, having someone who doesn’t bring up negatives creates two major issues:

  1. You can’t help them solve problems 
  2. Problems can get bigger over time. So you can spend several months or even over a year hearing about how good things are in a department. Then one day, there’s a mutiny across the organization and you realize how poorly things are run. The more you dig, the more you realize how much damage has been done.

When negative feedback is brought up, it gets devalued and then positive examples are brought up as a distraction

Most people are accountable to some key performance indicator (KPI). When they are reviewing results or presenting them and a goal was not reached, a common tactic is to do the following:

  1. Show the results upfront, and briefly speak about why the result may have happened
  2. Explain away the negative results by having to do with some context or external reasons that don’t have to do with things the leader has control over
  3. Speak about how results will begin to trend or continue to trend upwards in the future
  4. Speak about other good news that is related to the KPI but not related to the result. Maybe it’s a vanity metric that is doing well or a key project that was completed

Getting key people to like them artificially

Some people are very socially savvy, to the point where they will understand who you will listen to and respect. So they will optimize their interactions around helping others, being overly generous, cooperative, and personal towards the people you trust. So then when you’re evaluating a person and asking others for a second opinion, all of the data points that come back to you are positive.

If you only hear good things, it might also signal a lack of trust

Meaning that people usually opt towards saying nice things about each other even if they don’t like each other. Because they don’t want it to get back to the person that they said something negative. 

The consequences of promoting the wrong person

Promoting the wrong person is very consequential to the credibility of the hiring manager (the person who was responsible for the promotion). It can create a sense of unfairness for other people seeking out ways to get promoted, which inevitably leads to de-motivation.

Talent evaluation template: keep this scorecard for your business

Use this template to assess whether your organization evaluates talent well or not. Below this image describes each criteria in more detail.

This image is a talent evaluation template. It is a list of criteria on whether an individual is properly able to evaluate talent or not.

Create a culture that makes it okay to show your warts

Destigmatizing weaknesses is a part of any great corporate culture, since all people have big weaknesses and it’s better to deal with them than hide them. 

Show your weaknesses out in the open

If you’re a leader, a lot of your behaviour will be copied. People want to be successful in an organization, so the natural inclination is to copy leaders to try and emulate their success. 

So that’s why it’s important to do the behaviours you want to see changed in others, including putting your own weaknesses out in the open. Showing your weak spots also makes you seem more humble and human, which also gets copied. 

If you’re seeing only positive data points, dig deeper

You can ask pointed questions like “what are the biggest problems your team is facing right now?” With the goal of understanding how they’re dealing with organizational struggles. 

Even if everything is going smoothly, a good team manager knows the key risks they face. So asking about risks will validate whether the person themself is aware of issues that might happen.  

Implement level-skipping

If you’re managing leaders, meet regularly with the leader’s direct reports to get a pulse on how the team is running. If there’s something wrong, they’ll usually provide contradictory information to what your leader has been saying, especially if you’re able to dig into their day-to-day. 

Make your interviews long

Making some interviews more than 2 hours at a time is expensive for everyone involved. The main benefit is that when a person is pretending to be someone they’re or they’re lying excessively, it’s too difficult to keep up the act after a certain point. The benefits outweigh the costs because it’s much more costly to hire the wrong person. 

Ask your interviewees to describe their work in detail

Someone who really knows what they’re doing will be able to describe how they solved difficult problems in detail since difficult problems require so much mental bandwidth and time. So you should be able to get detailed answers if you ask about difficult problems they worked on. 

Distinguish between great people versus great context

Sometimes people are put in a great situation due to sheer luck or circumstance, so it’s important to parse out whether that’s the case or not. There are no hard and fast rules, other than doing a careful and thorough investigation yourself.

When you’re evaluating talent, give people a pass early on

When someone joins an organization, they don’t have great reasons to trust you yet and you don’t have great reasons to trust them. That trust gets bridged as time goes on, so it’s wise for employees to try and only show positive things upfront. There’s a worry about giving the wrong impression early on and it spiralling out of control. 

Beware of exceptional talent

Very rarely, you’ll get individuals that have overwhelming positive data points that aren’t hiding anything. But they can explain in detail how they’re dealing with risks, their own weaknesses, and problems their team is facing. And the positive data points comes from true, full-on dedication to the company and career. 

Conclusion: only the paranoid survive

While it’s important to trust people, and especially to signal to direct reports that you trust them, incentives to lie or lie by omission are pervasive. So when things seem to be going well, there’s also the reason for caution. And that’s why it’s important to be searching for problems. It’s better to be over-diligent with looking for problems than waiting for something to bad happen inevitably.

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