The following piece appeared in the August 9, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Business Journal
A little while ago I was waiting for a delayed flight in a crowded lounge. Across from me, two men were working on a presentation. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation and it was soon apparent that the fellow on the left worked for the guy on the right. They were both stocky with thick necks and short hair. They wore jeans, cowboy boots and black mock-turtlenecks. They were slumped in their chairs with laptops perched precariously on their ample bellies. They even used similar gestures. Were they brothers? Nope – just colleagues.
Last week I was getting into an elevator behind two gentlemen talking about a maintenance problem. They were of similar height and both had handlebar mustaches, open windbreakers and two-way radios in their right hands. They were speaking English, but each had a thick French accent. The guy who got on first was the boss.
These two examples are illustrative of a management pitfall that stems from a common human tendency. We are more comfortable with the familiar. We inadvertently tend to hire people like us.
It isn’t that we necessarily set out to hire people like us. Instead, it is an unconscious tendency. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the growing practice of blind auditions for musicians. He cites the example of how Abby Conant won a competition for first trombone in the Munich Philharmonic, much to the surprise of the selection committee. Without the screen behind which she performed, she would not have won the competition. This is not just a case of gender discrimination, it is a case of an unconscious bias to which we can all fall victim.
Another illustration of this was a recent study in which researchers created two different resumes depicting similar skills. Both were sent to Canadian companies with job openings. The resume with the anglicized name got a call back far more frequently than the one with the foreign-sounding name. This was true even when the names on the resumes were swapped. Clearly, managers were more comfortable with the anglicized name. Like the case of the trombonist, this is an example of an unconscious bias. I doubt that many of the resume screeners were conscious of their slanted actions.
The reason this tendency to hire people like ourselves is a management pitfall is that homogeneity can lead to groupthink. Groupthink in turn leads to sub-optimal decisions. The best teams are cohesive, but diverse in the character, background and experience of the members. This diversity leads to richer conversations, a broader spectrum of ideas and ultimately to better decisions and an increased likelihood of business success.
This is the bottom line: hire the best people based on skills and talent, but be aware of the unconscious tendency we all share to hire people like us. Keep team diversity at the forefront of your selection process.
That’s why I shouldn’t hire Jim Roche. Instead I should look for people who have a different make-up than mine. For example, I’m more comfortable thinking about the big picture than the details. I would be wise for me to work with someone who prefers to focus on details. Neither is better. But one in the absence of the other could lead to disaster.
A powerful tool for helping build diversity is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It is easy to learn and surprisingly effective. Over time, I’ve found that I can identify and characterize people’s natural tendencies by observing their behaviour. I try to avoid pigeonholing, but I do use the MBTI as a framework for thinking about teams.
Other obvious ways to increase diversity include looking for different cultural backgrounds amongst your team members; finding a balance among men and women on the team; bringing people with different work experiences into the team; or looking for people with strong passions that are complementary to the rest of the team.
Not only will these practices lead to better decisions and better business results, they will also lead to teams that offer a richer social experience. I would hate to spend all day talking to myself.