08 January 2013

Thin-slicing: How Malcolm Gladwell demystified one of my skills


A couple of years ago I ran a full day’s training for a Sydney recruitment agency. The nine participants, all recruiters with between six months and six years recruitment experience, were all recruiters unfamiliar to me. I had never met any of them prior to the workshop nor had I had observed any of them in their usual work environment undertaking their normal job. The only experience I had of each person was their participation during the workshop.
 
The workshop proceeded from beginning to end, completely normally in every respect, taking about seven hours.
 
At the completion of the workshop, the GM who had instigated the workshop asked me to send her an email detailing my observations and conclusions about each of the participants. A few days later I made the time to send her the requested two of three sentences on each person I had observed.
 
Her prompt and astonished email response was confirmation that just about everything I had surmised about the strengths and weaknesses of each recruiter was unerringly accurate. One participant, a recent hire with little recruitment experience, I identified as a person unlikely to stick at recruitment and would be vulnerable to an offer of a more high profile or sexy marketing or sales job outside recruitment. Within a month of the workshop, that recruiter resigned to take a marketing job outside of recruitment.
 
I didn’t have any concrete explanation as to why I was able to make such accurate assessments and predictions, on such minimal evidence, other than to put it down to ‘experience’.
 
Having read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (see Ross Recommends, below) I now have a better understanding of what that actual ‘experience’ was; I was ‘thin-slicing’. As Gladwell explains; ‘Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconsciousness to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience’.
 
In other words, after about 34,000 cumulative hours as a recruiter, leader of recruiters and trainer and coach of recruiters, I had developed an unconscious ability to recognise patterns of behaviour in recruiters, even when they were just interacting with me and other participants in a workshop that enabled me to draw reasonably accurate conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses.
 
The really tricky part would have come if the GM had asked me to identify exactly what behaviours (or what ‘thin-slices’) I had observed in each workshop participant that had me draw the conclusions I did.
 
I don’t think I could have done it, well not convincingly anyway.
 
Gladwell provides the answer: ‘Whenever we experience a basic emotion, that emotion is automatically expressed by the muscles of the face. That response may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second or be detectable only if electrical sensors are attached to the face. But it’s always there.
 
We can all mind-read effortlessly and automatically because the clues we need to make sense of someone or some social situation are right there on the faces of those in front of us. We may not be able to read faces as effortlessly as some….but there is enough accessible information on a face to make everyday mind reading possible.’
 
After 34,000 hours of working with thousands of recruiters in many, many different situations, my ‘mind reading’ of recruiters had developed to such an extent that I was able to automatically and unconsciously draw conclusions about people I had never seen do their job. My only point of reference was watching and listening to people talk about their job and the skills required to do their job effectively.
 
Over the course of the day I was able to observe each person’s facial expressions, eye contact and body language that enabled me to, unconsciously, link those behavioural patterns to the skills and traits of other successful and unsuccessful recruiters I had observed throughout those previous 34,000 hours. Using this unconscious process I was then able to draw my conclusions about each recruiter’s respective skills and motivation.
 
It was a little like my (one and only) experience of speed dating, about ten years ago. At a trendy Melbourne bar, I had a six minute conversation with twelve different women. At the end of the night when each person indicates whether they would like to see any of their speed dates again, I remember trying to convince myself that one or two of the women were worth a ‘real’ date but in my heart I knew that those six minutes were enough to know the answer; none of them were people I was interested in enough for a second date. I had thin-sliced each potential date based on about 20 years of relationship and dating experience.
 
This revelation about ‘thin-slicing’ has now helped me understand why a number of things I have professionally believed in, have validity beyond my own experience in ‘just knowing’ that they work.
 
Those things are: 
  1. Have a potential recruiter/employee spend half a day in the office to observe and ask questions about the team in action, before you make a decision to offer them a job
    Patterns of behavior (the ‘thin-slices’) that the potential employee displays, away from the formality of an interview, reveals much about the suitability of that person’s character and motivation for the role of an agency recruiter.
     
  2. Have that potential recruiter observe and comment on a candidate interview
    Even without any technical knowledge of interviewing or of the job being interviewed for, a potential recruiter can still make valid observations that reveal how effectively they can ‘thin-slice’ a candidate’s character.
     
  3. Resume screening and interviewing are the critical first steps in building a recruiter’s competence and confidence
    Thin-slicing, based on candidate resumes and the substance of their interview, is critical in being able to quickly book interviews, identify suitable candidates and recommend candidates to clients. If a recruiter cannot do this quickly and effectively, it is highly unlikely they will succeed, regardless of their other capabilities.
     
  4. An interview needs to be a genuine and challenging test of a candidate’s competencies and motivation, not a friendly chatRecruiters have between 30 and 60 minutes during the interview to assess a candidate for a job. The reality is that it is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy, whether the candidate is suitable or not. Interviewing using a behavioural event interview structure maximises your chances of identifying patterns of behavior (helping you ‘thin-slice’) in a candidate that make them suitable or unsuitable to recommend to a client.
     
  5. A client’s commitment to you needs to be tested up-frontWhen you have an opportunity to fill a job it is critical that you ‘thin-slice’ the likelihood of you filling the job by testing the client on exclusivity and their commitment to interview your shortlisted candidates. Unless the client passes these respective tests of their commitment, experience tells me that only a very short period of time (if any at all) should be invested in working on such a vacancy.
 
Recruiters ultimately succeed or fail and are thereby judged on outcomes not processes (although effective processes are critical to generating those outcomes).
 
Using our time in the most effective way maximises the chances of our success.
 
Thin-slicing is a critical component of this time efficiency.
 
What are you doing to recognise important patterns of client and candidate behavior and then how are you acting on those patterns?
 
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