How to recruit with softer skills in mind
Sskills important to employers. Writing in Harvard Business Review last year, Raffaella Sadun of Harvard Business School and her co-authors analyzed nearly 5,000 job descriptions that Russell Reynolds, a headhunter, had developed for several c-a suite of roles between 2000 and 2017. Their work showed that companies have moved away from emphasizing financial and operational skills to social skills – the ability to listen, reflect, communicate and empathize. Other research has reached similar conclusions about jobs lower down the pay scale: being able to work well with people is not seen as a fleeting advantage but as a critical factor.
The problem is that soft skills are difficult to measure. Worse still, the standard process of hiring people is often better at building other qualities. The early stages of recruitment focus on filtering candidates based on their knowledge and hard skills, as these are the easiest criteria to assess at a distance. Putting the words “team player” on a cover letter or a cv is proof of nothing but unrighteousness. Smiling a lot at a camera for a taped video message mostly shows that you can smile on camera. Self-report empathy questionnaires sometimes seem to test for gender-level characteristics (if you agree “In stressful situations I feel anxious and sick at rest”, congratulations to many: you are a man).
The later stages of recruitment, when candidates and employers meet each other and engage in actual conversation, are more suitable for assessing a candidate’s softer skills. But even then, consider how fundamentally antisocial the situation is. Candidates are expected to speak, not listen; to impress, not sympathize. Companies are encouraged to ask Fermi such wise questions as “How many piano tuners are there in Guangdong?” or “How many cinnamon swirls would it take to fill the Reichstag?” Structured interview scripts enable like-for-like comparisons but also squeeze the space for spontaneity. It is not surprising that Professor Sadun et al believe that recruitment processes must be much better in discovering social skills.
Research is finding some shortcuts to identifying smarter skills. Two recent studies on what makes a good team member converge on what could be described as the ability to read the room. They also recommend ways to test for this symptom.
Research by Siyu Yu from Rice University and her co-authors found that people who can accurately gauge which members of a team have influence have a magical power they call “status acuity”. Such room readers reduce group conflict and improve team performance. As part of their study they designed an experiment, in which participants watched a video of a group performing a task. The participants then rated group members according to how much they liked each one. The people whose rating was closest to the evaluations of the team members themselves had a quality of status.
In another study Ben Weidman and David Deming from Harvard University found that some people consistently made their organizations perform better than expected. These people, they said, are true team players, able to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. These amazing creatures did not stand out from their contemporaries IQ or personality tests. But they did much better on the “Read the Mind in the Eyes” test, a standard assessment in which participants are shown pictures of different facial expressions and then have to choose the word that describes what each person is. feeling
Better tests aren’t the only way to learn more about social skills. Don’t just rely on people higher up the food chain asking interview questions: it’s good to see how candidates get on with a range of colleagues. Ask the people who interact casually with candidates, from the assistants who organize meetings to the receptionists on the day, what they thought of them. Find out what really bothers job candidates: a lot of research shows that humility is associated with better performance.
Hiring for soft skills spawns new risks. They are sharper than technical skills, which may make it easier for people to make their way through the process. And there may be more room for the biases of the interviewers to enter. Finding someone who is irritable could be a sign that someone lacks social skills. But it may also mean that they are nervous, that you are grumpy or that the two of you are not that much alike. Recruiting is ready for change. It’s not going to get any easier.
Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
A Brief Guide to Body Rituals (May 4)
If enough people think you’re a bad boss, you are (April 23)
What makes a good office bonus? (April 20)
Also: How Bartleby’s column got its name