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Early talent trends, Improving employer brand, Tools & tips

Access recap: 'Think again' about early talent with Adam Grant

Have you ever worried that changing your mind or thinking twice might make you less credible? If so, our recent conversation with author Adam Grant will help assure you that you’re on the right track.

  • Learn how to think like a scientist by viewing your strategies as theories that need to be tested.
  • Get tips on building a “challenge network” to help vet your ideas through constructive criticism from those who have your best interests at heart.
  • Avoid the blinders that come with strong convictions and beliefs by questioning your own biases and conclusions.

With constant change roiling early talent recruitment and development, it can be hard for teams to stop and think. But as too many leaders know, once you think you know what is trending with talent—it’s time to think again.

During our recent Handshake Access 2023 event, we spoke with Adam Grant, the New York Times bestselling author of Think Again. As an organizational psychologist at Wharton, popular TED speaker, and host of the WorkLife and ReThinking podcasts, Adam examines the patterns of thinking that can cause us to miss out on opportunities that are right in front of us (as we also fail to rise to meet the challenges that threaten us).

We spoke with Adam to dig deeper into these topics and get tips for how employers can put these ideas into practice when recruiting, managing, and developing early talent. Check out what he had to say below!

Think like a scientist by viewing your strategies as theories that need to be tested

In his research, Adam has seen that people tend to slip into what he calls “preacher, prosecutor, or politician modes.”

  • Preachers proselytize ideas or points of view without digging into the research or firsthand experience (they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid).
  • Prosecutors try to debunk preachers and prove them wrong (to win an argument).
  • Politicians try to appease people in positions of authority while lobbying or campaigning for approval (not even bothering to listen to other people unless they’re already in agreement.)

“What scares me about all three of these mindsets is that, whether you are preaching, prosecuting, or politicking, you've already concluded that you're right and other people are wrong,” Adam says.

According to his research, the fix is to think like a scientist. Whether you're in HR, higher ed, or any type of leadership role, have the humility to know what you don't know and the curiosity to constantly seek new knowledge. That means running AB tests (or even ABCDE tests) and designing your experiments to account for as many possibilities as you can. Treat strategy as theory, and be open to testing it constantly. Then pivot when the need arises.

Be adaptable by embracing the changing world, questioning your assumptions, and building a “challenge network”

“I would say that the job of running an organization is to adapt as the world changes,” Adam says. “If you resist experimentation, you’re closing the door to learning.”

Never was this more apparent than in 2018, when Adam approached multiple Fortune 500 leaders about running an experiment that would allow employees to work remotely one day per week. Every leader balked at the idea, jumping to conclusions that people would be unproductive, and their company culture would fall apart.

Adam already had a meta-analysis showing that, as long as people were in the office together for half the week, there was no cost to letting them work remotely for the other half. Even so, the leaders he questioned met him with resistance.

And then the pandemic happened, forcing remote work. All those leaders had to think again—but under pressure that they could have avoided.

Avoid confirmation bias with work samples, skills-based hiring, and screening for qualities that will make bad leaders

“We did a WorkLife episode a couple of years ago on reinventing the job interview, where I tried to synthesize literally a century of science and what we do wrong in evaluating and screening other people,” Adam says. “My biggest takeaway is that we need to do a much better job of getting samples of people's work, giving them a tryout, and getting closer to their motivation and ability to learn the key skills involved in the job they’re interviewing for, as opposed to just looking at their prior work record.”

Furthermore, Adam believes that if leadership skills are screened for during interviews vs. being taught on the job, it’s best to search for qualities that will prevent someone from being a good leader down the line.

“A good example of that would be the narcissistic personality,” Adam says. “Narcissists are more likely to rise to leadership roles. They project confidence, and we mistake it for competence. This is even true in elementary schools, where kids with larger personalities are more likely to be nominated as leaders by their peers.”

A workaround Adam suggests is to ask candidates to predict other people’s behavior, because data shows that, when requested to do so, people first ask themselves: How would I react in this situation?” They then project that onto their assessment of how others will act.

By isolating taking vs. giving behaviors, it can help you see into candidates’ value systems—and assess what types of leaders they might someday become.

Reframe the way you assess a candidate’s qualities

When doing reference checks and assessing a candidate’s qualities—say, their personality traits or potential level of loyalty to your company—it can be helpful to use strategies that don’t let a reference gloss over their true feelings about the person.

“When you're doing reference checks, you can frame your questions to give the reference a forced choice between two negatives,” Adam says. “So, when I'm trying to gauge whether somebody is a giver or a taker, I've asked, ‘What's more likely for this candidate—that they're too much of a pushover and become too soft-hearted and compassionate, or that they're occasionally a little bit manipulative?”

This forces a reference to think through their answers, which can result in a more honest assessment. If you set up your questions right, you may have an easier time identifying qualities you want—or don’t want—on your team. It can also help you determine what skills you’ll be able to teach a candidate once they’re a full-time employee.

Furthermore, Adam recommends being cognizant of the data that shows that pre-hire work experience has, on average, a 0.06 correlation with overall job performance, which is not statistically different from zero. “If you square that .06, that's the percentage of variation in performance that's explained by experience,” he says. “Now, there are obvious exceptions (like with airline pilots), but generally, experience is a double-edged sword. On one hand, experience tells us that you have reached a minimum level of capacity for executing a task. On the other hand, you might have had the same one year of experience 20 times. We don't know.”

With that same experience can also come baggage and blinders. “One of the things we see in the data is that the more experience you have, the more likely you are to fall victim to cognitive entrenchment,” Adam explains. “This is where you start to take for granted assumptions that need to be questioned.”

Be cautious of strong convictions and points of view

“My job as a social scientist is to look at the empirical evidence,” Adam says. “And what you see is that—consistently—the best decision makers in organizations are often indecisive. They're uncertain because they know important decisions are complex, and they want to get all the information on the table before they make up their minds.”

Adam’s best insight into this question came from Jeff Bezos when he was speaking at the executive’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin.

“What Jeff told me is that there are two sets of questions he asks himself when he's making a decision,” Adam explains. “The first questions are: How consequential is this decision? How high are the stakes? Next, are: How reversible is this decision? Am I about to walk through a door that's going to lock behind me, or is it more of a revolving door?

This offers a chance to stop and think before making decisions—particularly big, irreversible ones. Adam references two companies who did stick to their strong convictions and points of view and suffered for it: Kodak and Polaroid. Both companies pioneered digital imaging in the 1980s, but they decided not to pursue it as a line of business, because it would kill their margins and destroy their profits from film. By using their identity to dictate their strategy, they closed themselves off from alternative ways of doing business.

To help ensure leaders don’t miss opportunities he suggests a “challenge network—a group of thoughtful critics that you trust to hold up a mirror so you can see your own blind spots more clearly.”

Realize that learning never stops

If you’re somebody who looks out at people around you and thinks, “You know what? I don't think that I need to change. I just need other people to change!” Adam suggests you rethink your views.

“I think we all want to be lifelong learners,” he says. “I also think the best way to do that is to wake up every morning and be excited to discover that you were wrong about something because then you're going to move closer to getting it right.”

When this mindset is applied to any situation in life or in business, it can only open new doors, whether it’s by encouraging a new solution to a troubling problem or a new lens through which to view your strategies.

Handshake is thrilled to bring new, cutting-edge ideas like Adam Grant’s into the world of early talent recruiting. Whether you’re in the market for new talent or want to learn how best to approach the recruiting process, we’re here to help. For more content from Access 2023—check out the event page.

Visit more Access recaps:

How to navigate the changing talent landscape with Hilton CHRO, Laura Fuentes, President of Paul Quinn College, Dr. Michael Sorrell, and Handshake CEO, Garret Lord

Expanding opportunity by reimagining the labels that limit us with Procter & Gamble Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer, Shelley McNamara, and UNCF President & CEO, Dr. Michael Lomax

Creating a future where we can Thrive with Thrive CEO, Arianna Huffington, and Handshake Chief Legal Officer, Valerie Capers Workman

7 tips to maximize ROI on your early talent strategy with TD SYNNEX CFO of Americas, David Jordan and TD SYNNEX VP Global Talent Acquisition, Chris DeLisa

10 tips to attract and develop in-demand tech talent with NSA CHRO Teisha Anthony, Activision Blizzard Chief Talent Officer, Alexander DiLeonardo, and General Assembly VP, Priya Ramanathan

Closing skills and opportunity gaps for underrepresented talent groups with Macy CDO, Shawn Outler, Google Head of Economic Opportunity Americas, Hector Mujica, Chancellor of SUNY, Dr. John King, and New York Times CHRO, Jacqueline Welch

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