Workplace Culture

How Many Round Pegs Do You Need

By Harold Fethe

Jul. 12, 2010

It’s a buyer’s market for talent. Front pages of major newspapers carry stories of hordes of applicants available for each job opening. Beyond that, research finds dissatisfaction among people who have been continuously employed. So if you don’t like who has shown up from the unemployed labor pool, the best talent at a competitor is likely to be receptive to a phone call as well.

But indications are that the typical recruitment strategy has changed little. It continues to emphasize fitting “round pegs into round holes,” when companies should be rethinking both pegs and holes.

In other words, the human resources function has an unusual opportunity in this environment. Small shifts in hiring strategy can strengthen teams, anticipate growth and mitigate departmental weaknesses. Groundbreaking research by Stanford University professor Douglass Wilde points to the path to take.

Several years ago, Wilde conducted an experiment in which students in an engineering competition were guided through a team-formation exercise that selected for dissimilar problem-solving styles, based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a popular system of personality types. In the 13 previous years, Stanford students had entered the same engineering competition. Consistently, a quarter of the teams won awards. Wilde’s belief was that those teams, with no particular strategy for team formation, ended up with too-homogeneous teams and narrow problem-solving approaches.

A dramatic improvement followed over the course of a decade. Nearly three-quarters of teams formed via Wilde’s method won awards—triple the productivity of the earlier baseline. Especially convincing, Wilde says, was one year in the middle of the process, when he went on a sabbatical. The process reverted to random self-selection. The results? Back to only one-quarter of the teams receiving awards.

What does that have to do with recruiting? Many teams in the world of work have learned to live with pesky skill and performance deficits that have become part of “the way we do things around here.” An open requisition for a new hire can be an opportunity to rebalance those old equations and set the stage for better team performance.

In this market, hiring managers often have a range of very good finalists for any given job—any one of the top two or three could probably do the job pretty well. Among those finalists may be someone with some skills or a problem-solving style that are complementary to the norms of the existing team. Do you need someone in your work group who’s a good writer, a common deficit in the business world? Or someone with diplomacy and verbal communication skills, to help broker the services of your excellent—but quiet—technical staff, and communicate the customers’ expectations back in tech-speak?

Too much radical innovation from HR can create havoc, or induce resistance from a hiring manager. To keep the innovative spirit in balance, here are some guidelines for engaging the favorable talent market to balance teams’ narrow skill sets:

• Ask the hiring manager what skill or work-style shortages he or she is living with, and what interpersonal style or ancillary skills would address the deficits. Some terms from Wilde’s research to describe key attributes: organization; knowledge; imagination; analysis; evaluation. Where’s your deficit?

• Apply the supplemental-skills test to only a few top applicants. That way, if you select the applicant who brings an additional, complementary skill, and that part doesn’t pan out, you still have a good conventional performer.

• Don’t undercut the hiring manager’s final word on which applicant should get the offer. It is bad client relations, and it will undermine your ability to innovate in the future.

With a little strategic thinking, you may be able to strengthen or diversify the skill sets in key functions. You may raise awareness, and help a manager reimagine how the department could work. And you’ll be able to say that you didn’t go through this historic buyer’s market for talent on autopilot, doing little more than fitting round pegs into round holes.

Workforce Management Online, July 2010Register Now!

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