The Choice Cake: Eating and Keeping it Too

•April 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We exist during a time characterized by an embarrassment of choice. Well, that assumes you live in an industrialized or developing nation/culture. Also, this statement assumes you have more than a few nickels to rub together. Since you are likely to meet those criteria if you are reading this blog, then I will use “we” in that admittedly limited sense.

Suck it, Poors!

So, every day we are bombarded with choice. Wake up and open your closet. There you will find an array of hopefully recently laundered clothing. Head to the bathroom and you will find a number of items, each of which was a result of a choice. That’s just the relatively trivial stuff, as we also make choices about who to marry, whether to have children (even if we didn’t chose, we kind of chose), what job offer to accept, what career to pursue, what car to buy, what city to live it, and where to go to college. I can’t imagine going through a single day without making at least a few choices.

Clearly a bad choice

This recently became the focus of a discussion for one of my LinkedIn groups. The central point of the discussion was to explore the possibility that we may have too much choice. Some argued that we experience an excess of choice and that it leaves us paralyzed, exhausted, depleted and unhappy. In many ways excess choice can be a detriment to the human experience. I agree that this could be true. Of course thinking like a psychologist (and a born contrarian) once we find a nice new theory, we do our damnedest to try to break it. In this case psychologists have sought to define boundary conditions for when choice can make us unhappy; when is this NOT true.

For me a big part of the answer comes from literature on different approaches to decision-making and differences in how individuals cope with a wealth of choice (hooray for Google scholar!). In this article speak about two approaches to decision-making that seem to influence how we feel about our decisions. Basically, these authors tested two approaches, maximizing (I always thought it was called optimizing, oops) and satisficing.

When someone uses the maximizing approach, they adopt a goal of making the absolute best possible decision. This mean that the maximize must seek out all possible alternatives, understand all the relevant information for each alternative and finally integrate all that information in order to make the best possible decision. Depending on the nature of the choice in question, this can be a pretty daunting challenge. It is tough enough taking this approach when choosing an anti-perspiring at WALly MARTinez (you know what place I mean). Now imagine using this same approach when selecting a new employee or a university.

What Wally Martinez might look like

By contrast, satisficers consider a limited subset of all possible choices and select the alternative from that limited pool that satisfies some pre-determined criterion. Rather than considering, researching and evaluating every conceivable toothpaste option a satisficer would limit her choice to any toothpaste available in the middle few rows of the shelf that is recommended by the ADA, mint flavored and on sale.

As it turns out, people adopting a satisficing approach are generally happier and I can completely understand it. Before learning about this phenomenon in graduate school, I used the satisficing strategy on occasion. Usually it was for things that were not particularly important, or I was in a huge rush. Perhaps I was tired. Whatever the reason, on some occasions I avoided my usual maximizing strategy (or what passed for it). I never noticed whether or not it made me happy, and I cannot honestly tell you I remember any given example. But I do get the sense that those decisions were faster than normal. Once I was exposed to this area of research, I made the connection and decided to try to use a satisficing strategy more often. I realized I had a choice in how I chose (see what I did there?). This approach has served me well. I don’t even approach a maximizing strategy unless the decision is incredibly important and even then I understand the limits of knowable information. The alternative here is prolonged vacillation and inaction. I may not be the happiest person in the world as a result of this, but I can tell you for certain that I am less afflicted by stress than people around me that try to make the best possible decision. I literally don’t sweat the small stuff.

I would like us all to take away two things from all this. First, we do not HAVE to be paralyzed by choice. Yes, our environment presents us with what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming array of choices, but we can choose how to cope with it. We can choose a better path. Second, reducing the amount of choice available is not the way to deal with abundance of choice. The only person unhappier than the person making a difficult decision is the person that was denied the choice. We should not seek to return to some pastoral ideal that exists only in our mind, rather we should seek a better way of coping with ever increasing amounts of choice and related information. Restricting choice can only lead to bad things, not the least of which is psychological reactance. Let’s not talk of cutting off the face to spite the nose.


How About a Reintroduction?

•April 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Three years seems like a long time not to update a blog. It has been an interesting number of years, but truth be told I am happy they are behind me. I will leave the details to my therapists, soothsayers and future archaeologists. Suffice it to say I once again find myself in a position where I feel I can make a positive contribution by discussing how work life can be improved by the application of psychological principals. However, given my new professional role (and long time passion), I anticipate making issues important to higher education a much larger part of this conversation. I trust that this will only enhance this blog’s appeal and I certainly hope my readers agree.

Reference Checks: Just Another Unstructured Interview

•October 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

As I understand it, reference checks are a vital component of the usual personnel selection process. Since I have never been an HR person, I don’t know what kind of pressure they must feel to make sure they use every available tool to make sure job offers are extended to only the best-quality applicants. I presume it is pretty significant. What I do know, is that HR people are human beings, and human beings are seldom the great decision-makers we believe ourselves to be. So when I read this blog post about the importance of reference checking, I started to think about what is really happening from a psychology stand point. Blame it an academic training that emphasized theory busting, but my initial agreement quickly became doubt.

The problem with reference checking as part of the selection system is that we must make a number of assumptions about them and the quality of information they provide the selection agent.

  1. We are competent at obtaining information through interviews- ask any HR person (actually, pretty much any human being) and you will find that they are all very good. How did humans all become such great interviewers? Was it training of some sort, or is it more likely that interviews seem like conversations and we are all pretty good at those, right?
  2. We obtained the right information- not only did we ask the right questions, but the reference provided us with the correct information. We didn’t let any bias seep into the formation of the question, our tone of voice was neutral when we delivered the question and we faithfully encoded the information the reference provided. Additionally, the reference accurately recalled the information you sought, had no agenda of their own (both pro- and anti- candidate are very prevalent) and actually said whet they intended to say with no encoding or transmission errors.
  3. We are capable of ignoring inappropriate information- Turns out not all information is fair game for selection purposes. I know this runs counter to popular opinion (there’s a reason it’s popular, have you met those other people?), but we should not be looking for every bit of information we can, we should only be seeking information that is relevant to the candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAO’s). You know, the important results from the job analysis- I just KNOW you have a job analysis for this job.
  4. We can objectively integrate this information into a high-quality selection decision- It may sound easy enough, but it isn’t. We must combine reference information with all other bits of information we have on this candidate. We have cover letters, resumes, telephone screens, at least one interview (probably unstructured too), each of those provide us with countless data points to evaluate and weigh against similar data points from other candidates. How much does each data point contribute to the overall selection decision? If you don’t know the answer to these, you are probably using clinical synthesis. Without going into specifics, this method usually involves making what amounts to a random decision from a wealth of potentially valuable set of data.

What we have here is a system with what engineers might call “multiple points of failure.” Only, if it was a true point of failure the system would stop. In our case, the decision is still made, so the system continues past the points where it failed and should have stopped. So now that I have established that reference checking gives us information of unknown quality and is combined with other information in such a way that we normally cannot determine the impact of its inclusion on the quality of the selection decision, what should we do? Well, the answer is not as simple as “don’t do reference checks.” While that’s probably the most cost-effective answer, I suspect people will sooner give up unstructured interviews (Actually, no. people will never give up unstructured interviews). Check back later this week, for a way to include high-quality (or at least higher quality) reference checks in your personnel selection system.


Broken Personnel Selection

•October 12, 2010 • 5 Comments

As my gazillion readers will be the first to confirm, I am pretty tough on personnel selection systems currently employed by many organizations (3 = a gazillion, right?). My critiques are so consistent that I occasionally wonder if I am employing too negative an approach to these discussions and I also begin to worry that perhaps my own, less than positive, experiences have unfairly influenced my assessment of this business practice.

Thankfully, this latest post from HR Tests suggests I am not alone in my dim view of the most common selection practices. Also, it sets my mind that I have not yet lost my marbles, at least where professional matters are concerned. Here are a few highlights from the article, but I strongly encourage any HR professionals that accidentally wander onto my blog to read the original post.

1)      “Selection is typically terrible with good being the exception”

2)      “Most other employers don’t the skill to differentiate the good from the bad as both look the same when confronted with nearly identical glossy brochures and slick websites” Here the “other employers” refers to smaller organizations and those without the capacity to engage in large-scale validation studies.

3)      “Interviews alone are better than nothing but not much better – candidates are typically better at deceiving the interviewer than the interviewer is at revealing the candidate.”

4)      “The system we have right now can’t even be described as being broken. That implies it once worked or could be fixed. Though ideally we could do good selection, typically, it is next to useless, right up there with graphology, which about a fifth of professional recruiters still use during their selection process.”

5)      “Sales and marketing works, even if the product doesn’t.” referring to the sale of selection services.

6)      “The unstructured job interview has a lot of “truthiness” to it.” Referring to why people still use unstructured interviews. Bonus points to the author for using the term “truthiness.”

Seriously, go read the article. It is a fascinating read, assuming you are at all interested in personnel selection.

Engagement Research: Extensive Effort, Limited Insight

•September 1, 2010 • 2 Comments

Doing employee engagement research is hard. I did it for a little while and grew to understand that data collection and research design is much easier in academic settings where the lead researcher has significant control over most of the critical research parameters. Research by committee is the fastest road to an ulcer. However, the challenge of non-academic personnel research pales in comparison to the task of drawing meaningful conclusions from that data. And that’s the entire point of the whole thing, is it not?

The path to insight and meaningful interventions is littered with obstacles, none of which are insurmountable, daunting though they may seem. Doing so requires more courage, creativity and strategic thinking than organizational agents can afford to employ. I hope to talk about a few of these obstacles and potential solutions in future posts (promises, promises, I know), but for now I wish to highlight a discussion on this topic from the Engagement Factor blog.

Summarizing a bit, the author indicates that the types of studies we normally undertake in the engagement research industry have an unfortunate tendency of not being particularly informative (I may be taking some liberties here, so read the article yourself in the link above). Much of this research takes place within a single organization. In my own experience, limited as it may be, we do this because normally a single organization is paying the bills. Of course, it is also much easier to obtain data from single organizations. I have found clients can be very skittish of cross-organizational comparisons as these have the potential of generating less-than positive results. Apparently no one wants to be the bearer of bad news; quite frankly, I can’t blame them.

So how does this degrade the utility of expensive engagement research projects? If we study a single organization we are blind to the influence of higher-order organizational phenomena like executive leadership, performance management systems, compensation strategies, organizational culture and most of those variables described in organizational justice literature. Each of these critically important variables are shared by the organization as a whole (yes, we often see differences across departments and organizational units- that’s a related can of worms just waiting to be opened). We cannot find an effect for differences in downward communication practices, for example, because they are largely shared by the entire organization. In psychological/statistical/research parlance, there simply isn’t enough variance in the independent variables (one could think of it as range restriction, sadly I couldn’t find an accessible definition of this concept on the web. You’re just going to have to trust me). What we are left with then, is the impact that individual supervisors have on the engagement of their charges. That is about the only thing that is left to vary within an organization, so that’s where engagement research usually points.

So, how do we solve this issue? How do we design engagement research such that we can identify the impact of higher-order organizational features on the affect, cognitions and behavior of its employees? The answer lies not in improving your survey (though those often need a lot of work too). The answer lies not in the research instrument, but in the research design. For the purposes of this discussion, multi-organizational research is probably the best option. Though longitudinal research designs could help a bit, it is often difficult to isolate the effects of macroeconomic factors on employee attitudes. The key lies in multi-organizational research. In my time one of my previous employers, I became aware of at least two such industry specific data consortium (one for global manufacturers and another for a group of smaller financial institutions)and we tried to establish at least one more (I’m not sure how that went after I “left”). This is a fantastic first step. However, at the moment data-sharing tends to be too shallow to glean meaningful insights. Organizations tend to compare their survey results against collective benchmarks, rather than engaging in the type of statistical analysis required to determining if they are performing differently than the rest of the industry. While this is better than nothing in that it makes us feel like we are doing something, I am not confident that it actually is different from doing nothing at all (from a statistical perspective, of course).

It’s Not a Skills Deficit!

•July 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

That you have no idea what my skills are does not mean I have no skills.

Very little annoys me more than listening to a corporate suit bemoan the lack of skilled applicants for the hundreds of unfilled positions their company needs desperately to fill. Statements like this are usually followed by politicians and policy-makers talking about the need to funnel more public money into skills training programs.  Perhaps I should stop reading as many news articles as I have been, but I have become all too familiar with the sound of my own blood boiling.

Why does this get me riled up? People that are entrusted to solve our current economic/employment crisis do not seem to have a handle on the nature of the problem. As a result we are spending precious time and ever scarcer resources on solutions to the non-problems. Specifically, so far as I can tell, we have no skills deficit.

There, I said it. It is a bold, risky thing to say, particularly because any statement that bold and unequivocated tends to be wrong. Still, I said it. Why do I believe such a thing, when so many of my betters (the employed) seem to think otherwise? Well, that’s because I know a thing or two about the nature of skills, how they are developed and how generalizable they can be. When was the last time someone was not selected explicitly for a lack of skills? It happens less often than you think. Generally, when someone is not selected for a position, it is because they lack experience demonstrating said skills. And here is where decision-makers get it wrong: Experience is not the same as skills. Experience is a proxy for skills; they tend to go hand in hand, but they are not so intercorrelated that they are identical. Selection agents assume that if someone has experience performing a certain behavior, then they are skilled at said activity. This is generally a decent assumption, but it has a major flaw: The absence of employment-related experience does not indicate the absence of the skills. It simply denies selection agents an easy way of assessing said skill.

Among the reasons this confounding of concepts chaps my hide is that it is precisely this misunderstanding that keeps me and millions of other skilled individuals unemployed, even when there is a substantial demand for our skills. As a case in point, check out this post from the Official ASTD blog discussing how training initiatives have not solved the unemployment problem.

So let’s clarify:

1)      Employers have plenty of positions they are eager to fill

2)      Millions of people want jobs

3)      Unemployed individuals acquire said skills

4)      Unemployed remain unemployed

If you don’t believe the problem is that simple, then you haven’t heard that companies refuse to hire people that are currently unemployed. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that we are missing something?

The Solution

The way I see it, we have a bottleneck in the selection process. Selection agents are leaning too heavily on the “experience as skill” heuristic and it is hurting everyone, including shareholders. If someone acquires the skill that your organization needs, but has not been paid 5 consecutive years to perform that task they currently do not get hired. The company goes without and piles the work on to their existing workforce. Do you really need someone with 10 years experience for your entry level position? Have you performed a job analysis? Are your selection systems aligned with that job analysis? Do you really know what type of person you are looking for and are you hiring exclusively on that basis? If your answer to any of these is “I don’t know,” then you are contributing to the problem. To really know (as opposed to assume) whether someone has the particular skill, we need a skills test. And a resume is not a skills test, unless you are hiring someone to be a resume coach. Guess what we seldom see in the selection process? If you guessed skills tests, come claim your sad, sad prize.

In short, we do not actually know that Americans lack the skills employers need. In most cases, we are simply too lazy, cheap or ignorant to find out for sure. We are confident our ability to read a resume and job application will grant us the knowledge we need to make a good selection decision. Shouldn’t your organization make important financial decisions on objective, quantitative data, rather than all too flawed assumptions?

Here’s a challenge for you: Show me a skills deficit, any skills deficit and I will show

More Than One Path to Transparency:

•July 20, 2010 • 1 Comment

Do we ever really know what an organization is like before we settle into our cozy little cubes? Unless you know someone already living in your cube farm, chances are you have only those flashy recruitment materials to help form your pre-selection impressions. If you want something other than a glossy tri-fold before you sign your W-4, you are usually out of luck. I know that’s the way it has been for me. Until now, that is!

I recently learned (thanks Frank!) about, an online community devoted to the exchange of information about employers. Whether you are looking for an edge in salary negotiations, wondering what the interview process is like, or want to know what it’s really like to work there,’s anonymous users are helping us out.

I don’t know if this is the best service of its kind out there, but I don’t know of any others at the moment. What I can say, is that after browsing the website for a few minutes I can say it is not just a neat idea. is actually pretty useful and easy to navigate to boot. If you are currently in the market for a new job (and who isn’t these days), or have something important to share about your experiences in your particular coal mine, I encourage you all to give this a try. Just make sure to keep this under wraps- I suspect this will make it that much harder for organizations to control their employer brand.