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Human Capital
Data-Driven Science Detects "Softer" Talents
Human Capital

Data-Driven Science Detects "Softer" Talents

by Brandon Rigoni

The New York Times recently published a piece in its magazine titled Your Next Job Application Could Involve a Video Game. The article referenced the "Moneyball" concept, which has inspired efforts to predict performance in more objective ways in areas as diverse as professional baseball organizations on to human resource departments in other fields. The Times article conveyed how employee selection processes have become increasingly sophisticated and efficient with recent advancements in innovative workforce analytic technology. Unfortunately, the article fell short when it suggested that, "Human beings still beat computers at detecting these sorts of soft skills, like empathy." The truth is that data-driven science is superior to human intuition, even at detecting empathy, and a host of other "soft skills."

Scientists at Gallup over the past 40 years have perfected data-driven methods to determine which candidates possess the talent crucial to success in the workplace. These talents not only include being strategic, productive, and efficient, but also the potentially harder-to-detect traits such as empathy, positivity, and engendering harmony in a work place. Yet a notion does persist that only human beings are able to intuitively determine these softer traits. Where does this idea come from?

Think about this -- many of us have said to ourselves or others with some confidence, "I can tell that she is going to be a really great mother," or, "I just know that he won't last two weeks in that demanding job." We cling to the notion that we can intuitively perceive defining characteristics of a person that predict success in a given area. Having spent the last 10 years working in college football, I can tell you this: No matter how many five-star recruits went bust, and no matter how many undersized, un-athletic walk-ons persevered to thrive, our coaching staff continued to believe that we could accurately spot talent and consistently predict which prospects would go on to accomplish greatness. We couldn't. We were right as often as we were wrong. Time after time, we were just certain that a recruit would come in and be the next great contributor to our program, only to watch him fizzle out after a couple of seasons -- often as a result of a lack of focus and discipline, rather than physical limitations.

Mainstream media and pop culture encourage people to be overconfident in their intuitions. This was the key takeaway for many of the millions of people who read Malcolm Gladwell's acclaimed book Blink. Gladwell cites examples of experts who were able to tap into their fine-tuned adaptive unconscious to recognize things that critical thinkers with an overabundance of data could not detect. This sort of subjective judgment is pervasive in our culture. We watch judges on American Idol to make in-the-moment decisions about who has what it takes to be a star, convinced that the best performers in the music industry can spot the talent it takes to be successful in others. But, how much do they really know based on intuition?

Apparently, not all that much. It turns out that our intuition often fails us, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman raised awareness of humans' potential fallibility when making quick, snap judgments and the cognitive biases to which we are all susceptible. We fall victim to anchoring effects when we over-pay for a pair of shoes that's on sale just because the list price was artificially inflated, and it seems like a great deal. We are also susceptible to the availability heuristic, which occurs when we make judgments about the likelihood of events occurring depending on how easily we can recall similar examples. A grim example of this would be to overestimate the likelihood of a school shooting occurring, because of the ease with which we can remember such events.

A meta-analysis conducted by Harter, Hayes, and Schmidt (2004) evaluated the effectiveness of Gallup's scientifically developed interview instruments. It revealed a positive and generalizable predictive validity across various business criterion outcomes, including performance, retention, absenteeism, and other financial metrics. These results held even as "softer" talents were evaluated. An empirical approach to the study of empathy, as it relates to success in a particular role, is superior to an interviewer's subjective judgment about whether or not a prospective candidate possesses that trait. Scientifically developed, structured interviews offer increased predictive validity over and above that of unstructured interviews and subjective judgments.

The New York Times article is correct in suggesting that scientific pre-employment assessments outperform hiring managers' gut reactions. But to be maximally effective, organizations must recognize that an empirical approach is superior in all respects, even as it pertains to the "softer" qualities of a person. It is arguably more important to objectively measure psychological constructs, like empathy, because we may be even more vulnerable to inflated perceptions of our own ability to intuitively evaluate such qualities. If an organization desires to grow, then they must make hiring decisions based on a scientific process all of the time.

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