I would like to provide you with a typical example to help illustrate my point.
Recently, I received a call from a human resource representative (rep) of a Canadian organization regarding CAES possibly providing assessment work to help in their hiring process. The organization has been around for a few years, and therefore had moved from surviving the ‘startup phase’ to now experiencing growth pains. The issue that they were grappling with was their ongoing hiring of poor performers in one specific (and important) director role. Apparently, they had hired a few people who did not perform.
So the rep, or someone else in the organization, had decided that they “needed to create a standardized technical assessment to ensure that whomever they hired could do the job”, and could CAES develop one for them? When I asked why they did not get an internal technical expert to draft something up, I was a little surprised to hear that there was no internal person who had the capability. I told him that I had never really needed to set up a technical questionnaire despite my repeated work in some technical disciplines. But, because CAES has developed and administered a number of non-technical assessments (we do help clients to assess candidate capability as one of our services), in addition to technical evaluation in the screening and interviewing process, I was open to discussing it.
We then engaged in a long conversation where I tried to understand more about the prospect’s issue. While I listened it became evident that the HR representative was trying his best, but he really did not know what they were actually missing in technical capability and, more importantly, they had not defined the performance results that they wanted to experience. He felt that “The incumbent(s) just could not do the job”, due to their lack of technical competence despite the fact that technical evaluation was their major focus in their interviewing process. It seemed to me that he was essentially ‘feeling around in the dark’ for a solution.
In our discussion, I did raise a number of points that hopefully got him thinking. I tried to be straightforward in my comments; “Any truly effective technical questionnaire, which is tailored to your specific organization’s role, will be expensive – people usually do this for lower-level screening not high-level, and hopefully rare, specific hires”, and my questioning “Why would you need a standardized technical questionnaire to be used over again. Why not just focus on hiring the right person, who will perform and stay, in the first place?”
And then I heard, as I have too many times over the years, a variation on the old familiar; “We are already doing that”.
The rep was convinced that the current HR team was ‘functioning very well’, they were ‘good at non-technical assessment’, and they were ‘good at recruiting’. After all, they had found a number of directors, and even hired a few of them! Based on the actual results, I was not so sure about how good they were. He was determined that the only thing that they needed, the only solution to their problem, was to acquire a technical test. The rep just did not know what this test would be, what it would specifically accomplish, or where he would find it. In effect he was looking for a fast and easy solution to a very complex evaluative problem. And although there was potential for CAES to be involved, I had become uncomfortable with his lack of understanding and flexibility. So I suggested that he talk to additional potential technical assessment providers, while giving me time to think it over, and we decided to leave the door open for future conversations.
After reflection, I emailed him the next day with what I believed to be the best solution based on my experience. Contrary to what some salespeople may believe, “give the client what they ask for”, and despite the fact that I could have developed some form of technical assessment, I had to give them my honest opinion. They needed to find a better way to hire the right person, who would perform and stay, rather than ‘prop up’ an already flawed process with an ‘ongoing’ solution that will most likely not provide the end results that they wanted. From our discussion, I could see that he was very vulnerable to being ‘sold’ an ineffective solution by someone who would give him what he wants to hear rather than what he actually needs. As often is the case, the ‘customer’ is not always right, and I felt that it was my responsibility as a professional to caution him about being ‘sold’ the wrong solution. But in the end the final decision is always up to the client to do what they think is best.
By not having an overall focus on performance results a number of things happened:
- the organization failed to go far enough in defining the specific results that were expected from the director’s position,
- they did not fully understand the limited performance capability of their HR within this project,
- they struggled to accurately assess why they were not getting the results they need, and
- because they were unable to identify the root cause of the problem, they had trouble finding the right
The rep was convinced that their current HR people were doing a good job. But from a performance perspective, HR was not fulfilling their mandate of hiring the person who would perform in the director’s role, and they failed at this more than once. Sure they brought in resumes, contacted ‘close’ candidates and helped to make hiring decisions, but the reason that they failed was that the real desired end result, director performance, was never satisfied. If their HR were actually good enough at recruiting, the rep and I would not have been talking.
Rather than evaluate HR’s real capability based on their performance results, the rep instead ‘settled’ on a solution (technical test) that would, despite his intentions, not functionally enhance HR’s capability. At best, it would really only add more information into an inadequate hiring process. Possibly they had fallen prey to the common erroneous thinking that, ‘because you are good at one thing you are good at everything’, which resulted in their wanting to apply ‘known’ activities to a wide variety of circumstances. I have no doubt that the HR team are fine at hiring the lower level (lower impact) staff, but their lower level methodology obviously did not work at all levels. And when it didn’t, their thinking regarding the potential solution was limited to what they were most familiar with. Technical testing was more likely to work at the higher-volume, lower staff levels, but it would not directly translate to a higher-level director’s role.
That said, I will give him (them) credit. At least he was trying to find a different approach to solving the problem. And this is wonderful compared to the typical “we do it this way because it is the only way we know, and everyone else does it this way, despite the fact that it is not that effective” thinking that you see with the great majority of organizations. The problem was, despite being open to alternatives, they struggled to find the most appropriate solution because they did not accurately determine the problem’s root cause.
A cognitive mismatch just may be the root cause to the problem – on many levels
After our conversation, I looked at the organization’s web page and I determined who the current incumbent was. While I did not have full access in order to interview and evaluate his capabilities, by reviewing his profile and past experience I could see how his experience and technical training could be seen as appropriate for the role, despite the fact that the rep identified a lack of technical capability as the problem. But upon further consideration, it became apparent to me that very possibly there was a cognitive capability mismatch between the requirements of the director’s role and that of the people they had hired to assume it.
Cognitive capability refers to how a person handles information complexity,
their ability to recognize interrelated patterns in unrelated information, and
their ability to evaluate and organize this complex information into a series of effective actions.
In my work I believe that there has to be a match between the person’s skills and both the technical and non-technical requirements of their role, manager, team and organizational culture in order for performance to be experienced and sustained. Both are essential. That said, I also know that, if a person does not have the cognitive capability that is required for their respective role, they simply won’t perform to expectations despite there being a match with other technical and non-technical requirements. In our example, it is very likely that the organization had been selecting directors who did have suitable technical education and some relevant experience, but their hires did not have the cognitive capability to handle the complexities of this specific role. Since a cognitive mismatch is THE major contributor to poor performance, at any level, when you don’t pay attention to it your hiring process starts to rely on luck.
Despite the rep’s opinion that a technical test was the solution for hiring decision-makers to be comfortable that a selected candidate will perform in the role, he’s wrong. And even if he were aware of the need to evaluate cognitive capability, NO technical test will tell you if suitable cognitive capability levels are present. Cognitive capability is NOT a technical skill, it’s a non-technical skill. You can’t teach it, nor can you develop it. The required capability is either there or it isn’t. So despite the rep’s insistence that their HR was good at non-technical evaluation, because they don’t understand the critical importance of non-technical cognitive capability, they aren’t. The proof is in the lack of hiring and performance results.
As well, it is because HR did not have the cognitive capability to understand the complexity of the director’s role that they therefore could not understand what was needed to successfully perform in the role. Nor could they successfully evaluate whether their candidates were capable or not. Further, the HR rep was well beyond his own capability when he was required to fully understand the root cause of the problem, and then to come up with the most effective solutions to resolve it. So in this example, almost everyone’s capability is mismatched to their responsibility and, as a result, everyone’s performance has suffered. We could say that, while the organization had grown out of ‘start up’ phase, the capability of the people involved had not grown as well. At least not enough to cope with the subsequent more complex responsibilities that came with this project. If I were the organization’s CEO, I would be worried.
The moral of our story - everything gets better when you focus on performance
Some key points:
- Always first fully define the desired performance results that you want to experience within given time frames
- Don’t justify poor results or blame circumstances when your desired results do not occur – adapt (Perhaps read Change and the New Economy)
- Make sure that your delegates have all the tools to be successful and then hold them accountable for performance (Perhaps read The Cost of Poor Accountability)
- If what you are doing is not working, absolutely do something different. But make sure that what you do is focused on satisfying your desired performance results
- Remember that nobody is good at everything – experiencing poor results will remind you to find internal or external resources who are good at what you need
- Always make sure that a person has the cognitive capability to do their work
Despite what you may think, I am really not ‘picking’ on these people – they are actually farther ahead than many. I simply want to provide an example of how easy it can be to miss what should be our real focus, performance results, and sometimes sharing examples can help other people to evaluate their own performance or that of their department or organization. I see poor performance justification, and the resultant acceptance of poor performing leaders, managers and staff, ineffective hiring and evaluation practices, the lack of effective capability development etc. etc., the great majority of the time. Poor performance, when combined with low accountability, enables people to accept substandard performance as the ‘new normal’. And even when they do want to do something about it, lack of accountability permits them to fall back onto fast, cheap, simple, low effort solutions that really only provide higher long-term costs and support continual disappointing results. We need to remember that; in the end, you get what you pay for.
The only way that you will overcome poor performance justification is if you acknowledge that your expected results are not being achieved and then you do something about it. Whether you are an organizational leader, a business owner, a manager, or a competitive career seeker, you need to identify your desirable results, and then focus on your real performance, if you want to experience your defined success. If you are not getting what you want, take a hard look at your performance and the performance of the people around you. Unsatisfactory results will only change when you identify the real cause and then you do something about it. You will never lose when you enhance performance, because it will automatically distinguish you from the vast majority of people, and organizations, who don’t. By focusing on performance results you will be more innovative, grow organizations, increase employment, attract and retain skill, and create more career opportunities.
Think of their poor performance as your opportunity
If everyone was doing everything right
there would be no opportunity