How to recruit with softer skills in mind

Soft skills matter to employers. Writing in the Harvard Business Reviews last year, Raffaella Sadun of Harvard Business School and her co-authors analyzed almost 5,000 job descriptions that Russell Reynolds, a headhunter, had developed for a variety of C-suite roles between 2000 and 2017. Their work showed that companies have shifted away from emphasizing financial and operational skills towards social skills—an ability to listen, reflect, communicate and empathize. Other research has reached similar conclusions about jobs lower down the pay scale: being able to work well with people is seen not as some fluffy bonus but as a vital attribute.

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The trouble is that soft skills are hard to measure. Worse still, the conventional process for recruiting people is often better at picking up on other qualities. The early phases of recruitment focus on filtering candidates based on their experience and hard skills, since these are the criteria that are easiest to assess at a distance. Putting the words “team player” on a cover letter or a cv is proof of nothing save unoriginality. Smiling a lot at a camera for a taped video message demonstrates mainly that you can smile a lot at a camera. Self-reported empathy questionnaires sometimes seem to be testing for species-level traits (if you agree that “In emergency situations I feel apprehensive and ill at ease”, many congratulations: you are a human being).

The later phases of recruitment, when candidates and employers meet each other and engage in actual conversations, are better suited to assessing an applicant’s softer skills. But even then, think of how fundamentally unsocial the situation is. Candidates are expected to talk, not listen; to impress, not empathize. Firms are feted for asking interviewees oh-so-clever Fermi questions like “How many piano tuners are there in Guangdong?” or “How many cinnamon swirls would it take to fill the Reichstag?” Structured interview scripts enable like-for-like comparisons but they also squeeze the space for spontaneity. No wonder Professor Sadun et al reckon that hiring processes need to get a lot better at winkling out social skills.

Research is finding some shortcuts for identifying softer skills. Two recent studies of what makes for a good team member converge on what might be described as an ability to read the room. They also suggest ways to test for this trait.

Research by Siyu Yu of Rice University and her co-authors found that people who can accurately gauge which members of a team wield influence are in possession of a magic power they call “status acuity”. Such room readers reduce group conflict and improve team performance. As part of their study they devised a test, in which participants watched a video of a group performing a task. The participants then rated members of the group based on how much esteem each was held in. People whose ratings were closest to the assessments of the team members themselves had the quality of acuity status.

In another study, Ben Weidman and David Deming of Harvard University also found that certain individuals consistently made their groups perform better than expected. Such people, they argued, are genuine team players, capable of making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. These wonderful creatures did not stand out from their peers on IQ or personality tests. But they did significantly better on the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, a standardized assessment in which participants were shown pictures of various facial expressions and then had to pick the word that best describes what each person is feeling.

Better tests are not the only way to elicit more information about social skills. Don’t just have people higher up the food chain ask interview questions: it’s good to see how applicants get on with a range of colleagues. Ask the people who interact casually with the applicants, from the assistants who arrange appointments to the receptionists on the day, what they think of them. Find out what genuinely worries candidates about the job: lots of research suggests that humility is associated with better performance.

Hiring for soft skills will spawn new risks. They are squishier than technical skills, which may make it easier for people to fake them way through the process. And there may be more room for interviewers’ biases to creep in. Finding someone irritating may be a signal that someone lacks social skills. But that may also mean that they are nervous, that you are grumpy or that the two of you are not that alike. Recruitment is set to change. It is not going to get any easier.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
A short guide to corporate rituals (May 4th)
If enough people think you’re a bad boss, then you are (Apr 23rd)
What makes a good office perk? (Apr 20th)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

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