Photo from KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images.
What's Behind Door #2
Of all the things that I look for in people when hiring—for the matter in anyone I choose to build a relationship with—there is one that is without doubt the most important. It is the rock solid foundation on which all trust is built and the superglue that ties together people and organizations, or, in its absence, destroys them. I am going to share it with you, but first let's play a little mind game to set the stage.
You're in a nondescript room with two doors. One leads to heaven and one leads to hell. In front of each door is an identical twin. There is no way to tell them apart. One always lies and one always tells the truth. You do not know which is which. What single question could you ask either one to lead you to heaven's door?
Hold that thought, we'll come back to it. But before I divulge the answer, and share what the one quality is, I'd like to ask you to think of the worst hires that you've made. Or for that matter the worst people you've ever had to associate with. What was the one quality that they shared which made the relationship so awful or challenging?
You may be coming up with myriad reasons, but I'll bet that the root cause had to do with their inability to see the impact of their actions on others clearly.
You've probably tried to work with these people to help them better understand their behaviors or the impact they have on others. And each time you've hit a wall. Try as you may you just couldn't get them to see the repercussions of their behaviors objectively. Not to be overly harsh, but in a word they seemed oblivious.
I recall an exceptionally talented sales person I hired years ago . They came across with polish, poise, and an abundance of confidence. And they had an apparent track record of success. Yet, it soon became obvious that they were absolutely horrid when it came to building trust. They would tell you what you wanted to hear, but their actions didn't follow suit.
At first I turned a blind eye towards it because they did perform. Meeting quota wasn't the issue. The issue was that there was an ongoing undercurrent of small deceptions and sometimes outright lies that made it increasingly difficult to trust them. The best way to characterize it was that they were the kind of person for whom you had to constantly try to reconcile what they said with what they did. I affectionately call it a "WTF personality disorder" because there's virtually no way to make sense of it
Sure enough when I finally fired this individual one of the first things they did was to send an exceptionally bitter and toxic email to everyone in the company. To the credit of the extraordinary team we had built, most people responded to the email with a simple reply saying either "get lost" or "you're blocked."
I spent countless hours trying to figure out why it was that I had so misjudged them. How could I not see how toxic and untrustworthy this person was? After I was done blaming myself it finally dawned on me that I had hired a pathologic liar who had no problem using others to serve their selfish desire for success. In short, only they mattered and every means to their success was fair game no matter the toll it took on others. That may work if your fighting the enemy, but the enemy is not the person in the next cubicle!
What they lacked was that most important quality that you need to look for in every hire, empathy.
Their every toxic behavior stemmed back to that simple truth that they did not have the ability to feel for others. The insecurities this person harbored were so deep and so consuming that they were driven by a fundamental fear which made it impossible to step outside of themselves and see the world through someone else's eyes.
Empathy is not weakness, it is the courage to suspend your own ego long enough to really understand someone else's opinion.
It's An Interview, Not A Rehab Clinic
I've since come to realize that empathy is perhaps the most critical of all human emotions. It is what ties us together as partners, teams, organizations, and to our customers. It is the ability to suspend our own interests, opinions, and convictions momentarily and listen long enough to feel what someone else is feeling; to truly understand their interests, opinions, and convictions. None of us are perfect at that but some people simply lack the capacity, ability, or interest. I'm sure these people have some old and deep scars that account for their lack of empathy, but I'm not a therapist and my role (and yours) isn't to run a rehab clinic, but to choose people who will add value and integrity to your company.
So, how do you interview for empathy? Well, the good news is that you can. But first let me tell you how you don't.
The interview techniques most of us use will never surface a lack of empathy. The reason is that virtually every question we are accustomed to asking is about how the person feels about themselves. It's an ego-centric approach to understanding the person's opinion of themselves. If you talk to a narcissist, which is the supreme form of a person who lacks empathy, you will get outstanding responses. Everything they say will be exactly what you need to hear to be confident in his or her ability to do the job. In fact, narcissist are the Oscar nominees for Most Charming and Convincing. So, you really need to get beyond the veneer. Here's how.
An Out Of Body Experience
To get at a person's inherent ability to express empathy you need to get them to step outside of themselves. The way to do that is to ask them how they would respond if they were someone else observing or reacting to their actions or behaviors. The empathetic person will never get frustrated by this line of questioning, in fact they will welcome it because so much of their self worth comes from understanding others. On the other hand, someone who lacks empathy will get increasingly agitated if you pursue this course of interviewing.
For example, rather than ask "What's your greatest accomplishment" try "What would coworkers in your last position say was your greatest accomplishment?" Instead of "What's your greatest weakness" try "What would coworkers in your last position say was your greatest weakness?" While the answers to these questions are insightful, what you're looking for is the person's level of comfort and engagement with the questions. Do they really try to get into their coworkers heads? Do they value that skill? is it a core part of the way they interact with others, how they manage and lead? Do they even use the term empathy?
Don't preface any of this by telling the person you're interviewing why the questions are being asked, just keep plodding away as if it's perfectly normal. After a steady barrage of these sorts of questions I'd suggest you try a few of the questions from this quiz that Berkeley created to establish someone's degree of empathy.
It won't take long to figure out if the person you're interviewing does in fact have a capacity and a competency for empathy.
Keep in mind that none of this is suggesting you look for people who do not hold strong opinions or who lack a backbone and confidence. But these qualities are not in opposition to empathy; it's not zero sum! If you expect to hire leaders and team players who will build long term trust and committed teams then you need to hire people who have the capacity to listen to and feel for others.
Empathy is also not about telling people what they want to hear. Every leader has to make a steady stream of unpopular decisions, and that's exactly why empathy is critical. Empathy actually increases trust as well as the honesty and the integrity of communications. Its lack undermines all three by discounting the role others play, and their opinions, in a decision making process that involves their lives and livelihoods.
The bottom line is that seeing ourselves clearly and objectively is a journey the begins by understanding how our actions and behaviors impact others.
So, back to our nondescript room, Have you figured out the solution? Do you see a tie to the importance of stepping outside of yourself? The only correct answer is to say to either twin, "If I were to ask your twin which door leads to heaven, what would they say?" Then just take the opposite door!
Okay, granted, it's not as easy in an interview! Still, I can assure you that if you hire people who have the ability to step outside of themselves and to express empathy, while making even the toughest decisions, you will build an organization that has a rock solid foundation for success.