Should You Hire A Neurotic Tortoise? 6 Thoughts on Talent from Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell needs very little introduction. As a staff writer at The New Yorker for 21 years and the bestselling author of Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, his work is known to millions around the globe.

Gladwell’s speciality is combining research with unexpected insights. He regularly dives deep into data and sources of information to uncover new ways of looking at things. With this skill set, you’d expect he would have interesting things to say about hiring and HR and he does.

Recently, Gladwell joined us in Austin at Indeed Interactive to talk about the Human Side of Hiring. Below, we’ve rounded up six of the most thought-provoking quotes from his keynote presentation. Dive in!

1. On mistakes commonly made in hiring

One of the big issues we have when it comes to selecting people for jobs, particularly important jobs, is that our fallback position is to be intolerant of human difference. Basically we want to default to a very narrow and strict definition of what we’re looking for. We want to act on the assumption that human talent come in some very predictable form.

2. On fellow New Yorker writer Sheelah Kolhatkar’s tendency to move slowly and how this trait is misunderstood

The most crucial thing about her is how slowly she moves. The effect of her conscientiousness and her neuroticism and all of her worrying means she’s someone who takes a while to do her job… she’s a tortoise! More than that, she’s a neurotic tortoise. And I think that all of us would agree that there are many jobs out there in the world for which being a neurotic tortoise is a really really good thing.

Here’s my question: Do we design hiring and evaluation systems that reward the neurotic tortoise, or that discriminate against the neurotic tortoise? I think the answer is obvious: We discriminate against neurotic tortoises.

3. On speed tests vs. power tests, and why the distinction matters

There’s a distinction that psychometricians make between speed and power in testing. A speed test is where all the questions are easy: what I want to know is how many you can do in a specific period of time.

Power tests are tests with really hard questions. I’m not interested in how quickly you do them, I’m interested in how many you get correct. And the reason that we separate power and speed is that they are really quite different.

There’s a little bit of overlap, but basically you can be really good at power tests but lousy at speed. In fact, there’s a study that suggests that people who are good at power are slow by definition — or you could be very good at speed but lousy at power.

4. On the model profession of the 21st century

Teachers are super interesting as a kind of proxy for thinking about hiring decisions, because the profession is so similar to the kinds of professions we are creating in the modern world. You need to have great leadership skills, social skills, you must be adaptable, must have great cognitive skills, you must be constantly be learning new bodies of knowledge. It’s really a model kind of profession for the 21st century.


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