Humility Being Sought in New Hires

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”

— Lyrics from “It’s Hard to Be Humble” by Mac Davis

I was reminded of this song when I read an article in Fast Company about the hiring practices of Google. The title of the article is “Why Google Wants New Hires Who are Humble and Argue.”

Google has been notorious for its quirky hiring processes and interview questions that included questions like “How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?” and “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?”

Over the years, Google has gone back to evaluate how well their hiring practices worked in determining the success of its employees. Turns out, not so well.

In 2009, Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, wrote in his book, Coders at Work, “One of the interesting things we’ve found, when trying to predict how well somebody we’ve hired is going to perform when we evaluate them a year or two later, is one of the best indicators of success within the company was getting the worst possible score on one of your interviews. We rank people from one to four, and if you got a one on one of your interviews, that was a really good indicator of success.”

In 2013, Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Block told the New York Times that they found those famous brainteasers they had been using as part of the hiring process were a complete waste of time. “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

Academic performance and GPAs had been stressed, even for hires in the 30s and older. The company admitted that their research found that after two to three years, academic performance and grades were unrelated to performance.

So what is Google looking for now? In addition to technical expertise, leadership and ownership, the company sets a high priority on humility.

“Without humility, you are unable to learn,” said Laszlo Bock, again in an interview with the New York Times for the article “How to Get a Job at Google.” They have found that the most successful people at Google are those who are willing to argue for their point of view, but when they learn a new fact or hear an opposing view, are able to be persuaded. “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time,” Bock said.

Other people have recognized that humble people make the best and most successful employees. Michael Hyatt, a former CEO and New York Times best-selling author wrote in the article “What Should You Look for in the People You Hire” that he has a standard formula for when he is recruiting people: “H3S.” Two of these qualities are being honest and being hungry. By that he means someone who is always setting goals and wishes to exceed expectations. The third quality is being humble.

“A humble person is open to correction and not defensive. He is quick to admit mistakes and apologize … He is conscious of the contributions others have made to his life, his projects, and his career. He is quick to give credit to them and express sincere gratitude,” he wrote.

I’m glad to hear Google has come around to what is really an old-fashioned way of hiring — finding people who are willing to listen to others and learn from them.

Testing Just One Part of Hiring Process

I’ve taken a few personality tests. One was on how I negotiate and I thought the results didn’t really reflect how I go through that process. But everyone else thought the test had totally pegged me. When I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator it pretty much nailed my personality.

I thought about these tests when I read a discussion on on the percentage of companies that use some sort of tests during the hiring process. Nearly 20 percent of employers use personality tests in the hiring or promotion process, according to a survey done in 2011 by the Society for Human Resource Management of 495 human resource managers.

When you get to hiring for and promoting into top positions, the amount of testing and assessments of candidates understandably goes way up. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Employers Put Executive Job Candidates to the Test,” 72 percent of the 516 companies polled used assessments to make decisions on promoting executives, more than double three years ago.

These assessments can include psychological interviews, role-playing and simulations. For example, candidates may be told to pretend they are dealing with a frustrated customer who starts yelling at them.

Not surprisingly, Google has identified the qualities and skills it desires in people who fill their top positions and has created an algorithm to predict each candidate’s success.

While I do think these tests have some validity, I believe they should be treated as just one indicator of whether a person can handle a high-level position. Testing should be just part of the process.

A key part of the process for me is just spending time with the person and getting to know him or her. After being in the turnaround business for more than 30 years, I’ve done a lot of hiring and firing. Luckily, one of the skills I’ve developed along the way is the ability to read people, a skill that is useful in just about every area of life.

It’s a skill that the legendary coach Bear Bryant had, according to people who worked with him. Bruce Arians, the Cardinals head coach, was his assistant for two years and called him “a master of personnel, of people.” It’s undoubtedly one of the skills that helped him win 323 games as coach of the University of Alabama football team.

(I also adhere to one of his hiring policies. “I don’t hire anybody not brighter than I am,” he said. “If they’re not smarter than me, I don’t need them.”)

If you want to improve your ability to read people and learn more about them than what they are telling you, here are a few questions to ask from an article by Anthony K. Tjan on the Harvard Business Review blog, “Becoming a Better Judge of People.”

• How does this person treat someone he doesn’t know? If you meet in an office, how did he treat the receptionist? If you go out to a meal, is she polite to the waiter?

• Does the person feel authentic? Did your BS detector go off at any time? Are they trying too hard?

• Is this person an energy-giver or taker? We’ve all known people that give off a negative energy. Does this person have a positive view of the word or tend to react negatively?

And one of the most important questions to consider: Is this person self-aware? A good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses is key to being a good leader.

Testing candidates can tell you a lot about their qualities, skills and values. But spending time with them and observing how they behave can tell you even more.