Looking for Friends in all the Wrong Places

One of my dearest friends interviewed me for a job I didn’t take. She was a stranger to me then, and I was applying for a job as an entry-level program administrator in her department. She was to test out my Russian and see if I would be a good fit for the job. We were about the same age, had similar interests, went to similar colleges, and grew up not far from each other. We instantly knew we should be friends. I forget how it all happened, but I guess I needed a friend more than I needed a job, because after coffee together the next day I had one and not the other. It worked out fine.

It’s probably good that position didn’t work out, because an instant connection is a poor way to decide on a new co-worker. We do it all the time anyway. Sometimes we do it on purpose, thinking about “fit,” and how someone will mesh with an established team. Sometimes we aren’t aware of doing it, thinking we are making decisions on the merits of someone’s skills and knowledge. The New York Times had a piece recently titled The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews describing how interviews actually negatively impact one’s ability to pick the objectively best candidate. Instead of using data, people made assumptions about candidates based on what they thought they knew about them after an interview. People chose the best candidate with their gut, not their brain. The article describes how, when confronted with this information, people still preferred to do interviews despite evidence that it produced worse results. And I understand: it is hard to imagine picking someone to work with day in and day out without ever having looked them in the eye.

A key bit of information in that article that gives me hope for our ability to use interviews effectively is that the authors assumed companies are using free-form, get-to-know-you interviews, not structured, skills-based discussions with a standard question list for all candidates. Using the same questions for all candidates and comparing their responses is a good way to be sure you are using your brain, and not your gut, to make staffing decisions.

Most of us value diversity in the workplace intellectually, knowing that it makes our teams and our organizations smarter and wiser. That is knowledge housed in the brain. The gut has a different way of judging people, and generally the gut likes people like ourselves. Our gut can be suspicious of people who make us feel out of our comfort zone, out of our depth, out of ourselves. And yet, when I am looking at bringing someone onto my team, do I really want another me? Another person who knows what I know, feels what I feel, understands what I understand? Not really. I need someone who knows things I don’t, feels in ways I can’t, and understands the things that are beyond me. Those people are unlikely to be similar to me, and so my gut may not immediately warm to them. It may be harder for me to find commonalities, to build rapport, to have empathy, and so I may shy away from bringing them onto my team. That is my gut. My brain knows, though, that when I am looking for co-workers I would do better to look for someone who doesn’t feel quite so familiar, who doesn’t look at the world from the exact same vantage point. How my quaking, comfort-seeking gut feels about that is entirely beside the point.

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