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When It Comes to Reading People, Your Gut May Be Lying to You

By Gabby Burlacu, Ph.D.

We’ve all met a business leader who believes he or she can “read people”. Perhaps you’ve been one yourself. In many ways this is not surprising—the very same insight, intuition and vision that allows you to determine a person’s potential is what led you to become a leader in the first place. This is why the most forward-thinking companies involve leaders and incumbents in hiring and promotion processes—no one knows better than you the kind of person who can do your level of work.

There is a big problem with this approach, and it’s this: your gut feel isn’t even close to accurate. Research suggests that our ability to read people is a whole lot more related to whether we find them likeable, or more to the point, similar to us and our implicit ideals, than it is to being able to determine true talent. When we are business leaders deciding who should join our ranks, we think first of whether the person in question is like us. Then whether they are like other leaders we know and admire. And finally, we compare. We don’t do this intentionally or with any effort—this happens in less than a second, less than a blink of an eye—and yet now our impressions of the person in front of us are impacted, and our decisions influenced. The “perfect candidate” often won’t end up being the best person for the role in question (unless by lucky coincidence). They will end up being the person who most closely matches your conceptualization of what the perfect candidate should be like—how they should look, how they should talk, and other characteristics that you are probably now recognizing as being completely irrelevant to job performance and success.

We cannot train this tendency away, although we’ve certainly tried. Among other possible outcomes, prompting people to avoid bias may lead them down a path of overthinking. If I am over-anxious about my tendency not to recognize women as potential leaders, I will make a concerted effort to only recognize women. And this is just as unlikely to result in my selecting the best person for the role.

As business leaders we want (or more accurately, we need) to get the best talent. But what can we do, given our predisposition to focus on stuff that doesn’t matter? In simple terms, we don’t have to do this alone. Advances in technology and recruitment tools that provide us with data and support our decision-making processes don’t just allow us to keep pace with digital leaders—they allow us to add to our knowledge and understanding of the factors that determine whether someone will be a good fit for a role. Truly accurate, unbiased decisions around talent will be the norm when we realize we no longer need to rely on our gut feel. We have a partner who is up to the challenge of bringing together data, insights and information to aid us in ensuring we are recognizing and capturing the best.

About the Author

Gabriela (Gabby) Burlacu, Ph. D.
Solution Management Lead, UX and Mobile - Solution Management Team

Dr. Gabriela (Gabby) Burlacu leads Solution Management for the User Experience and Mobile applications of SAP SuccessFactors technology. She is an SAP thought leader that has conducted extensive research on effective performance management methods, the increasingly diverse workforce, and the aspects of HCM technology that enable transformational change for organizations.

About SAP HR Research

Our research team advances the art and science of Human Capital Management by studying the relationship between technology, workforce psychology, and business performance. Our researchers and psychologists uncover trends to keep you on the cutting-edge of technology and thought leadership – and help shape the design of SAP SuccessFactors HCM software.

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