HR’s Biggest Enemy Is Not What You Think

Topics: HRExaminer, by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

As psychologists, the first question we are asked when someone finds out what we do is “are you analyzing me?”.  However, decades of scientific research show that you don’t have to be a psychologist to analyze other people. In fact, people of all backgrounds make intuitive interpretations of others’ behaviors in order to find out what they want, what they are like, and what they are likely to do.

In other words, we are all amateur psychologists.

Unsurprisingly, this has big implications for HR, in particular talent management. Any decision about people – e.g., selection, promotion, development, and retention – must be preceded by a judgment of their character, potential, and value. And despite the wide range of robust tools to enhance the accuracy of such judgments, most HR practitioners play it by ear. For example, academic research has shown that people prefer to trust their own intuition than scientifically defensible assessment methods. Thus when asked how they go about identifying
“high-potential” – whether an employee is likely to become an effective leader – the most common answer is “you just know it when you see it”. Likewise despite clear evidence that typical job interviews result in hiring biases most interviewers see themselves as fair and unbiased.

For sure, it would be unfair to imply that a disproportionate reliance on intuition is only a problem in HR. However, the temptation to trust one’s instincts is always stronger when the judgments concern people. This is the main problem with talent management: most people are interested in it, but largely because they believe they are experts on it. Compared to other fields of enquiry, such as quantum physics or organic chemistry, talent management feels intuitive. After all, it is about people and most of us spend a great deal of time interacting with people – ergo we must all be experts.

However, there is a science to understanding and predicting human behavior, just like there is a science to quantum physics and organic chemistry.

For all the talks of predictive analytics or a big data revolution in HR, we have yet to see clear examples of organizations that are truly replacing human inferences with machine-driven decisions. Nobody has yet fully eliminated subjectivity from talent-related decisions, even when the added value of human inferences is mostly confined to biases or politics. You can give people driverless cars but it is hard to convince them that they increase their safety. Most people feel safer when they are in control, even though you only need one human driver to create an accident in a world of driverless cars. Of course, people may happily accept the possibility that driverless cars drive better than other people – but not themselves.

HR is a world of shiny new objects. New buzzwords and fads emerge almost on a daily basis, and a great deal of interest is devoted to ideas and tools just because they are novel. However, the big leap in HR would come if most practitioners could effectively implement the key recommendations from the past five decades of science in the field. That is, paying attention to the academic literature in management, organizational psychology, and economics to get the basics right. While experience seems useful, it is often the main driver of overconfident and inept decisions. Intuition is fueled by experience, but expertise is needed to make our intuition more data-driven. Equally, science provides a process and method for HR practitioners to combat other people’s intuitions, most notably managers and leaders.

In short, the biggest enemy of HR is its own intuition: feeling knowledgeable in the absence of actual knowledge. The only antidote to this is the humility to understand its limitations, and the curiosity to learn and develop true expertise. Clearly, many HR practitioners show a healthy tendency to engage in these behaviors and are driving effective talent management strategies as a result. But they are far from the norm, and they have yet to figure out a way to sterilize most of their decisions. Intuition should be the last resource, not the first.

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