A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to assess prospective new people managers, or Talent Leads, as they are called at trivago.
- There were 24 candidates in total, and I got to interact with eight of them.
- The judges teamed up in pairs. My colleague Anita and me did a one-on-one simulation with each of our candidates.
- Either I played the role of an employee and Anita would be an invisible observer, or vice versa.
I think the Talent Lead candidates got a lot out of this exercise, because it was a near-real world situation, and there was some discussion and reflection afterwards. We made sure everyone got detailed feedback. However, I think as a judge, I got even more out of it.
I could observe so many different communication styles and approaches to the same situation that I was downright fascinated.
The situation was made up, but realistic: Alex, a 35-year old employee, is acting in alarming ways, and his performance is suffering. His Team Lead does not get through to him, so he asks the Talent Lead for help.
From the outside, all that can be observed is that Alex is behaving arrogantly towards younger teammates. He is often stressing the fact that he is the most experienced person on the team, and how on top of things he is. However, his numbers and results do not reflect that, as they are below average.
There are two young, relatively new colleagues on the team who have introduced new methods and techniques to the team, and Alex refuses to adopt these methods.
This is roughly the information that the Talent Lead candidates had.
What they did not know is that Alex is secretly worried about his future on the team, and is well aware of his poor performance figures. His outward bravado is merely a façade. He is afraid of falling behind, and his anxiety has even been affecting his sleep lately.
He talks about this with his wife, but does not open up to anybody in the workplace, because he does not want to appear weak.
Of course, this is a lot to uncover in a 20 minute conversation, which is how much time the candidates had. Therefore, the role players — Anita and me, respectively — were willing to open up rather easily, if the right questions were asked. If. This was key.
Asking the right questions.
Getting to the bottom of things.
Getting to the core.
This was one of the most important aspects candidates were ultimately graded against. Some got remarkably far, while others only scratched the surface. Those who did not get very far either asked the wrong questions, or they did something that made Alex unwilling to share any more information.
While writing down feedback on the candidates’ performances, I was able to identify seven common mistakes that had an adverse effect on the conversations.
1st mistake: Being too forward
Some candidates threw things at Alex like “I can see that you are in denial about your performance.” or “Do you behave arrogantly because you feel intimidated by the new colleagues?”.
Imagine you were confronted with statements like this, with your confidence already shaken. Would you be willing to open up, and talk about how you really felt about the situation?
I certainly would not.
On the contrary, if somebody claims I’m in denial, or that I am arrogant, or intimidated — even if it was all true, I would probably clam up, withdraw from the discussion, and wait for the conversation to be over. This person would not get anywhere with me any more. Others might even become angry and aggressive in response.
The first problem here is that these statements feel like accusations. This is likely to cause defensiveness on the other side.
The second problem is that the candidates shared their interpretations, or stories, before sharing their observations. Because they heard one side of the story, they assumed they knew enough about the situation to draw conclusions.
This mistake can be avoided. While you should think about the situation and have various hypotheses in mind, you must not share them with the other person too soon. If you share your interpretation of the situation, you should be reasonably sure that the other person will not feel offended, or be afraid of losing face.
2nd mistake: Failing to ask why
People generally don’t enjoy performing poorly. They don’t do it because they like to annoy their colleagues, or their bosses. As Andy Grove wrote in High Output Management, it usually comes down to one of two possibilities:
Either they can’t, or they won’t. It is your job as a manager to find out which of the two it is.
Asking the right questions is the crucial skill that allows you to do this. Out of all questions, why is one of the most important and powerful ones. Example: Alex, when asked how he is feeling on the team, mentions that he has been feeling a bit isolated lately.
This is a statement that downright screams at you to dig deeper. However, some of the candidates did something entirely different:
- Some of them went on with the next question on their list, e.g.: “How do you feel about your performance compared to that of your teammates?” This is not how you get to the bottom. Moreover, Alex will conclude that his Talent Lead does not care very much if he feels isolated or not.
- Others went straight to solution suggestions. “Wouldn’t it help you feel less isolated if you were more open to new methods?” This puts all the blame on Alex, without exploring the reasons for Alex’ perceived isolation.
If one team member is feeling isolated, this is a big problem, and should be examined thoroughly. Why can be the door-opener here, and trigger a cascade of relevant answers and more questions:
- Why is he feeling isolated?
- What are others doing that makes him feel isolated?
- Does he think others want to isolate him?
- Would Alex’ teammates consider him isolated, as well?
Only if you get to the bottom of things can you come up with effective solution strategies. Which brings us to the next mistake people made.
3rd mistake: Offering ready-made solutions
I mentioned that some candidates came up with solution suggestions. Among those were:
- “I think if you were more open to new tools and methods of working, your performance would become better again.”
- “Why don’t you ask one of the younger colleagues to explain the new tools to you?”
- “Maybe you could talk to your team lead about the situation, and ask for some training?”
The candidates meant well with these pieces of advice. The advice was not unreasonable. And yet, there is a problem here.
Since the suggestions come solely from the Talent Lead, who does not have the whole context, Alex will most likely not readily buy into them. He might half-heartedly try one of them, only to tell himself “I knew it wouldn’t work” when it fails.
If you want real commitment to a solution strategy, this solution should not come only from you, but also from your employee. If you have clearly identified the root cause of the problem, it should not be too difficult to invent an effective solution strategy.
In our fictitious scenario, let us assume we reveal that Alex would in fact like to try out the new methods that his younger colleagues are employing successfully.
If this is an established fact, there is a logical conclusion: Alex should be trained to use the tools in question.
If he still does not come up with that himself, you can ask another typical coaching question: What would the world look like if this problem was solved? A possible answer to this is that Alex is confident in applying the new methods, and knows when to use them and when not to. The next logical question is: “What can you do to make that happen?” Et voilà, Alex will have no other choice but to invent solutions for himself.
4th mistake: Following an inflexible plan
Our prospective talent leads had twenty minutes of preparation for the conversation. In this time, they could study the case description and think about how they wanted to approach the conversation with Alex.
Some candidates made a list of questions in that time. There is nothing wrong with that.
Unless you strictly follow that list and do not deviate from it, regardless of the new information you are gathering. This could go like this:
Talent Lead: “How do you feel about your performance lately?”
Alex: “I think it’s ok. I am taking care of a difficult market, so the sheer numbers do not accurately reflect my performance.”
Talent Lead: “Would you say you are stressed and that is why your performance is not that good at the moment?”
Alex is slightly confused or irritated by this second question. Maybe the Talent Lead candidate was expecting a different answer to their first question. Anyway, the second question does not match Alex’ answer at all, leaving him wondering if his Talent Lead is actually listening.
If you do not listen, you will not be able to influence people. It’s a good idea to make a list of potential questions before the conversation. It’s a bad idea not to take new information into account.
5th mistake: “You have to fix it” mode
As mentioned in the introduction, Alex’ Team Lead asks the Talent Lead for help. Alex’ behaviour is alarming, and his performance is below average. Alex is perceived as the problem.
Some prospective Talent Leads adopted this view of things without challenging it. They gave Alex a kind of pep talk that clearly sent the message: “You have to fix it!”
If you do that, you make it far too easy for yourself. The least you can do in such situations is hearing all sides, and staying open to the possibility that the truth is somewhere in between.
There are managers who do not like dealing with people problems. Whenever somebody comes with a problem and asks them for advice, their main goal is to get rid of them as quickly as possible. If you are like that, you should not manage people.
This is the reason why we had to reject those candidates who merely told Alex to improve and fix the situation.
6th mistake: Suggestive questions
This one could often be observed in conjunction with the “You have to fix it” approach. When a prospective Talent Lead thought they knew the solution, they sometimes tried to convince Alex by asking suggestive questions:
- “But even if experience is important, we should also be open to new things. Wouldn’t you agree?”
- “I think you are closing your eyes to the fact that you have to do something about the situation. Is that something that you can relate to?”
- “Don’t you think that your teammates are sometimes surprised by your behaviour?”
- “Wouldn’t it be good if you had better working relationships with your teammates?”
Frankly, this kind of questioning is annoying. It is patronizing. It virtually leaves only one possible answer to Alex. If you ask questions like this, you put yourself in the role of a teacher talking to a stubborn student, or in the role of a parent talking to a misbehaving child.
Do not treat your people like children. Treat them like adults. Otherwise you will trigger resistance, or worse, get employees who act like children.
Better versions of the questions above are:
- “Have you considered trying out the new methods your colleagues are using?”
- “Do you see any need to act for yourself?”
- “How do your teammates perceive you? What do you think?”
- “Are you happy with your working relationships with your teammates?”
These questions are more open, and leave Alex an actual choice how to answer. They are less likely to make him feel talked down to, and have a better chance of keeping him engaged in the conversation.
7th mistake: Being too cautious
We could observe the opposite of the “You have to fix it” talk, as well. Some candidates were too cautious and did not learn a lot of new things during the conversation.
Like a dog circling around some unknown, potentially dangerous object, they were afraid of hitting a sensitive topic, of upsetting Alex, or of causing resistance. They did not make real progress, because they jumped from topic to topic.
When one candidate wanted to talk to Alex about his perceived lack of engagement, she got sidetracked pretty heavily:
Talent Lead: “How do you feel about your performance lately?”
Alex: “I think it’s ok. I am handling a difficult market, so the sheer numbers do not accurately reflect my performance.”
Talent Lead: “Your 360 evaluation yielded some important improvement areas. Do you have the feeling you are tackling them?”
Alex: “Yeah, you know, 360s are always a bit biased, right? Junior people don’t always know how to give proper feedback, or how to handle the rating scale.”
Talent Lead: “So, you think 360s are not a great tool for evaluation?”
Alex: “No, not that much.”
Talent Lead: “How would you prefer to be evaluated instead?”
While the topic of performance evaluation is an interesting one, it is way out of scope for this particular conversation — especially given the time limit of 20 minutes.
Instead of meandering off-topic, the candidate should get the conversation back on track:
Talent Lead: “Well, the question if 360s are in fact the best way to evaluate performance is justified. However, there were multiple free-text comments from various groups that state that you do not collaborate well with others. It is not just one individual’s perception, and I wonder how they arrive at this conclusion. I know that you can work well with others. So what is it? Don’t you like your team?”
In a respectful and non-insulting way, this puts Alex in a position where he has to reveal a bit more about his thinking and his feelings. The conversation is back on track, and the investigation for the underlying causes has begun.
I will readily admit that it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to jump into a completely unknown situation, and try to get to the bottom of it in just 20 minutes. Of course, we accounted for that when judging candidates’ performances.
We did not expect perfection, and the role players were willing to open up rather quickly when good questions were asked.
Despite the artificial situation, the exercise worked very well. It revealed very different levels of skill and talent. As if guided by an uncanny intuition, the best candidates found out the real reasons for Alex’ behaviour in a few minutes, which almost made my jaw drop. Other candidates learnt practically nothing during the conversation they had not already read in the problem description. In the end, about one third of the candidates passed.
The exercise also showed that good initial questions are not enough. In most cases, it’s the follow-up questions that really reveal new things. Of course, if you want to ask good follow-up questions, you have to be a good listener.
I am confident that our new Talent Leads are all exceptional listeners.
This post took me about 4.5 hours to write.