Stop asking for the best

by Joseph

Stop asking for ‘the best’ and you’ll get better quality applications from a wider and more diverse pool of candidates.

Everyone wants the best

At the top of the careers page for a leading British space company, it proudly says “We're looking for the world's most talented people to join our team”. Another company wants “the brightest & most motivated minds in the UK space industry”, a third “the brightest and the best”, and yet another “the best aerospace engineers in the world”.

There are also ones who skirt round saying ‘best’, but still set the bar very high “[we] always want to hear from outstanding professionals” or we are a “high-calibre workforce” of “world-class thinkers”.

It’s not just the space sector either, you’ll find a dozen companies in every industry saying exactly the same thing.

But they can't all be right.

Hiring the best people is a no-brainer. There is no company in the world that wouldn’t want to hire ‘the best’ given the opportunity. But it’s the hiring equivalent of saying you want 100% market share; it’s unrealistic and sounds absurd.

There is no way to assess who is the best

However much we may want to hire the best, it’s easier said than done. What metrics are we measuring against? Engineering and data science are not sports with international rankings, they are complex and multifaceted.

Quite often being brilliant at one aspect of a job means being less good at another aspect. Nobody speaks every language or masters every sport. Good teams are a mix of all-rounders and specialists where nobody is ‘the best’.

When we try to hire ‘the best’, we can often end up boiling down our definition of what ‘best’ means to something that is ultimately either meaningless or a poor proxy for what we actually want.

For example, we often take ‘best’ at university to mean getting the highest marks in exams. If we want to hire only the best, then surely we should disregard anyone who didn’t get a first class degree? Research says otherwise. EY, one of the ‘big four’ accounting firms, dropped the requirement for particular degree classifications on their graduate programme in 2015, saying

Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment. It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.

Maggie Stilwell, EY Managing Partner for Talent 1

The reality is that outside of sport there is rarely a way to accurately measure who is best. When we chain ourselves to this unattainable goal and want to be sure that we’re hiring only the very best, we are forced to fall back to crude measures like test scores and gut feelings. Doing this can lead us to inadvertently discriminate against those who are different from us because we’ve defined best in terms that relate to our experience.

I think [the tech] industry needs to shed this old idea that it's OK, even encouraged to turn away technical candidates for anything less than absolute 100% confidence at every step of the interview process. Because when you do, you are accidentally optimizing for implicit bias. [...] If you care at all about diversity in programming and tech, on any level, this hiring approach is not doing anyone any favors, and hasn't been. For years.

Jeff Atwood, Co-Founder of Stack Overflow 2

When we ask for the best, we put off the people we want

Ask yourself honestly: do you consider yourself to be among the very best people in the world at your job? If not, why are you expecting that from others?

If someone does think they’re the best, what does that tell us about them? Firstly, they’ve probably got a big ego, and secondly, they’re probably not as good as they think they are.

There is a cognitive bias called the ‘Dunning–Kruger effect’. In their 1999 study, Dunning and Kruger found that low performers tend to overestimate their skill, while high performers tend to underestimate their skill 3. Dunning explains it like this: “If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.” 4

(More recent research 5 has suggested this effect may not be as strong as previously thought, but probably still exists.)

The result is that by asking for the self-identified ‘best’, you can actually end up getting the opposite. What you’re actually hiring for is at best ego, and at worst incompetence.

Even if you do end up with the world’s most brilliant people applying, they are not necessarily people you’d want on your team. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are both widely recognised for revolutionising their industries, but neither is considered a particularly nice person to work with.

The irony is that the very people who are put off by job adverts that ask for ‘the best’ are those who don’t have a big ego (who are probably better at teamwork), and who have a realistic assessment of their skills (who are more likely to be smarter and willing to learn from others). In other words, exactly the people you really want to hire.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, considered by his peers to be the wisest person in the world, famously said “I am wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

In addition to the Dunning–Kruger effect, there is a another phenomenon known as ‘impostor syndrome’, where successful people doubt their accomplishments and abilities and think of themselves as impostors or frauds. It’s been found to be most prevalent in high achievers, women, and minorities 6. These are the people least likely to feel wanted when you talk about ‘the best’.

This language also damages the skills pipeline and harms the long term prospects of the sector. Young people, especially young women, already think that they are not ‘clever enough’ to study science, particularly Physics 7, and this perception is even stronger for space science and technology jobs 8.

If you are serious about being inclusive and getting applications from a diverse range of candidates, then drop meaningless requirements for ‘the best’.

Using growth-mindset language fills vacancies faster

Asking for the best can reduce the number of applicants you receive and increase the time required to fill a job. Recruitment software firm Textio found that adverts that use language associated with a growth-mindset (the belief that you can grow and improve your abilities, using language like ‘work hard’ and ‘persevere’) do better than those than emphasise a fixed mindset (one which treats ability as fixed and based on inherent traits, using language like ‘the best’ and ‘natural ability’) 9.

Hire the best applicant for the job, not the best person in the world

If we shouldn’t hire the best, who should we hire? The best applicant for the job. These may seem like the same thing, but there is a big and important difference between them. First, we are limiting ourselves to the best person who actually applies, not the best theoretical person out there in the world. Second, we are defining best as best for this specific job. This allows us to create the objective criteria that were missing before by using the person specification in the job advert.

Basecamp, a leading provider of project-management software, has no time for the notion of ‘the best’:

At Basecamp, we have no illusions that we’re going to hire “the best”. In fact, even thinking about candidates in such absolute terms is nonsense. The world is full of people who are stuck doing mediocre work in a shitty environment or blessed to do stellar work by virtue of an elevating one. Most people are well capable of doing both! The only thing that makes sense is to hire the best – defined as most complementary to the organization – person out of the candidates who apply.

David Heinemeier Hansson, Founder and CTO of Basecamp 10

Forget trying to hire the brightest and the best. Commit to hiring good people and helping them become the best they can be. Engineering giant Thales says on their website that

At Thales we are committed to giving all employees opportunities to be their best.

Would you rather work for a company that only hires the best, or a company which gives you the opportunity to be your best?

References

  1. Havergal, C. (2015). Ernst and Young drops degree classification threshold for graduate recruitment. Times Higher Education.
  2. Atwood, J. (2016). We Hire the Best, Just Like Everyone Else. Coding Horror.
  3. Kruger, J. and Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  4. Morris, E. (2010). The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is. New York Times.
  5. Gignac, G. and Zajenkowski, M. (2020). The Dunning-Kruger effect is (mostly) a statistical artefact: Valid approaches to testing the hypothesis with individual differences data. Intelligence.
  6. Chrousos, G. and Mentis, A-F. (2020). Imposter syndrome threatens diversity. Science.
  7. Arche et al. (2020). ASPIRES 2: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10-19. UCL Institute of Education.
  8. Bennet et al. (2016). The impact of human spaceflight on young people’s attitudes to STEM subjects. University of York.
  9. Sanchez, C. (2020). How to write a job description in 2020: Best practices from half a billion job postings. Textio.
  10. Heinemeier Hansson, D. (2019). It’s high time to rewrite the hiring script. Signal v. Noise.