Know What References are Good For

Stop asking for references,” is the title and bottom line of Al Pittampalli’s article on the common practice.

Why stop? According to Mr. Pittampalli, because they are a flawed instrument likely to give you little reliable information and false confidence.

The flaws he points out are true: references are nothing like a scientific survey; checking references is so late in the process that you’re bound to be emotionally committed to hiring already — which shuts down critical thinking.

When Mr. Pittampalli gave an honest, negative review of a former coworker they ended up getting the job anyway. His story is easy to relate to. That manager clearly blew it.

Taking a different approach, if you change your goal from “fill this opening” to “avoid a bad hire” – as ManagerTools encourages us to – then you are less likely to fall prey to the confirmation bias when checking references.

Mr. Pittampalli points out how ineffective reference checking was for the caller in his story. He is absolutely correct. I suggest that the problem is deeper than reference checking itself.

The fundamental issue is championed by Mark Horstman and company at Manager Tools: vetting a candidate is designed to say, “no.” Get that right, and references can be useful — not perfect, but useful.

At worst, checking references wastes time and builds false confidence. If there is a chance you can do it properly and avoid a bad hire, then I say do it.

More from Al Pittampalli:

More from Mark Horstman:

Accepting Uncertainty at GE

RE: GE Re-Engineers Performance Reviews, Pay Practices

So General Electric is going Lean? It’s exciting to hear they have hired Eric Ries as a consultant to shake up the emphasis on Six Sigma. If you’re a Manager Tools fan some of the changes at GE simply match good management.

That’s right: It shouldn’t take 5 months to write your annual review. And yes, the annual review shouldn’t be the linch-pin in your performance management system. You should be getting regular, quick, fine-grained performance insight from your manager and your peers. See Feedback and Peer Feedback.

I chuckled a bit at the comment from Janis Semper saying, “It’s not realistic to expect perfection anymore.” Anymore? Yeah, we should always have high standards. We should be disappointed when we miss them. And managers should know their people aren’t going to be perfect.

I actually interviewed a guy that said he had a perfect track record over decades in software of always hitting every deadline with quality. Maybe it’s me, but that actually made me trust him less. Perfection requires artificiality. (See Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park — the book, not the movie.) You can’t really hit it. And if you do, how low are your goals?

It’s great to hear GE will be considering giving incentives closer to the time of performance. No more home-runs in February that have to wait until next January for a raise — or similar.

Offering managers the ability to give their employees time off as a reward? That sounds a bit like HR officially blessing what managers are already doing for their people. But I’ve never worked there. Maybe managers really don’t feel they could do that there already.

Overall, GE’s emphasis on learning and improving faster is a great application of Lean principles, and plain old management feedback.

On a snarky note: the peer feedback via a tool sounds just like what engineers would do. “I want to tell Bob he did a great job here, and might want to change this over here. If only I had a mobile application so that I could type that up and send it to him.” Yeah, what about just briefly and respectfully chatting with Bob?

It sounds like the mobile app’s real purpose is to achieve that ever elusive holy grail of performance management: managing my boss.

That’s right, the company is encouraging employees to give feedback to their bosses via the app. And employees are reluctant to do that. Rightly so.

A good manager has a relationship with his directs that allows them to give “insights” to him. But it’s naïve to assume that all of the managers in a company have that relationship. A program that pushes all employees to speak to bosses with an expectation that they will always be heard, never subtly penalized, and that the boss will change her behavior… a bridge too far.

After facilitated group sessions to gather feedback for bosses “the group is expected to hold the manager accountable for changing his or her behavior, through regular check-ins, but it is a work in progress.”

Yeah, that’s not going to work. Not unless the process involves the boss’ boss.

A group of directs can’t manage their boss. And even if it happens once, it’s not reproducible.

If you want the state of management to improve in a company then directors have to manage their managers for it. You can’t delegate that to the individual contributors.

Just my prediction.

So, yes. Please adopt lean. Please give regular feedback, not just once a year. Please collect information on how management can change. Don’t promise that a group can change their manager on their own.

Delta File: Say You’re Welcome

When others treat you poorly, let it go. Forgive.

As you move on, break the incident down into behaviors–factual elements of the interaction. Commit to do better for when the roles are reversed.

Collect these entries in your own “Delta File:” a collection of the changes you want to be in the world.

My first entry:

When I hold the door open for someone and they look me in the eye and say, “Thank you!” I will not look away with a blank emotional affect and say, “Yep.” I will look back at them and say, “You’re welcome!”

“You’re welcome” takes almost no extra time. I know it feels much better to hear than a dismissive, “yep.”

Thank you, Mark

The idea of the Delta file came to me through Manager Tools podcasts. Mark Horstman has sprinkled references to keeping a “delta file” throughout the casts. For him, it is a list of things you plan on handling differently when you are a manager.

It Will Take Time

I’ve been trying to change my “yeps,” “uh-huhs,” and “no problems” into “you’re welcomes” for a few weeks now. It still comes out a bit forced.

In the mean time I notice that people saying “you’re welcome” does feel different. It feels better.

I’ll keep pushing through this awkwardness. After all, I used to hate to smile. Now I have smile lines. My first wrinkles.

You Will Have More Success

Any one habit aimed at putting others at ease can be argued with. You can’t reasonably argue with the fact that putting people at ease increases your success.

As I’ve learned more and more about the human side of work I am more and more astounded by how logical we aren’t.

Our rational capacity is bounded. Other people can ignore your antisocial habits, but it costs some of their reserves of rational behavior. You want them to find you easy to get along with so that your ideas get that much more attention.