Tuesday, February 08, 2022

The Homophiliasm of Hiring - Are You The Right Fit?

I recently came across a terrific book by Mathew Syed, Rebel Ideas, which suggests that individual intelligence is not enough to tackle really important problems. Rather, cognitive diversity and collective intelligence always win out. Syed draws from the literal intelligence breakdown that happened among agencies during the 9/11 attacks by exploring the diversity of the CIA:

startling high proportion of staff at the CIA had grown up in middle-class families, enduring little financial hardship, or alienation, or extremism, witnessed few of the signs that act as precursors to radicalization, or had any multitude of other experiences that might have added formative insights to the intelligence process. . . As a group, however, they were flawed. Their frames of reference overlapped. This is not a criticism of white, Protestant, male Americans. It is an argument that white, Protestant, male American analysts – and everyone else – are left down if they are placed in a team lacking diversity.

Hiring more diverse candidates doesn’t equate to cognitive diversity. Building collective intelligence cannot be a box-ticking exercise, or else, diversity basically turns into dominant assumptions of the group, and the leadership teams look diverse but continue to share nearly identical views, insights, and patterns of thinking. Successful teams are intentionally diverse, not arbitrarily. Diversity contributes to collective intelligence only when it is relevant – in other words, hiring without empowering doesn’t work.

Homophily is a term that is so apt in these situations. It’s the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. But because homophily means that cultural, behavioral, genetic, or material information that flows through networks will tend to be localized as well, this is often reshaped intentionally (or unintentionally) in the workplace.

Looking back at my own experience, I'm used to hearing the word “fit” in hiring committees. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s a euphemism for how candidates were “ranked” based on similarities to the rest of the staff. According to Syed, the Higher Paid Person’s Opinion (HIPPOs) is the deciding factor to final hiring decisions (or any decisions for that matter), and that’s dangerous. The trickle-down effect results in groupthink: there’s no incentive to have a diversity of perspectives; after all, it never pays to speak out.

But if we return to the CIA case study, the story ends on a more comforting note. The CIA realized it had diversity blindspots, and hired one of its first African American Muslims, Yaya Fanusie, who made an immediate impact as a counter-terrorism expert, and helped foil a terrorist attack before it happened. History would never record this as the incident never occurred.

Having a diversity of people and ideas – rebel ideas – is critical for strong organizations. Libraries don’t tend to look hard at their “diversity problem” (or perhaps to them, diversity is the problem), Sometimes, the larger libraries ask why they are mediocre and decide to hire a revolving door of external consultants to task them to find out. But if we look hard at homophily as a problem in itself, hey, that would be a good start, don’t you think?

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