Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

There is something fishy about employee selection

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Predictably analogs exist between the natural world and the organizational world. Lessons drawn from nature, when applied correctly, hold potentially great benefits for organizations. One has only to determine how these natural patterns are shared by humans or exist within our “human” environment. Some that immediately spring to mind include the Intentional Stance, an animal’s innate tendency and survival aid to ascribe deliberate intent to movement, rustling noises or other sounds even though those sounds may be no more than the wind or other random event; the development of superstitious behavior in animals, displaying repetitious but inconsequential behavior patterns that animals (an humans) believe will help find food, shelter or a mate (or in the case of baseball players, get a hit or score a run); The science of chaos which can mathematically describe the shape of a leaf and movements within the stock market.

Sometimes what humans develop to help our own decision making process can be used to describe patterns in nature. Take for instance critical mass decision making. Critical mass decision making has been around since WWII. It is a method used to tap into the knowledge that exists within large groups of people and extract useful information. It has been used for tasks as diverse as finding sunken submarines, predicting elections, and determining terrorist targets. I believe that it hold great potential for organizations in helping to tap into the natural intelligence already located with their firms and I am waiting for a biologist to discover that patterns exhibited by groups of animals, herds of zebra, flocks of birds etc. are using critical mass decision making, this hidden group intelligence, to increase their chances of survival.

And then there are fish…What can fish know about employee selection? Well it turns out to be quite a bit. I hope you enjoy this short piece and it leaves you with at least a shadow of a smile. 

Fish know a thing or two about employee selection – coral reef fish specifically. They employ a very interesting method to determine whom they should hire while interviewing candidates for a job.

Coral reef fish experience what must be an uncomfortable sensation. Parasites tend to attach themselves to their skins. In order to rid themselves of these parasites they visit and employ “cleaner” fish to remove the parasites. But how does the coral reef fish know which “cleaner” fish will be best at removing the parasites? They have developed some skill at employee (fish) selection, skills that are useful for human managers to understand as they look at potential candidates for a job. 

The cleaner fish have a choice as they work on cleaning the coral reef fish. . They can work diligently eating parasites and cleaning off the coral reef fish, while not taking what has been described as a delicious bite of mucous membrane (I assume it hurts to have a cleaner fish bite your mucus membrane), or they can chomp on the membrane and get a more tasty meal then just parasites. It has been shown that when other coral reef fish are nearby (potential customers) and watching the cleaner fish, the cleaner fish are more likely to behave appropriately – foregoing nibbles on mucus membranes. This gives you a sense of what appropriate supervision can do but it also demonstrates that the cleaner fish know what is expected of them on the job. (I wonder who wrote that job description.)

Where it gets really interesting is that coral reef fish who have witnessed the desired behavior on the part of the cleaner fish are more likely to choose those that behave in the desired fashion for their own cleaning. They are in essence interviewing candidates for the position by observing the cleaner’s on-the-job performance and then selecting those that perform best. They seem to instinctively know that one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior. (I had to go to graduate school to learn that, so I wonder what that says about me.)

What can we learn from this about employee selection? Human behavior often has parallels in other animals. When psychologists study personality characteristics it has been found that as people age it becomes very difficult for them to change and by 30 years of age or so, personality traits seem locked-in. One theory of personality describes how people can change if they undergo a “unfreeze – change – refreeze” experience, but the “unfreeze” events, events that have the potential to “unlock” personality characteristics or behaviors tend to be of a fairly significant nature for the person. The point being, people tend towards consistency in the experiences they seek out and in how they behave and in fact one of the best indicators of how an employee will perform on the job is past job performance.  Don’t expect a 40 year old manager who acts immaturely to suddenly find a mature side or someone who exhibits marginal ethics to suddenly walk the straight and narrow, or an employee who is generally sloppy or last minute in their work to suddenly become fastidious and timely – at least not without a very significant event to propel them. Even then the rates of recidivism will be extraordinarily high.

The goal of psychologists when they construct assessment centers or develop job based testing for selection is the same as the coral reef fish, that is to set up a situation where on-the-job behaviors can be observed in order to get a sense as to how the candidate will perform in the future; in the case of the psychologist from a simulated or historical standpoint and in the case of the fish by direct observation. (The use of biodata, such as job history, promotions, credit worthiness, even speeding tickets etc. are another method to examine past behavior).

Selecting the right employee for the job in the first place, one that fits correctly into the organization and has the necessary skill set is absolutely critical. But do not take the above example about fish and the tendency of people to behave consistently to mean that there is no benefit to developing or training employees. In fact just the opposite is true. Employees can benefit tremendously from having someone “show them the ropes” if you will of how to be a highly performing employee in the organization. They may have in place the correct personality or skill set but they may lack experience or some other component that would allow them to excel, to be a highly performing employee. Development for these people can be very advantageous – especially early in their careers. However if you have an experienced employee or manager who consistently exhibits behaviors that are not appropriate (biting mucous membranes for instance), don’t keep holding out hope that they will someday change their behavior if just given one more chance – it may be a fools vigil.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 23, 2009 at 10:28 am

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    Can a leopard change it’s spots? Can people change? What about fish? This one was first written in 2006.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    November 29, 2016 at 8:55 pm


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