Hiring, Performance Reviews, and 'Nine Lies About Work’

Might this terrific book energize us to adopt a learning science lens in recruiting and evaluating staff?

April 29, 2019

Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

Published in April of 2019.

Without overthinking, quickly write down the five things that we do at universities that are misaligned with learning science. Go.

What did you come up with?

Here is my list:

  • Grades
  • High-Stakes Exams
  • Unrelated Courses
  • Staff-Hiring Processes
  • Staff Performance Reviews

For now, I want to set aside the first three bullet points - and focus on staff-hiring processes and staff performance reviews.  The reason that I want us to discuss these last two HR related processes has everything to do with Nine Lies About Work.

This is a book about organizational performance. Specifically, this is a book about how many of our ideas about how people perform in organizations are wrong.

What was striking for me in reading through Nine Lies About Work is how closely the organizational performance research that Buckingham and Goodall synthesize is mirrored by what we know from the science of learning. There is a rich opportunity to integrate the literature on organizational performance with the study of how people learn.   

Nine Lies About Work will likely be little read as a guide to evolve our universities, as the book is aimed at a non-academic and more corporate audience. Ignoring this book on the logic that universities are not the source of the examples would be a mistake.  There is much we can learn about managing and leading our schools from its pages.

Let’s start with how universities hire. Here, I am restricting the discussion to non-faculty hires.  To staff.  Recruitment for faculty lines - and in particular tenure-track lines - is a world on to itself.  Any discussion of faculty hiring will unavoidably run into a conversation about adjunctification, supply/demand mismatches, and the pyramid scheme that is the academic labor market.  So let’s try to set faculty hiring aside for a minute.

Higher ed staff hiring more closely resembles the recruitment process in other non-academic - or at least nonprofit - organizations.  For a new position or one that is being filled by a retirement or a transition, a position description is created (or revised).  This document, usually two pages but sometimes longer, will include elements such as the position’s purpose, key accountabilities, and qualifications.  The non-faculty staff job will then be advertised on various platforms, including IHE Careers

Depending on the role, candidates will be interviewed by the hiring manager or a search committee, or some other combination of folks.  There are many variations, including the involvement of recruiting firms and the role of HR, but at some point, a person or a committee needs to decide about which person to offer the job.

Here is where Nine Lies About Work comes in.  One of the themes of the book is just how bad we all are at evaluating other people. The problem is that we all think that we are great at making judgments about the potential of each other. We believe ourselves to be unbiased, objective, and swayed only by data.  It turns out that we are none of these things.

Rather than overcome our blind spots by engaging in group discussions about potential candidates, the reality of group dynamics can exacerbate rather than alleviate systematic biases.  In hiring, we tend to look for “cultural fit,” which ends up being code for people who we think look and act like us.

As discussed in Nine Lies About Work, a better strategy in recruiting may be to go for some combination of building diverse teams with people who share a similar mission - if a dissimilar background.  We should look for people who are going to push our organization to move in new directions, rather than employees who we believe will aid in propelling us towards our current trajectory.  Diversity in the workplace is an engine of productivity.  And yet, our universities often invest too little resources and time in recruiting a diverse workforce.

Employee performance reviews are also given considerable attention in Nine Lies About Work.  The chapters on employee evaluation are directly applicable to how university staff are evaluated.

I’ve long thought that the way that universities handle annual performance reviews to be unproductive. They are time-consuming exercises in HR CYA, mainly designed to create a paper trail to enable schools to manage low-performing, edge case employees.

As discussed at length in Nine Lies About Work, a better performance review system would be built around aligning people’s strengths with organizational needs.  Annual performance reviews could seek out to discover what strengthens all of us - what gives us energy and joy - and then to find out how these strengths can be applied to the mission of the organization.  Rather than exercises in identifying and correcting weaknesses, the performance review process could be a chance to build successes.

How many higher ed staff feel as if they get to use their strengths every day at work?

How often do universities pay attention to strengthening the teams that staff operates?

I very much hope that Nine Lies About Work finds a home in the library of Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs). I hope that university learning professionals read and discuss this book.

The role that CTLs can play in changing how universities think about managing academic staff is yet undefined.  There seem to be little in the way of relationships and overlap between CTLs and higher ed human resource professionals.  This book will resonate with anyone who has immersed themselves in the science of learning.  This book could help us weave together our thinking about how people learn, and how organizations prosper.

What are you reading?


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