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Helen Giles & Adrian Furnham on leadership derailment

Helen Giles and Adrian Furnham discuss leadership derailment and what to look for in talent selection

HR directors could spend a hell of a lot of time reading academic papers. One estimate suggests 1.8 million such papers are published every year (estimates on their average quality are harder to come by…) For practitioners the usefulness of this academic work often depends on the ‘so what’ factor: this is all very interesting, but what does it actually mean for me, in my organisation?

To bridge the gap between the HR and academic communities HR magazine is launching a new regular series, in which we will be bringing together HR directors and academics to discuss the impact of research on practice. This issue, St Mungo’s Broadway HR director Helen Giles speaks with University College London psychology professor Adrian Furnham…

Helen Giles: What I like about Adrian’s work is that it is actually about people. I am in HR because I am fascinated by people, and companies are the sum total of their people. And yet a lot of what you read by academics doesn’t seem to really apply to people at all – it’s all organisational charts. You could almost think organisational dynamics existed independently of people. Whatever we are told about HR being a business driver, it is ultimately about people and how they behave at work. The best laid plans can go wrong, because people are random.

Adrian Furnham: The Elephant in the Boardroom [Furnham’s 2010 book on ‘leadership derailment’] has an emphasis on things that go wrong. There are 70,000 books in the British Library with ‘leadership’ in the title, all about how heroic it is – but we know it isn’t, and that it can cock up very badly. If you want to see pathology go to a boardroom.

HG: I think of myself as an empiricist in the workplace. I base my practices on what I’ve observed over many a year. It could be seen as cynical, but to come across someone [Furnham] who has done the research that proves there is scientific empirical basis for that is great.

I remember seeing you talk and was so struck by what you said about how there are only three things you need to look for in any employee. Do you remember what those three things were?

AF: I do – intelligence, emotional stability and conscientiousness.

HG: It’s absolutely true. I’ve seen it time and time again: people in the workplace trying to back someone who lacks one of those dimensions, and it always goes horribly wrong. One of the hardest things to test for is emotional stability. It’s hard to test if someone could derail their team by being toxic in some way. Our killer question, which works every time, is ‘tell us about a time someone’s given you a piece of feedback on your performance, style or conduct that you’ve found difficult to take’. It’s very revealing, and anyone who answers it wrong is out – irrespective of how well they’ve done in anything else.

AF: The standard reference letter can’t be relied on. Some people are doing structured telephone interviews now. If you find lots of people are saying the same thing about someone then it’s very good data. The cost of doing so is cheap: find out about the people they are working with and phone them up.

HG: Using the best tools and the test centre approach to recruitment and selection bumps up your predictive validity, but you can get someone who presents well in every test [and turns out to be the wrong choice]. I remember doing some references on someone for a senior post who turned out to be a psychopath. I was so glad I did those references. Her reaction when she phoned to see what I was up to [proved that what I’d heard about her was true]. I think a lot of people still make recruitment decisions based on the wrong criteria, the wrong ways of trying to test those criteria, or both. There’s still so much insistence on experience, for example.

AF: Sectors where there is a lot of risk if people do the job badly, like the military, tend to be better than classic management because they know the consequences of getting it wrong. It’s astonishing how many powerful organisations still recruit over lunch, with your old school tie on.

HG: I remember once, through my consultancy Real People, helping another charity recruit a CEO. I briefed the board in great detail on competency-based recruitment, but I knew they would love the guy who looked like them. While I was scoring him one or two against the competencies they were scoring him fives. It was like we weren’t seeing the same person. Sure enough they hired him, and he was a disaster in many respects. People want to hold onto the things they believe make people good at work, and this group fiddled the process because they loved this candidate.

The other bit of Adrian’s work that resonates with me is the ‘Toxic Triangle’ – everything about dysfunctional organisations is in there.

AF: That’s the work of a man called Tim Judge. One of the problems we psychologists have, and so do some people in business, is that we individualise explanations – we explain the fall of whole companies in terms of one person. But there are three things you need: the ‘bad’ person, the followers who go along with it, and the environment that allows for it.

You don’t get fire without oxygen, fuel and heat. It’s not just the individual, it’s these other factors. In some organisations a bad guy won’t survive, or won’t thrive as people won’t allow it, regulation will stop it or the environment is not conducive. You need to look at the bigger picture, not just individuals.

HG: I used that idea as a basis for a piece of consultancy work I did with a law firm, where the espoused values were totally different to how it was run internally. It was systemically bad, with bullies and susceptible followers. Once you understand you have to tackle all the elements it’s a really good model for showing people what’s going on and getting buy-in. On the subject of culture, how much do you think you can shape it?

AF: The definition of organisational culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. My experience is it’s very difficult to change corporate cultures. One of the best things to do is to physically move. It’s called propinquity. You need this disturbance, this unfreezing – but things will gradually go back to the old pattern unless you have ways of changing that behaviour. People say ‘we need to be more co-operative’ or whatever, but you need to think: what are the behaviours I want to change?

If you're an HR director and would like to be featured in conversation with an academic email Katie Jacobs: katie.jacobs@markallengroup.com