How would you grade this candidate's listening skills?

Why Ask This Question?

The difference between hearing and listening is that hearing simply entails sound waves bouncing off a person's eardrum and then resonating through the cranial bones a little bit. Listening, on the other hand, is a much more mentally engaging activity, demanding that an individual make an effort to internalize those sound waves and interpret the message sent to the brain in order to make some kind of decision. Listening is therefore an active process that requires energy and willingness on the part of the receiver.

Still, there are some humans out there who listen but refuse to hear what you're saying. That's because they typically choose to do things their own way and selectively hear what is most convenient. I assume you can think of at least one such specimen in your life! The question is, How do you identify these selective listeners via a reference check?

Analyzing the Response

Red Flags

When asking this question, beware the respondent who goes overboard at impressing upon you the need to be clear in your dealings with the candidate. For example, you might get a response like this:

''Paul, David has to have a blueprint of your needs or else he'll go off and make all the decisions himself. What worked best for me was repeating, 'This is what we agreed to,' and 'Let's go back over this to make sure it's clear,' and 'I want to make sure that there's no ambiguity here: Tell me again your understanding of what I want.'''

Wow! Are you getting the message? This past employer is painting a picture of throttling this guy who's obviously burned that past employer on occasion by not following instructions. To be fair in my treatment of this particular case, the employer continued his response by stating:

''Without such specific directions on your part, he'll make all the calls himself the way he sees fit. Not that he's a poor decision maker—on the contrary, he's very capable and competent. Still, you just can't expect him to follow your directions for arriving at the finish line unless you're absolutely clear from the beginning.''

Obviously, that qualifier redeemed the candidate somewhat. But this response points out that there may be mental tugs-of-war with a selective listener bent on manipulating the rules to his own liking. Is this a matter of poor listening skills or a determined desire to carry out one's own agenda? You'll never know. Just remember that you're not questioning whether the person needs a hearing aid. Instead, you're delicately probing to find out how insistent and strong-willed the person is by nature to circumvent your authority.

How effective is the candidate at delivering bad news? Will the person typically assume responsibility for things gone wrong?

Why Ask This Question?

Thank goodness most people fall into the middle of the spectrum when it comes to assuming responsibility for mistakes. At the far end of the spectrum lie the martyrs: the people who take blame for everything even when they have little control or direct responsibility over the outcome. At the other extreme are the Teflon managers who are never at fault for anything: It's their supervisors, leads, technicians, and secretaries who blow it all the time.

Hmmm. Which one bothers you more? You'd probably prefer the martyr to the Teflon manager. That's because the majority of businesspeople would agree that nothing is more reprehensible than failure to assume appropriate responsibility for things gone wrong. Locating this tragic flaw in the reference-checking process is indeed difficult. But since it's pretty much impossible to locate such information during an interview and because personality tests typically can't judge this particular issue, the reference-checking process is the only medium available in which to generate candid feedback.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. You might choose to let the question stand on its own. The silence following your question, after all, can be a powerful tool that demands an honest response. On the other hand, you could employ a situational questioning style that throws the past employer into a quasi-real business scenario like this:

''Michelle, Charlotte is your lead HVAC engineer. If the machines on the assembly line run a little too hot and the filled liquid containers coming out the other side end up with uneven distributions, does Charlotte turn into a martyr who accepts total responsibility for the whole team, or is she inclined to become a Teflon engineer who has a tendency to find fault with others?''

A tepid and apologetic response saying, ''Well, I don't want to say that she lays all the blame on everyone else, but she does have some difficulty accepting total responsibility for her team's output'' is the red flag that begs for further explanation. Press further:

''What would her subordinates say about that? Is it a matter of an overly inflated ego, or would you say that it's a fear of loss that dictates her response? Has she ever had occasion to throw a subordinate under the bus to free herself of responsibility?''

Again, remember that this is a very difficult issue for employers to address. It's an ugly characteristic of what may otherwise be a successful management candidate. Still, if your previous employee had a tendency to undercut his staff's loyalty by hedging his involvement in his unit's shortcomings, then you'll want to cover this issue in checking the backgrounds of all finalist candidates.

Note that if one supervisor tips you off that this serious problem may exist, you'll want to speak with other past superiors regarding the issue. In addition, it would make sense to conduct subordinate references, which seek to gauge the candidate's management style from the bottom up. Subordinates will typically be a lot more forthcoming in sharing information regarding a manager who places blame disproportionately on the more helpless members of the staff.

Please grade the individual's capacity for initiative and taking action. Does this person have a tendency to get bogged down in ''analysis paralysis''?

Why Ask This Question?

It is not uncommon for specialists in analytical disciplines to demonstrate substantial resistance to predicting final outcomes. After all, business is a practiced art of weighing risks and rewards by maximizing growth opportunities and hedging downside uncertainties. And with so much information available from computer databases and the Internet, making the final call can become rather difficult as mounds of evidence pile up for or against certain options. Place this information overload formula into a business environment that demands a consistent track record for making the right choices, and you'll end up with pressured and stressed-out executives who are gun shy about making final determinations.

Still, right or wrong isn't always the primary issue: The consequences of inaction could lead to an even more significant erosion of confidence in your organization's credibility and viability. So like it or not, analysis paralysis isn't an option even if you're the most caring and empathetic employer in the world.

Analyzing the Response

This scenario is the opposite of when candidates shoot from the hip. Just as you want to avoid those folks who play loose and hard with the facts and ''shoot first, ask questions later,'' you need to elude those who never shoot the gun at all. The problem with the hip-shooters is that they don't thoroughly measure the consequences of their actions before making a decision. The problem with the procrastinators is that they dissect the possible outcomes of their decisions to a point where they get frozen like deer in an oncoming car's headlights. Not always, of course, but in enough situations (or in one critical instance) to make the former supervisor label the individual as gun-shy when the heat is on.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. An excellent way to play this issue out in the reference-checking process is to force a comparison (rather than ask for a cut-and-dried, one-way-or-the-other outcome). Here's an alternative way to ask the question or follow up when the employer is having difficulty interpreting what you want to find out:

''Larry, every employer in the world wants to find that perfect balance of decision makers: folks who don't shoot from the hip without measuring the consequences of their actions, and people who don't lack self-confidence when it comes time to make the tough calls. Still, most people lean toward one extreme more than the other. Would you say that Heidi is more of a hip-shooter or perhaps someone who gets bogged down in the details and has difficulty making a final decision?''

If you receive a benign response stating that Heidi never shoots without aiming and equally has no problem making the tough calls, then conclude that this issue will not adversely affect the candidate's performance. If, on the other hand, the past employer raises serious issues regarding the candidate's tendency to leap without looking or to freeze up from the pressures of taking definitive action after analyzing complex information, then reexamine the individual's candidacy. If your style will temper the individual's approach toward decision making, then your being forewarned will put you in a better position to provide added support immediately. If not, realize that your decision-making styles are incompatible and move on to your next candidate.

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