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Staffing Management: Give Me a 'T'

Lisa Daniel   1/1/2007
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Vol. 3, No. 1

Select applicants for team skills like a pro.

Among the job qualifications that employers need to consider, few are as important—and as hard to ascertain—as whether a candidate is a “team player.”

Herb Greenberg, founder and CEO of Caliper Corp., a Princeton, N.J.-based organizational development firm, knows as well as anyone the importance of that seemingly rare attribute and how to find it. Since its creation in 1961, Caliper Corp. has specialized in working with the leading industry for team players: national sports leagues.

What Greenberg and his employees often find are candidates with amazing athletic skills and abilities, but a lack of team sportsmanship that keeps them from being placed in certain positions.

“Especially in football, it happens all the time,” Greenberg says. “We may be looking at an offensive lineman and he’s got all the physical attributes, but he’s not a team player.”

“It’s not enough that he can block. He’s got to know what the other five [players] on the offensive line are doing, or he’s going to leave a hole that will get the quarterback knocked flat. We suggest maybe he can be a defensive end because the defensive end doesn’t have to do anything except kill the quarterback.”

Businesses See Many Individual Players

In business, many employees turn out to be individual players when a team-based approach is needed. And on other occasions, individual players might be just what the employer needs. The key is in knowing which employees are team players and which aren’t—and whether all of your players are in the right positions, Greenberg says.

“In basketball, your point guard must be a team player,” Greenberg says. The point guard must “care less about his or her own shot than about making the team work and playing to the others’ skills. Now, [the shooting guard’s] main thing is just to be able to shoot. If he’s a little selfish, that’s OK.”

So, how do you figure out if a candidate would make a better “point guard”—a team player—or a better “shooting guard”— more of an individualist? The best way is through a combination of behavioral assessments, experts say, which usually includes interviews and testing. Unlike traditional experience-based assessments that rely on a resume and an interview in which the candidate is asked about past job performance, these behavioral assessments look at a candidate’s potential to do well in certain areas, regardless of his or her experience.

“People often look at a resume and say, ‘Gee, this person has 15 years of experience,’ ” thinking that must be a good indication of future performance. But when they finish with the hiring process, employers sometimes realize that a given candidate had “one year’s rotten experience repeated 15 times,” Greenberg says.

“Depending on experience as hiring criteria more often than not leads to recirculating mediocrity.”

The best way to learn whether an employee will be a team player is through behavioral testing that looks specifically at whether a candidate thinks like a team player, Greenberg says. Of some 2,500 psychological hiring tests on the market, he says, “very few even pretend to test for whether a candidate is a team player.”

Caliper Corp. uses an electronic test, now in its 21st revision, known as the “e-Caliper Profile,” that was developed more than 40 years ago to assess team skills, among other things, through 150 questions in which the applicant prioritizes certain characteristics.

For example, a candidate may be asked to choose which of four characteristics is the most and least like him or her. The same characteristics may be asked several times, paired differently, to understand how much value the candidate places on each one. The characteristics range from how the candidate views his or her co-workers to how much consideration management should give to employee concerns.

Caliper has assessed some 25,000 athletes—and at least four times that many non-sports job candidates—for placement in national sports leagues, Greenberg says, and “we think we are rarely wrong” in predicting whether an employee will be a team player.

Assessing Decision Styles

Another hiring firm that is confident in its ability to select team players is Korn/Ferry International, which uses a similar online test, the Decision Styles Assessment. About 1.2 million people have taken the test over more than 40 years, says Bennett Hanig, senior client partner for Leadership Development Solutions at Korn/Ferry in New York.

In about 50 minutes, a candidate taking the assessment answers questions, including those pertaining to a case study, which aim to measure his or her aptitude in four areas: thinking and problem-solving, leading and interacting with others, emotional competencies, and motivations.

What sets the Korn/Ferry test apart from most others is that it is “not about people’s emotional inclinations,” Hanig says. Developed by industrial psychologists at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, the test “is really about how you think and make decisions,” he says.

The assessment alone makes it “extraordinarily obvious” whether applicants are team players, Hanig says, by determining whether the candidate is a good listener, appreciates diversity, deals well with interpersonal conflict, seeks out and uses input from others and is a consensus-builder.

But the assessment is only the first step, Hanig continues. Hiring professionals use the results of the assessment to construct questions for two candidate interviews, one with an organizational psychologist—such as Hanig himself—the other with an expert in the same subject matter as the candidate.

The interviewers should draft the questions together and know what the answers should be ahead of time, Hanig says. After all interviews are complete for a candidate, the interviewers should meet to compare their results, he says.

An organizational psychologist “can get a pretty good sense if someone is a team player,” Hanig says. “If they are a team player, it will feel like you’re working together. If they’re not, it’s going to feel like a one-way interview.”

Even with an assessment, interviews should be behavior-based, rather than experience-based, and should prompt a discussion with the candidate about teamwork. An example is, “Tell me about a time when you worked closely with a team,” Hanig says. “What was your role and the role of the other team members?” “It would be hard for people to come up with a whole scenario of how they played on a team, if they didn’t,” he says. “If they really did, then you get a nice, rich story.”

Focus on Interviews—or Testing?

Some hiring experts believe the focus needs to be on strong interviews, rather than on psychological testing.

Testing “is a valid way to go, but it’s not my preference and it’s not the best way for us in the AMA,” says Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global HR at the American Management Association in New York. The problem, he says, is that candidates often will answer the way they think is expected of them rather than the way that is most truthful.

The AMA, which trains in hiring skills and hosts seminars on the topic, suggests behavior-based interviews that ask openended questions. To fill a position that requires team leadership, questions may include:

  • Share an experience that required you to build a team.
  • What criteria did you use in selecting team members?
  • What challenges and successes did the team have?
  • How did you address members who were not being part of the team?

The best interviewers ask probing questions about how the candidate handled certain situations, such as, “What actions did you take that maybe you should have done differently?” Avramidis says.

Standard behavioral interviews and assessments aren’t the only means for determining whether someone is a team player, but most experts believe they are the best. Other ways of determining team orientation are by assessing the candidate through a role-playing scenario—which can be time-consuming—or by using references. The problem with references, however, is that most people can come up with references who will say good things about them even if they are undeserved, Hanig says.

Employers Want Team Players

Employers are putting increasing value on being a team player. “It’s extremely important, especially with the decentralization of management. In many ways, people are called upon to be in team-based activities every day,” according to Avramidis.

But with retiring baby boomers and the shrinking labor market, he says, employers often lower their expectations, hoping to simply find candidates with the potential to be good in certain areas such as team skills, then sending them to training.

Hanig says many employers continue to cut corners on adequate prehiring assessments that result in staffing failures. “Most organizations are not very good at this because they haven’t taken the time to do a professional process. The best of all possible solutions is to do those kinds of interviews and have assessments like ours to create multiple data points.”

And, he adds, “It’s a whole lot better to get it right on the front end.”

Lisa Daniel is a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer who specializes in workplace issues.

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