You think you know a person. You bring him on as a co-founder in your new venture. Or you hire her onto your management team to lead a big operation. Or if you’re a pro football executive, you choose him in the first round of the NFL draft.
Before long, your new venture partner refuses to work even the minimum hours necessary to build a new business. You learn your new ops leader lacks engineering depth and is rapidly losing credibility with employees. And that first-round draft pick? He never adapts to the accelerated speed of the pro level, following in the footsteps of notorious first-round NFL busts Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell.
You may not be an entrepreneur, a corporate executive or an NFL scout, but it’s likely that you’ve felt the disappointment of misjudging another person’s talent. It’s also likely that you’ve been positively surprised when an overlooked, unexpected hero steps up to fill a void, exceeding all your expectations and leaving you wondering, "Whom else am I overlooking?"
We human beings are always evaluating other people–at work and at play, in our communities and in our homes—and these judgments lead us to some very high-stake choices. Unfortunately, we aren’t as skilled at sizing up people as we think we are. Accurately judging talent, character and motivation can be a tricky business.
As a new football season gets underway, with NFL teams being relentlessly second-guessed by fans who label players as “stars” or “duds” based on a single game—or a single play—what can we learn from NFL scouts who evaluate talent for a living in high-stakes environments? Whether you are seeking a business partner, hiring an employee or simply evaluating yourself in light of a possible career change, here are a few principles used by NFL professionals that might help.
Watch Out for Your BiasesSocial scientists have long documented a set of perceptual biases that distort our perceptions of other people. These include the power of first impressions, the “halo effect” (in which we extend our positive impression of a person to many aspects of their character and performance), the confirmation bias, and wishful thinking. In the football world, Michael Lombardi notes the negative ripple effects that occur when a major decision maker “falls in love” with a particular player. On the other side of the coin is the “devil effect,” in which we attribute a range of unsavory qualities to a person based on a single negative event. As you consider a decision about another person, be sure and pause to consider ways in which you may have pre-judged him, then find ways to test your existing assumptions.
Cast a Wider Net
I sometimes work with entrepreneurs and business leaders who are in a hurry to fill a key position, and who quickly hone in on a single candidate. It’s clear they have already made a choice, and the hiring “decision” is simply a validation process for a specific candidate. While this approach may work occasionally, you’re much more likely to land a high-quality performer by generating a set of candidates for any new position, then following a more objective process to choose between them. When needing to fill or upgrade a position, the best NFL teams don’t limit their possibilities to a single player. Instead, they leave no stone unturned to generate a list of options, looking to the college draft pool, to the free agent market, and to their own practice squad. Then they make the best choice based on a clear set of criteria.