“It shouldn’t be shameful to fail at your job”

06 February 2017

Robert Jeffrey


“It shouldn’t be shameful to fail at your job”

The way we recruit is all wrong, says bestselling author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell – and that means we need to be more experimental in how we hire

Journalists, by and large, operate under the radar. As the messengers, rather than the makers, of the news, they rarely achieve anywhere near the level of fame of those they write about. But every so often, there’s an exception to the rule – and right now, that comes in the form of Malcolm Gladwell.

The 53-year-old Canadian is arguably the most influential journalist on the planet, and certainly among the best read, though, while he dabbles in Twitter and runs a popular podcast, it’s notable that most of his acclaimed work has come through long-form articles in The New Yorker (where he remains staff writer) and a string of bestselling books that make academic research and cultural phenomena accessible to a broader audience.

Gladwell’s skill as a storyteller is legendary. In Blink, he vividly explored how we use ‘thin slice’ experiences to make intuitive decisions. In Outliers, he popularised the idea that proficiency in a chosen field comes from 10,000 hours of practice, whether it’s The Beatles or Bill Gates you aspire to emulate.

In his next book, he says, he will return to ideas he explored in earlier articles around how we make recruitment and progression decisions, whether inside organisations, in education systems or in our regular lives. People Management caught up with him when he spoke at the HR Summit in Dubai to find out more – including his thoughts on events in the US.

How would you explain the election of Donald Trump, given that it took so many people by surprise?
I don’t have a good explanation, only that we’re clearly at a moment when the rules of politics are being rewritten. What we thought was a well-managed Hillary Clinton campaign turned out to be largely irrelevant – she raised much more money and had a much more sophisticated organisation behind her, but that didn’t seem to matter. Meanwhile, Trump was communicating directly with his followers through those late-night tweets. I hope it doesn’t happen again, and I don’t think it will.

Does it make you question your faith in the wisdom of the crowd?
Over the long haul, I believe in the wisdom of the crowd, but that doesn’t mean every decision made by the crowd is good. It means that, collectively, 250 years of decisions will be good, but you have to hold the door open for these anomalous moments.

At the HR Summit, you argued that millennials are different to the generations before them. But don’t most 22-year-olds, for example, have essentially the same aspirations as 22-year-olds of previous generations?
Of course, fundamentally, 22-year-olds are 22-year-olds. But generations have different ideologies that are shaped by the world they grew up in. The generation that grew up in the depression was marked by that for the rest of their lives, as you would expect. You wouldn’t expect a 65-year-old today, who grew up in the affluence of the sixties, to have a similar mindset. People are generally similar but they have particular differences and it’s useful to know what those are.

You’ve been thinking about how we recruit. How would you do it, in an ideal world?
I would like to see far more experimentation – trial periods, for example. It shouldn’t be a shameful thing for someone to try out a job for a few months. It should be commonplace. And if it doesn’t work out, that shouldn’t be a stain – it should just be fine. There are certain things you can only know about someone when they’re through the door; I don’t know why we feel so super-invested in our initial predictions. If [people] are lousy, move on. I’d like to see a world where the job market was sufficiently flexible for it to be common for people to try something before they find what they want.

Are you optimistic about the ability of Gulf economies to diversify successfully?
I’m always optimistic. Historically, the record of people who try to transition from resource-based economies is not good, so that gives me pause. At the same time, the international market for oil is not going to just stop. But the oil-dependent states have a limited amount of time to reorder their affairs – they have a pretty aggressive task ahead of them.