Thin-slicing: How Malcolm Gladwell demystified one of my skills


A couple of years ago I ran a full day’s training for
a Sydney recruitment agency. The nine participants, all recruiters with
between six months and six years recruitment experience, were all
recruiters unfamiliar to me. I had never met any of them prior to the
workshop nor had I had observed any of them in their usual work
environment undertaking their normal job. The only experience I had of
each person was their participation during the workshop.


The workshop proceeded from beginning to end,
completely normally in every respect, taking about seven hours.


At the completion of the workshop, the GM who had
instigated the workshop asked me to send her an email detailing my
observations and conclusions about each of the participants. A few days
later I made the time to send her the requested two of three sentences
on each person I had observed.


Her prompt and astonished email response was
confirmation that just about everything I had surmised about the
strengths and weaknesses of each recruiter was unerringly accurate. One
participant, a recent hire with little recruitment experience, I
identified as a person unlikely to stick at recruitment and would be
vulnerable to an offer of a more high profile or sexy marketing or sales
job outside recruitment. Within a month of the workshop, that recruiter
resigned to take a marketing job outside of recruitment.


I didn’t have any concrete explanation as to why I
was able to make such accurate assessments and predictions, on such
minimal evidence, other than to put it down to ‘experience’.


Having read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of
Thinking without Thinking   (see Ross Recommends, below) I now have a
better understanding of what that actual ‘experience’ was; I was
‘thin-slicing’. As Gladwell explains; ‘Thin-slicing refers to the
ability of our unconsciousness to find patterns in situations and
behavior based on very narrow slices of experience’


In other words, after about 34,000 cumulative hours
as a recruiter, leader of recruiters and trainer and coach of
recruiters, I had developed an unconscious ability to recognise
patterns of behaviour   in recruiters, even when they were just
interacting with me and other participants in a workshop that enabled me
to draw reasonably accurate conclusions about their strengths and


The really tricky part would have come if the GM had
asked me to identify exactly   what behaviours (or what
‘thin-slices’) I had observed in each workshop participant that had me
draw the conclusions I did.


I don’t think I could have done it, well not
convincingly anyway.


Gladwell provides the answer: ‘Whenever we experience
a basic emotion, that emotion is automatically expressed by the muscles
of the face. That response may linger on the face for just a fraction of
a second or be detectable only if electrical sensors are attached to the
face. But it’s always there.


We can all mind-read effortlessly and automatically
because the clues we need to make sense of someone or some social
situation are right there on the faces of those in front of us. We may
not be able to read faces as effortlessly as some….but there is enough
accessible information on a face to make everyday mind reading


After 34,000 hours of working with thousands of
recruiters in many, many different situations, my ‘mind reading’ of
recruiters had developed to such an extent that I was able to
automatically and unconsciously draw conclusions about people I had
never seen do their job. My only point of reference was watching and
listening to people talk about their job and the skills required to do
their job effectively.


Over the course of the day I was able to observe each
person’s facial expressions, eye contact and body language that enabled
me to, unconsciously, link those behavioural patterns to the skills and
traits of other successful and unsuccessful recruiters I had observed
throughout those previous 34,000 hours. Using this unconscious process I
was then able to draw my conclusions about each recruiter’s respective
skills and motivation.


It was a little like my (one and only) experience of
speed dating, about ten years ago. At a trendy Melbourne bar, I had a
six minute conversation with twelve different women. At the end of the
night when each person indicates whether they would like to see any of
their speed dates again, I remember trying to convince myself that one
or two of the women were worth a ‘real’ date but in my heart I knew that
those six minutes were enough to know the answer; none of them were
people I was interested in enough for a second date. I had thin-sliced
each potential date based on about 20 years of relationship and dating


This revelation about ‘thin-slicing’ has now helped
me understand why a number of things I have professionally believed in,
have validity beyond my own experience in ‘just knowing’ that they work.


Those things are: 

  1. Have a potential recruiter/employee
    spend half a day in the office to observe and ask questions about the
    team in action, before you make a decision to offer them a job    
    Patterns of behavior (the ‘thin-slices’) that the
    potential employee displays, away from the formality of an interview,
    reveals much about the suitability of that person’s character and
    motivation for the role of an agency recruiter.  

  2. Have that potential recruiter
    observe and comment on a candidate interview  
      Even without any technical knowledge of interviewing or of the job being
    interviewed for, a potential recruiter can still make valid observations
    that reveal how effectively they can ‘thin-slice’ a candidate’s

  3. Resume screening and interviewing
    are the critical first steps in building a recruiter’s competence and
    confidence     Thin-slicing, based on candidate resumes and the substance of their
    interview, is critical in being able to quickly book interviews,
    identify suitable candidates and recommend candidates to clients. If a
    recruiter cannot do this quickly and effectively, it is highly unlikely
    they will succeed, regardless of their other capabilities.  

  4. An interview needs to be a genuine
    and challenging test of a candidate’s competencies and motivation, not a
    friendly chat  Recruiters have between 30 and 60 minutes
    during the interview to assess a candidate for a job. The reality is
    that it is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy, whether the
    candidate is suitable or not. Interviewing using a behavioural event
    interview structure maximises your chances of identifying patterns of
    behavior   (helping you ‘thin-slice’) in a candidate that make them
    suitable or unsuitable to recommend to a client.  

  5. A client’s commitment to you needs
    to be tested   up-front  When you have an opportunity to fill a job it is critical that you
    ‘thin-slice’ the likelihood of you filling the job by testing the client
    on exclusivity   and their commitment to interview   your
    shortlisted candidates. Unless the client passes these respective tests
    of their commitment, experience tells me that only a very short period
    of time (if any at all) should be invested in working on such a vacancy.


Recruiters ultimately succeed or fail and are thereby
judged on outcomes not processes (although effective processes are
critical   to generating those outcomes).


Using our time in the most effective way maximises
the chances of our success.


Thin-slicing is a critical component of this time


What are you doing to recognise   important
patterns of client and candidate behavior and then how are you acting
on   those patterns?

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