The Case for More Tortoises

Slow, methodical workers are best suited for jobs that require mastering complex problems, being thorough and not making mistakes. So why does HR design selection and evaluation systems biased against them?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
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The New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell has a colleague whom he characterizes as a "neurotic tortoise."

That may not sound like a good thing to be. But according to Gladwell, a neurotic tortoise may be exactly whom we want to hire in certain jobs and professions.

Named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time and New York Times bestselling author of David and Goliath, Outliers, Blink and The Tipping Point, Gladwell delivered a keynote address at the recent Wharton People Analytics Conference. He began by playing a clip of an interview with fellow staff writer at The New Yorker Sheelah Kolhatkar -- his aforementioned neurotic tortoise -- in which she talked about her experiences working as a hedge fund analyst earlier in her career.

In the interview, Kolhatkar recounted feeling extremely uncomfortable in the role. "It required making quick decisions about what to do with other people's money, and I'm a very cautious, careful, thoughtful person," she said. "The thought of making a mistake actually keeps me awake at night." She observed that the best traders were those with a huge tolerance for risk, who were cool and dispassionate under pressure. She, on the other hand, became "a basket case."

Are traits such as being super-conscientious, even neurotic, valuable in a work environment? Gladwell contrasted Kolhatkar's self-described performance as a trader with her achievements as an investigative reporter. He talked about her book Black Edge, published this year, which profiles famed hedge fund investor Steven A. Cohen.

"If you read her book, you begin to understand how useful those traits are," he said. "She's unbelievably dogged. She goes back four, five, six, times to talk to people; she bangs on doors and doesn't give up." He added that Steven Cohen is considered the most secretive man in the hedge fund world, calling Kolhatkar's book "a prodigious feat of reporting."

The type of worker that Kolhatkar is, noted Gladwell, is one who does a job as thoroughly and carefully as possible regardless of the clock ticking on the wall. But, he said, being slow and neurotic is not generally valued either by human resource departments or our educational system. They want not tortoises but hares: people who work fast.

Gladwell asserted that neurotic tortoises are "highly suited for the present workplace" in jobs that require mastering complex problems, being thorough and not making mistakes. Why then, he asked, do we design selection and evaluation systems biased against them?

Standard Test Time Limits

As one example of "how we make life difficult for neurotic tortoises," Gladwell discussed the way modern testing is typically designed. He explained that current theories of testing draw a distinction between speed and power. A children's card game like Snap -- and many video games -- are speed games: The tasks or questions are fairly easy, but what's really being measured is how fast you can respond. On the other hand, games like Scrabble or traditional chess are power games. How long it takes is much less important than demonstrating brainpower and strategy.

Speed and power are separate variables, said Gladwell, and people tend to do well at either one or the other. For example, when chess is speeded up -- in a version of the game called "blitz chess" -- the international rankings of players get shuffled significantly.

"There's no such thing as the best chess player in the world," observed Gladwell. "There's only the best chess player at the particular mix of speed and power at which we choose to play international competitions."

Turning to education, Gladwell talked about the LSAT, the test required to get into law school. He asked why this test -- a power test to assess knowledge -- is "speeded." Why does it consist of five 35-minute sections? Gladwell said he understands imposing time limits on chess -- otherwise, games would take forever and "you'd have to quit your job" to be a chess fan -- but "the LSAT is not a spectator sport."

He proposed that someone like Sheelah Kolhatkar -- the "neurotic tortoise" -- might achieve a higher score on a test like the LSATs compared to a "hare" if the time constraints were altered. Under current conditions, he theorized, a hare might swiftly answers all the questions on the test to the best of his ability, getting some right and some wrong. The tortoise, who might be smarter but slower, actually accumulates more right answers than the hare. But by being super-careful and afraid of making mistakes, she runs out of time and has to guess on the remaining questions. As a result, their scores add up to exactly the same number.

"From the standpoint of the LSAT, the neurotic tortoise and the hare are absolutely identical," said Gladwell, because they have the same score. "But that's nonsense. These two candidates could not be more different."

According to Gladwell, if they were both given more time, the hare's score would remain the same. The hare has already "hit his ceiling" of knowledge, having attempted all the questions. But the tortoise might correctly answer an even larger portion of the questions.

"When you add speed to a power test, you are not improving the accuracy of the test. You're changing what you're measuring," said Gladwell. He added that it obscures our understanding of those who excel under pure power conditions.

The same kind of bias can exist in law schools, where students generally are tasked with in–class tests (highly-speeded power tests), take-home tests (moderately-speeded power tests), and research papers (pure power tests), Gladwell pointed out. If a particular school weights in-class tests very heavily -- for example, as 80 percent of a student's grade -- then "Hare looks like a leader and Tortoise looks like a complete loser."

According to Gladwell's research, the only reason the LSAT is speeded is "that's the way they've always done it." But what type of personality actually makes a better lawyer? Gladwell doubted that the legal profession has ever had a conversation about "what we want from the profession -- what we want a lawyer to look like."

For his own part, he said, "I absolutely do not want a speedy lawyer . . .  . Can you imagine a lawyer who came to you and said, 'So here's the contract, take a look, if it turns out it's not the right thing we can just go back and do another version later.' Are you kidding me? That's a disaster."

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He added, "I'm reminded of the story during the financial crisis where someone puts the comma in the wrong place and they end up paying $20 a share for Lehman, not $2 a share. Who is the person who read that document at two in the morning?" The hare, he said. It wasn't Sheelah Kolhatkar. "She would have read it over five times."

'Conscientious Hares'

Joining Gladwell on stage for part of his talk was Adam Grant, Wharton professor of management and psychology and author of the New York Times bestsellers Originals and Give and Take. Grant, who is also co-director of Wharton People Analytics, challenged Gladwell on some of his assertions.

"It seems like for most complex jobs, [speed and power] are not quite as independent," he said. While he acknowledged that "the fastest sprinter is never going to be the best marathoner, and vice versa," he argued that the more expert someone is at a job, the more their fast, intuitive thinking will actually be accurate and allow them to perform quickly. "Shouldn't we just assume, most of the time, that the experts are going to be faster?" he asked.

He cited a principle from Gladwell's own book Outliers: the "ten thousand hours" rule, which suggests that one can achieve mastery in a field after about 10,000 hours of practice.

Gladwell contended that the cognitive profile of some professions is different. He gave the example, in addition to lawyers, of mathematicians. "My father was a mathematician -- there's no upside in being fast. A great mathematician might publish ten great papers in their lifetime. Why would we want to reward a mathematician who wrote his paper in six months as opposed to two years?"

Grant also questioned the premise that most people are either thorough or speedy but not both. "Could there just be really conscientious hares, who are fast, and who execute, and who are also careful?"

Gladwell responded, "That's like saying, 'Can't we have all basketball players who resemble Michael Jordan?' We can't argue for the perfect form, because the perfect form happens once in a generation. I think if you want highly neurotic, highly conscientious people, they're going to be tortoises by and large."

He said he was increasingly struck by how different disciplines have different ideal profiles, and noted that it was part of a larger argument about "being much more accepting of difference when it comes to selection."

Gladwell exhorted HR executives to think deeply about what type of personality they should be looking for in particular jobs or professions. "Analytics are of no value if you don't have a conversation beforehand about why you want to use a particular analytic," he said.

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


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