Never Kiss a Fool
Leaders who select talent or interview candidates should memorize the adage, “Never kiss a fool or let a kiss fool you.” The idea of letting kisses fool you is something many leaders are more susceptible to than they might realize. After all, as Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” We like it when others recognize how special we are. Sometimes, too much.
When prospective colleagues blow sunshine at leaders, in the form of praise, compliments, and flattery, the effect can be surprising. It is only natural to like those who like us. But some leaders unwittingly draw a connection between ingratiation and talent. We tend to view those people who think highly of us and our organization as more talented and skillful than they are.
It may feel comforting to know a candidate thinks well of a leader, but there is simply no correlation between the rosy views they have of your talents and theirs. The same is true of physical attractiveness, which is another blind spot for many leaders. Those we find physically attractive might be easier to look at, but nothing about their appearance necessarily connects to anything about their skills or acumen.
The susceptibility of judging those who sing our praises or are more physically attractive in our eyes as more talented is a fatal flaw and needs to be suppressed. Guarding against this bias by calling it out to ourselves is usually enough to get the job done.
The bigger problem is when an influential colleague holds this favoritism and uses it in their selection preferences. Waking them up to the “sunshine” effect is not always as easy as calling them out.
Flattery, it turns out, will get you everywhere…with some leaders. Acknowledging the praise and suggesting it is irrelevant to talent assessment is a better path than describing this bias as a flaw in a colleague’s judgment.
Reminding everyone involved with selecting new colleagues that the need to judge talent objectively is a difficult task underlines that biases exist that have to be held at bay. Among many hidden prejudices, good leaders don’t let kisses fool them. Those who do learn months later that the candidate who was so impressed with us is not so impressive themselves. That’s a kiss that hurts the team.