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10 Questions for Becoming a Better Judge of People - Anthony Tjan - Harvard Business Review

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Anthony Tjan has an excellent list of questions for judging people:

I have been collecting and reflecting upon questions that have helped me improve my people judgment, especially around personality and attitude. Here are ten key questions to help you better understand the intrinsic "why" and "how" behind a person:

1. What is the talk-to-listen ratio? You want people who are self-confident and not afraid to express their views, but if the talk-to-listen ratio is anything north of 60%, you want to ask why. Is it because this person is self-important and not interested in learning from others — or just because he is nervous and rambling?

2. Is this an energy-giver or -taker? There is a certain breed of people who just carry with them and unfortunately spread a negative energy. You know who they are. Alternatively, there are those who consistently carry and share a positivity and optimism towards life. There is a Chinese proverb that says that the best way to get energy is to give it. Energy-givers are compassionate, generous and the type of people with whom you immediately want to spend time.

3. Is this person likely to "act" or "react" to a task? Some people immediately go into defensive, critical mode when given a new task. Others jump right into action and problem-solving mode. For most jobs, it's the second kind you want.

4. Does this person feel authentic or obsequious? There is nothing flattering about false praise, or people trying too hard to impress. Really good people don't feel the need to "suck up." Those who can just be themselves are more pleasant to work with.

5. What's the spouse like? One of my business partners gave me a great tip for interviewing a super important hire — go out with their spouse, partner, or closest friend. We are known by the company we keep.

6. How does this person treat someone she doesn't know? At the other end of the spectrum, observe how a person treats someone she barely knows. This is what I call a "taxi driver or server test." Does the person have the openness and yes, kindness, to have a real conversation with a waiter at a restaurant or the driver of a taxi? Does she ignore them or treat them rudely?

7 Is there an element of struggle in the person's history? History matters. In our research for the book, Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), my co-authors and I found that around two-thirds of people who were "Guts-dominant" — those who had the desire to initiate and the ability to persevere so crucial in entrepreneurial ventures — had some financial hardship or other challenges in their formative years. Early failures and hardships shape one's character as much or more than early successes.

8. What has this person been reading? Reading gives depth, helps one understand one's history, frames ideas, sparks new thoughts and nuances to existing perspectives, and keeps you apprised of current events. It's a generalization, but the more interesting people I have met tend to read a lot — it's a mark of intellectual curiosity.

9. Would you ever want to go on a long car ride with this person? This is a variant of the "airport test." Years ago at my first job, I was told about the thought-experiment of asking if you were stuck at an airport with a candidate, how would you really feel? In a similar fashion, is this the type of person with whom you could imagine going on a cross-country drive?

10. Do you believe that this person is self-aware? My colleagues and I believe the most important pre-requisite to great leadership is self-awareness. Does this person have an intellectual honesty about who he is and his strengths and weaknesses? Does she have a desire to learn and take appropriate actions based on that awareness? It is usually a more difficult question to answer than the rest — but look for humility, and congruence between what the person thinks, says, and does.

I see how these could be good ways to evaluate subordinates and paid employees hired in a controlled work environment.  

However, I work with and invest in people in less structured settings: for over 20 years I've had to recruit and get others to complete work when they are not paid by me or under my direct control.  And yet I've found that certain people will go out and accomplish verifiable results, start unstructured projects, programs and companies and measurably improve the lives of others if you can pick those with the right dispositions to do it.  Back in the day we called these "Sparkplug" dispositions and those that embody these traits are typically innovators and entrepreneurs. 

The seven key dispositions below are what any individual can adopt to drive success in most undertakings and environments.  Note there is some overlap with the above list, suggesting a robust value for that trait:

1. Energy

Listless people rarely accomplish anything, people that bring natural energy of their own making often have stamina and staying power, enthusiasm and optimism for progress and a valued sense of humor along the way.

2. Bias to Act

It's the doers rather than the critics, planners or boosters that are most consequential to success. You'll know them by their focusing on solutions, not problems, having a sense of urgency for progress and being opportunity-driven.

3. Results Focus

Those with a need for achievement articulate clear, compelling and verifiable visions of success that are doable with a stretch. These folks welcome and use objective milestones and openly communicate progress, or lack of it, in order to recognize mistakes and make early course corrections in their activities, rather than being validated by having "done their job".

4. Personal Responsibility

Some people blame others, the environment or factors out of their control for their own behavior, or as excuses for mistakes and lack of progress.  High performers acknowledge mistakes, focus more on personal than group accountability and don't wait for responsibility to be delegated--they take it.

5. Belief in Common Good

Achievers naturally look beyond their own self interests to recognize what is important for others, willingly build on diversity and can see and activate shared values among those with divergent interests to drive progress.

6. Inclined to Small Teams

Capable folks are eager to engage people needed because of their proven differences in abilities instead of surrounding themselves with the like-minded, they willingly share credit as well as information and drive for creation of shared results instead of divisive agreement on who owns what activities.

7. Ratio of Questions to Declarations

High performers master asking more questions than voicing declarative statements or personal opinions. This verbal ratio naturally prompts a collaborative focus on learning through valuable information and prevents huge amounts of wasteful talk time.  It is also a much more simple, accurate predictor of positive work value than the talk-listen ratio, which is easily mastered by sycophants and manipulative people. 



Thank you Rob -- spectacular list of superior dispositions!

Is that your own list or from somewhere?

I used all of these principles in practice in hundreds of projects beginning with my work at The Rensselaerville Institute 20 years ago.  Attribution should be given to Hal Williams, previous president of the Institute and my mentor, for codifying them into theory that could find easy application in practice.

Well it's a great set of traits. Hat tip to Hal Williams!

An important coda: You only have 24 hours in a day.

You become like the people you interact with.

Choose carefully.

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