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How disambiguation can lead to the best hire

By Alan Oathout

In a training course I once routinely delivered, I posed the following question: “In the family where you grew up, was dessert considered a part of the meal, or something extra—a special add-on?”

I always joked that I could leave the room, get a cup of coffee, hang out in the break room for a while, and come back to find the participants still hotly debating the meaning of “dessert.” We then explored how such a relatively simple concept could be viewed so differently.

The world of work is filled with terms and expressions that carry the weight of assumed meaning—assumed, at least, by ourselves as the message-sender. These tacit definitions feel completely natural to us, but often lead to confusion and misunderstanding in our listeners.

In coaching/consulting around PI, I’ve found it useful to encourage hiring managers, supervisors, and other stakeholders to examine these unspoken assumptions.

Go pick a job posting at random and study the code words we use to describe characteristics of both organizations and individuals: fast-paced, results-oriented, dynamic, creative, independent, team player, professional, excellent communication skills, trusting relationships, adaptable, and, a personal favorite from the Hall of Vague: proven leader.

Then ask yourself some variation of the crucial question: Which kind?

Is every organization that tacks “fast-paced” onto its job ads describing the same reality? McDonald’s workers, stockbrokers, junior high teachers, and air traffic controllers all inhabit fast-paced environments, but as my kids often observe (in a nod to the animated Disney film “Bolt”): “Not the same, Billy.”

“Fast-paced” has become such a ubiquitous label in modern times that it’s rendered practically meaningless without drilling down to deeper levels of specificity. Am I required to physically move quickly? To work for long hours without breaks? To move multiple projects forward simultaneously? To react promptly to customer concerns? Or does it simply mean the amount of work here is astronomical, and I’m going to be burned out and stressed trying to get it all done?

Not the same, Billy.

Linguists (and computer scientists) have an expression for this practice of parsing out the intended meaning of words: Disambiguation.

This is not an exercise in nit-picking, nor does it require bogging down in endless quibbling. Disambiguation is a vital strategy for coaxing the highest functional value out of the PI Behavioral Assessment.

By way of illustration, consider the paradox involved in the behavior we label “guarded.” If I asked you which aspect of the B factor (the factor that measures extraversion) you commonly associated with guarded behavior, would your first response be low B – low extraversion? Certainly low B’s can require more privacy for reflection, may “think before they speak,” take longer to extend trust to others, and perhaps not compete for the verbal spotlight in social situations. Years of research into extroversion tells us that extroverts take more overt risks than introverts.

Yet low B’s can be quite unguarded in recognizable ways. Low B sincerity can find expression in unfiltered, unpolished, or “blunt” forms of communication, with more regard for what’s true than for what’s palatable. High B’s – high extraversion – on the other hand are often more adept at guarding their words and emotions in the service of tact and diplomacy. They filter and select, and interpret interpersonal cues as an index for shaping their own responses. Investigations concerning emotional labor show that extraverts tend to be more effective at disguising their genuine emotions at work, while presenting the “approved” public face (e.g., smiling and courteous behavior in the face of rude customers, or masking disapproval during a stressful meeting).

The key is, both people with low extraversion and high extraversion can come off as guarded, in their own characteristic ways. And those ways can be somewhat predictable when you understand that there is more than one path to being guarded. Guarded isn’t one behavior, it is several. Which kind do you want (or not want, as the case may be)?

PI Analysts can better assist supervisors, managers, and directors by helping them re-examine these umbrella terms. One of the more powerful, yet subtle, benefits of the PI process is its ability to enhance communication—to raise the level of dialogue to a more finely-tuned clarity than we typically experience. For those willing to grapple with challenging questions up front, the reward is getting a much closer approximation of what truly matters.

Try asking:

What kind of _______? What does that term mean to you?

If I was standing in your office/factory/store, what would I see that tells me your culture is detail-oriented? (or creative, or autonomous, etc.)

Are there varieties of ______ that you would want to avoid?

(*Extra credit if you walk into your next meeting and ask someone to, “disambiguate, please.”)

Oh, and in case you were wondering: dessert is definitely part of the meal!


Thad is a senior marketing director at PI.

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