Stuck In A Psycho Babble Rut

For years many (and maybe more still) embraced the dribble that was touted as “defining characteristics” of what type of person one was. e.g., “If you were a tree, what type of tree would you be?” Absolute nonsense and irrelevant I have stated many times.

However, that didn’t stop it from being pushed through nearly every Human Resource (HR) department where one was instructed to use such qualifiers to gauge both prospective, as well as hired personnel to predetermine whether or not someone should be hired or promoted.

Personally I believe this has probably hurt or held back more qualified candidates from positions they may have been perfect for by affixing some “label” of: “This person picked the wrong tree so we cut them down.”

This type of thinking only needs to take hold in one HR office to then be spread throughout the corporate world propagating in a manner and form that would make a virus blush for its tenacity.

The other issue that I believe is hurting more companies than actually helping is this mindset and set of qualifiers seems to never evolve nor is back tested by the very people promoting it to see if the damn process is valid or even works!

I will bet dollars to doughnuts what never gets discussed in an exit meeting whether for voluntary separation or mandatory is the discussion of…

“Well, they weren’t right for that position because as it’s written here, for what tree they answered:  Ailanthus altissima. It’s so obvious. Quick, get our resident botanist in here and demand they answer why they didn’t catch this mismatch!”

Sounds foolish and it is. Yet, asking in the first place and giving the “correct” answer can make, break, or chainsaw one’s chances. And it’s still being perpetuated today. Why? Because it just seems so damn compelling regardless if it can pass the scientific method.

Can you imagine if you walked into an interview and were asked: What astrological sign are you? Most (I would hope all) would be appalled with good reason. However, the “what tree” hypothesis is pretty much the same is it not? e.g., “We really need an Aries for this job. Sorry, but Gemini’s are just too spooky with that mirror image thing for this company. Again sorry. Next!”

I’ve also written and spoke on one of my pet peeves, the “right brain – left brain” argument or qualifier. I’ve stated many times I believe this subject has been brain-dead for years. But again. you’ll hear it used near everywhere even though it’s now been proven via the scientific method (the only true standard that means anything) it was junk as in pseudoscience.

Its been debunked. (you can read more here) Yet, how often do you yourself still hear or read this theory as if it is now proven fact? I’ll bet you don’t have to think that hard, which gives weight to my point all the more.

In the mid 80’s when this form of psychometric was in its infancy as a prerequisite for hiring at larger companies, I came face to face with a near booklet resembling War and Peace in thickness of psyche styled questions that needed to be answered first as to move me to the next stage of the interview process. I indignantly refused to a then aghast HR director.

I shot back this question as I leafed through the pages: “Who evaluates my answers to these questions?” The reply?” Well  I do.” Then I followed with: “Where is your degree in psychology? I don’t see it hanging next to any other certification you have hanging on your wall. I don’t care what this job pays if this what it takes to be hired at this company – forget it!”

Believe it or not, I won that argument with some give and take on their part. I agreed to answer what I thought was appropriate – they agreed what ever I left blank was fine. I left nearly 80% blank. It seemed all they cared about was they could check off on a list I “filled” it out. This is why HR has so many issues that need to be addressed. They are more concerned with process rather than outcome. But that’s for another column.

After approximately 90 days on the job I was causing quite a ruckus. As a manager I shook up my department (I was in charge of the cook operation for a national roast-beef company.) The department was a mess. The staff was frustrated with other departments treating them like broken toys. Requests for needed upgrades and more fell on deaf ears. They were working long hours with mandatory overtime to keep up production and a whole lot of other issues too numerous to mention. I thought it was deplorable for a company of this stature. It was unnecessary and I decided to do something about it. For after all, this was now “my baby.”

I demanded needed or upgraded items. When I felt was being blown off, I put on a vivid demonstration that would make P.T.Barnum proud.

After the crew complaining for nearly a year about a problem maintenance would not solve with the ovens I shut everything down, taped 100’s of strips of paper inside the ovens as to show the issues with air flow, called the head of quality control, and the senior management to the cook room. Then as if I was on stage I told everyone to focus on the oven windows, hit the switch and let the little strips of paper speak for me. Then I said…

“How do you expect this department to put out a quality product to meet our schedule and customers demands when I can’t get these ovens not only adjusted: But even looked at?  And people want to hold this department accountable for low production numbers as if it’s our fault? I’ll stand here as long as it takes till someone wants to explain it too me.”

The problem was rectified 48 hours later. Our production went through the roof. So much so overtime dropped to near zero, and although I made a difference it also seemed I made some very jealous and angry coworkers. i.e., other department managers.

After about a month of smooth sailing I was called for a meeting with HR. The topic? Why wasn’t I coming in on Saturdays or only working 40 hours unlike the other departments that are running overtime? My response? “Because we don’t need to. Production is ahead of schedule, the staff is clearly now in control of the cook facility, and as you can see by our metrics we’re kicking butt against all other department. I really don’t fully understand the questioning. Am I missing something?”

Apparently I was, for it became abundantly clear they were thrilled with my turn around of the department however, the other managers were complaining that if they needed to be there late at night or on Saturdays that I should be compelled to do the same. Regardless if I was needed or not.

I was appalled (yes this does seem to be a recurring thing for me) the insinuation was clear, to quell the childlike behavior it was implied I needed to come in as to make the others “happy.” I would have none of it.

I shot back: “You mean to tell me that rather than use me as an example for them to get their departments in order so that they too can stop all the overtime issues they are facing as well as the company, you want to punish me for doing the right things so that people incapable of doing their own jobs get the satisfaction of seeing me held hostage as some form of compensation for their incompetence? Am I hearing this all correctly?”

After hemming and hawing it was finally admitted that that was exactly what they were implying. So, I did what seemed like my only true option: I quit. (They also had a policy where the management hierarchy would wear different colored hats to signify rank. Gold, then blue, then green, and so forth. When I started it was decided to not hurt anyone’s self-esteem and that everyone would now wear the same color regardless which became blue. I still have this hard hat some 30 years later for I saved it to remind me of the ridiculous thought processes displayed within a once very cutting edge company. For this thinking went hand in hand with the “what tree” philosophy.)

That company only a few short years later would close putting hundreds out of work. Personally as many of you know I did quite well over the years. I wonder still to this day what trees the other managers gave as answers on their questionnaires.

Again, I would bet dollars to doughnuts if I was able to view them I would read: Mighty Oak, Douglas Fir, Aspen, Ash, and so on. What I’ll bet you wouldn’t read was: Weeping Willow. At least then it might have a chance of having some validity for which has been proved, it does not. The only thing left to ponder on this whole notion in my view is: If a tree falls in a bankruptcy court, does it affect the judgement of the judge? But I digress.

Maybe you think I’m coming down hard on this topic for who am I to question psychological markers or traits that can be beneficial to the hiring process. It’s not like I have a degree or something. I mean, I didn’t even graduate from high school. (actually I have a GED from the University of Southern Maine. How many have a high school diploma from a University? Huh? Huh? Although that’s true I am trying to be funny for people get sooooo uptight about degrees or alphabet soup suffixes) However as it be, I think it’s a fair question so I’ll end with this:

I had been asked my opinion on a psychological evaluation form a person I’m close to received. As I went over it I was left slack-jawed that it was basically the same formulation of questions that I knew were garbage 30 years ago! Yet, there they were as if this were some revelation process that would tell HR or other management clues as to this persons makeup or more.

In what turned into a quest I decided to look into this further for I really couldn’t believe a major company of this size and scale would even be remotely affiliated using this criteria. (this is a publicly held company with Billions in market cap)

I looked back through my library and I found one of my books written by one of the top consultants in the country. He has worked not only for, but has provided one on one leadership counseling and developed strategies for some of the Fortune 50™ let alone 500.

In one of his books written back in the time period (the mid 80’s) of where much of this had originated. He himself had conducted and implemented proprietary metrics that seemed truly note worthy.

They were serious questions and criteria to be filled out with plotting, diagrams, and formulations that helped round out one category from another and so forth. The work and its implications even to a skeptic like myself were compelling. I knew this author and have admired his work for many years so I reached out to him and asked a simple question. (The conversation was private and I didn’t ask if I could share his name so I’m not being coy it’s in respect of inferred confidentiality. However what I can state, is this person does have a Ph.D in psychology, and at one time was the president of a company that specialized in psychometric analyzing tests. So it’s not as if this person doesn’t have standing on this very subject.)

I asked:

“Two quick questions to ask. Both pertain to the same book.

In your book XXXXX you illustrate many samplings of where one would enter numbers and answers then plot these within a system that produces lines or symbols that one can then visually reference to behavior patterns and so forth.

Would you (or do you) still use these as they stand today?

I am only asking because the book is now 25 years old. And sometimes what we once thought as gospel we later find wasn’t as relevant as we first thought.
Personally I find it fascinating and if I was ever to cite or demonstrate it, I want to make sure I give credit where credit is due properly.”

The response:

“I do not use this today. I no longer believe in “labeling” of any kind.

The material is not validated and is way out of date. I would discourage any use of it today.”

(There was a bit more but that’s all that’s needed to make the point)

That is exactly what people on the top of their game do. Even if they may have developed what they thought or considered cutting edge at the time. If it’s proven to not be what they first thought: they move on to better strategies or tactics. Even if it means calling their own past work irrelevant for today’s business world. That’s why I personally consider him a valuable resource.

Too few have the self-confidence and introspective to question themselves or their work and state openly their opinions even if it means calling themselves or their past work out of date or worse, possibly wrong. His candor was a breath of fresh air. So many others (others I know personally) would have went around and jawbone this or that in some dazzling display of trying to baffle with BS as they tried to do anything and everything not to contradict their own work regardless.

Which is probably the reason why we’ll find many of them still trying to convince any and all HR departments that their “New and Improved” version of psycho babble is different from the last.

Problem for the great majority…Some are still buying it.

© 2014 Mark St.Cyr