INsight/ Communicate or Else

Manila, 22 March 2017 — Recruiters can look for who you are and what you can do. Are they overlooking something else that is equally or more important?

Since the dawn of this new millennium, CEOs and HR managers around the world have realized that when you recruit people only for the skills they have, you may end up disappointed with how they perform.

Skills and Attitude

Knowledge and skills are indispensable. Yet attitude is important too, and is often found to be a more powerful determinant of individual and collective success in business.

Attitude has to do with someone’s personality, mindset and behaviors, and it can show up in a positive way in demonstrating flexibility, passion, and accountability, for example.

Researchers and executives agree that the attitude of a new staff is not something that employers can easily change. At best, it will take a long time, and with significant attention and cost.

At worst, staff may not change their attitude, and infect others around them with their negative thinking and behaviors, no matter how smart and skillful they are.

Summing up the lessons learned in the corporate world, William Taylor, a co-founder of Fast Company, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “you can’t create something special, distinctive, and compelling in the marketplace unless you build something special, distinctive, and compelling in the workplace.”

And the best way to build something special in the workplace, Taylor said, was to “hire for attitude and train for skill.”

This adage has reverberated in speeches and online spaces for some time now, especially in the US. And I have heard it mentioned by HR specialists in Asia as well.

“We recruit for attitude and train for skill,” said Rushika Fernandopulle, a medical doctor at a special care clinic.

“We’re looking for what makes you who you are,” said Sherry Phelps, an executive at Southwest Airlines, which is famous for their rigorous and innovative hiring practices to maintain high customer care ratings.

Which Attitude?

So far, so good. We discovered that staff attitude is not in the control of employers, and that recruiting for attitude is therefore essential. Skills, on the other hand, can be built through training, which does not take very long.

To make sure we’re on the right path, let’s unpack this argument and see what can happen next. What attitude should staff be hired for, and who decides on the attitude that is desirable?

When businesses pay attention to attitude when they hire, researchers have noted that their tendency is to favor the attitudes that reflect the company's current culture. In the short term, that promotes a smooth working environment with teamwork. New recruits will fit in.

In the medium and longer term, however, a positive fitting-in attitude may fail to give the company the versatility they need to survive in our world of fast and disruptive change.

Furthermore, the risk of failure can increase when senior executives look—in a well-intentioned yet biased way—for attitudes in recruits that mirror their own mindset.

For companies to succeed in innovation and thrive in tomorrow’s world, a rich diversity of creative, competitive and collaborative mindsets will certainly be needed.

Looking for the company’s current attitude in new recruits, particularly those that resonate well with older executives, may cause businesses to fail. That can happen sooner than you think, like when a business fails to engage with excellent emerging leaders from the millennial generation.

Effective Communication

One of the areas where businesses need a lot of change, and where necessary attitude and skills overlap, is in effective communication.

Sarah Willis, writing in, found that a top issue facing businesses in the US today is entry-level staff’s inability to communicate in a professional manner.

We know that this is also a serious concern today in countries around the world, with more and more young professionals growing up online behind computer screens, and increasingly working from remote locations without the benefit of immersion in a collaborative office culture.

However, Willis went on to say that this skills shortage in communication “goes right up to the C-suite,” where executives have singled out effective communication as a key skill for staff to advance.

Even if staff have a positive attitude, they will fail if they cannot “express themselves and communicate across a variety of stakeholders,” according to Willis.

Her finding is consistent with the research of the Center for Creative Leadership, which has identified effective communication skills as a timeless requirement for people who want to advance in their career and influence others.

And research shows that there is plenty of room for improving communication.

Missing The Mark

One of my coaches, Judith E. Glaser of Benchmark Communications and the author of Conversational Intelligence, found that research of data gained from conversations in 500 companies showed that “9 out of 10 conversations miss the mark.”

Glaser explained that with ‘failing to hit the mark’ she meant that “people walked away from conversations with different views of reality and what they agreed upon.”  When a person has a conversation with another person, 90% of what they communicate can get lost or muddled in translation.

I wonder what that percentage of ‘conversations failing to hit the mark’ is in Asia and elsewhere outside the US. I have not seen statistics on that yet. 

From my own experience of working in Asia for more than 30 years, and seeing people communicate at all levels, from local communities to professionals, entrepreneurs, executives and all the way up to the highest levels in society, I would not be surprised if the conversation failure rate is similar to that in the US.

One of the areas where I noted that conversations often miss the mark is between staff of different generations and levels working together in businesses. Other common divides are between businesses and their clients and stakeholders, especially if they are from different countries and cultures.

In my experience, poor communication is perhaps the most common obstacle to project success. I have observed this in many projects, and from entry-level staff all the way to the most senior executives.

In projects, ineffective communication in conversations happens when we fail to connect with clients in their language. I have noticed that many engineers, planners and scientists struggle with their communication skills, and that this causes costly delays and problems in projects, all the way from design to implementation.

So if 9 out of 10 conversations miss the mark, what do we do about it?  

Prioritize Communication Skills

For businesses to flourish and succeed, we need to hire for attitude—a diversity in mindsets—and for effective communication skills, including the courage to challenge the current way of doing things in the business in search of better ways.

Diverse attitudes and effective communication will open the door to innovation, with smarter solutions that start to address tomorrow’s challenges today. Nothing less will be sufficient to succeed.

Now is a good time to review and upgrade the communication skills we need to lead change.

9 out of 10 conversations miss the mark.
— Judith E. Glaser