Hiring for kindness: One simple question

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

One of the most important qualities I look for when I’m hiring someone to join my team is kindness. In the world of aggressive business culture, the idea of kindness can have a reputation for meaning that you’re “soft” or unassertive. (I won’t even go into all the gender politics involved in how we talk about what makes a successful leader.)

Contrary to that perception, kindness is actually a critical skill for effective teams, successful businesses, and positive organizational culture. Kindness isn’t contrary to assertiveness or to radical candor. Rather, kindness is the quality that allows for colleagues who:

  • work collaboratively with others without ego getting in the way.
  • give constructive feedback in ways that are supportive and effective.
  • create an environment of trust that is so crucial to effective teams .

So, how does one hire for kindness? There’s certainly some of the process that involves a bit of “spidey sense”, but given that gut feelings can be subject to unconscious bias, I’ve tried to find more structured ways to screen people. One method, which is pretty straightforward, is simply asking about it in reference calls. Seems obvious, but people are often surprised by the question!

The most useful tool I’ve found is one simple question: “How would your colleagues describe you as a collaborator?” The way someone answers this question provides a wealth of information. The responses I’ve gotten tend to fall into 3 categories:

  1. They’ve clearly never considered the question before in any depth. This is a big red flag because it means two things: It means that they aren’t intentional about their approach to collaboration, but it also means that they haven’t really thought about how their behavior might affect their colleagues or how others might perceive them.
  2. They speak to their own approach to collaboration but not what role they play in the team dynamics overall. This is pretty common and can be a fine place to start and grow from, especially for an individual contributor (if someone is leading others, I would hesitate a bit more). The only big red flag here is if the approach they describe seems more focused on their own success than the team’s success.
  3. The best situation is a highly self-aware answer, one which outlines how they think their approach plays out in the team overall and how it helps to support others. With this level of candidate, I usually see them explicitly thinking through how to help others grow and make space for everyone.

This isn’t a perfect science, but that one question can be very revealing about how a person works and relates to others. It has been helpful in providing a more analytical way to hire for kindness and try to bring in people who will make for a successful team and an organization in which people can thrive. I would love to hear about any other strategies you have found to approach hiring for kindness. Share your thoughts on Twitter @cog_sprocket!

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