Interviewing for effective unconscious dissent

My recent posts considered the problem of evaluating capabilities of candidates in an hiring process and especially during the interview.   The focus of those posts was on determining capabilities or skills that are necessary for the open position.   These capabilities span multiple levels of intelligence including the objective or conscious skills best measured through examinations or certifications, emotional or subconscious skills essential for effective participation in teams and negotiations, and unconscious skills that can perform tasks without conscious step-by-step instruction.   For each of these levels, we are interested in the discipline that offers these skills available when required.

In modern interview practice, often too much time is wasted on redundantly testing the conscious knowledge that is probably already verified by past experience and credentials.   This may be because the interview itself is a conscious dialog where exploring objective facts is easy.   Skilled or well planned interviews may begin to evaluate the emotional intelligence and the discipline of both the conscious and emotional intelligence.   When it comes to unconscious behavior and discipline, the interview model does not work.

Of the three intelligence levels, the unconscious intelligence is most valuable when we are seeking experience, but we have no easy way to measure it.   Instead, we use the interview process to probe the other two intelligence levels and then expect past performance evidenced in the resume or curriculum vitae to predict future performance.   Personally, I don’t believe the past performance is very predictive because people’s incentives change as they grow older and past achievements may have been very context specific: they were able to achieve what they did because they were in the right place at the right time.    My current opportunity may not offer such an ideal place for this candidate.

For experienced level positions, I suggested that an audition approach may be a better use of time than an interview.   Certifications, past experiences, and references can sufficiently answer the questions of conscious and emotional intelligence and discipline.   The audition approach provides us the opportunity to evaluate the elusive unconscious mind’s skills and discipline.   My suggestion for the face-to-face time with a candidate is to assign a real world task with tangible outcomes for success and failure.   Such an assignment with a very limited time window would necessarily activate the unconscious mind.   I further suggested swapping the success and failure outcomes in order to evaluate the discipline of the unconscious mind in order to observe whether the unconscious mind would find a way to contribute when the contribution is optional, but where the contribution is more exhausting and stressful than not contributing.

The above summary focuses on the benefits the candidate offers the employer.  The employer seeks an employee who can do the job that needs to be done.   This evaluation examines skills and disciplines of each level of intelligence: conscious, emotional, and unconscious.

Evaluation for skills and discipline presumes obedience to follow orders that have a higher wisdom.   In a previous post, I pointed out the example of the sheep dog requiring multiple repeated commands to rest.   The expectation is that the shepherd has a superior understanding of the situation and that the dog should perform as commanded.   I observed that it is possible that the dog is able to perceive something that the shepherd can not, and thus had a valid reason for ignoring the first command.   Discipline demanded his obedience on the second or third repeated command.

My focus in these discussions is on hiring experienced staff who will fill a role with autonomy and responsibility.   Certainly, there will remain a hierarchy of command where the higher levels understand more about the necessity for a certain action.   Yet, we are hiring experienced people who have skills and know how to use them efficiently.   Being closer to the problem that needs to be solved, they can very easily observe something that is not known to the boss.

We do not want perfect dog like obedience from experienced staff.  We value their skills and discipline to get their assigned jobs done properly and efficiently.  We also value the possible innovation of the experienced staff to find better ways to solve a problem, or even to recognize that other problems exist that are more important to solve.   We value well reasoned dissent from our experienced staff.  Although modern trends are to reduce the latitude of where that dissent is tolerated, there remains an area where the staff’s dissenting opinion would be valuable.

As an aside, I’m not even sure the shepherd demands perfect obedience from his dogs.  For example, if the shepherd sends the sheep in the direction of a hazard that only the dog can see, the shepherd probably expects the dog to disobey the order or at least attempt to signal to the shepherd that the command is not advised.   The shepherd probably appreciates the wisdom of his dogs and expects them to object if they see something wrong.   I mention this only to emphasize my respect for the intelligence of dogs and their codependent relationship with the shepherd.

Experienced staff positions requires skills and discipline to accomplish the necessary work.   However, it would be waste of talent if we demanded complete discipline or blind obedience to follow every command.   At least speaking for myself, as a manager I would want to benefit from dissent informed by skills and experienced.  The relationship of manager and skilled employee is a codependent relationship: the manager needs feedback.

In fact, industry recommended management practices usually includes a process for continuous improvement such as the processes described in ITIL recommendations.   Continuous improvement requires a feedback from the delivery of a service to the decision makers for developing new services or refining old ones.

The job of the experienced staff is to perform his assigned tasks efficiently but also to contribute to the continual service improvement process by making suggestions that may change or even eliminate those tasks.  Making suggestions for service improvements is the same as dissent.  Both require communication of an objection back to the higher authorities to suggest a change in the task.

We usually talk about continual service improvement as an iterative process where the current task must be obediently carried out and the suggestion may apply to some future action.   There are times when that suggestion requires immediate implementation.   When that happens, we should expect immediate feedback for the suggestion and the employee should expect an immediate consideration of that suggestion.   Perhaps the decision is to repeat the command to do the task any way and this will need to be resolved between the two parties.

While we do expect compliance from the employee, the employee still retains some accountability for his actions.  Consider the scenario where the employee can see something bad happening if the task is followed as directed but he follows the command to do the task any way.   If something bad does happen, he will be held accountable for that bad result.  The explanation that he was following orders will not be an acceptable excuse especially for a senior-level skilled staff member.  This sometimes gets labeled as making the obedient employee a scapegoat for the problem.   However, he does bear some accountability for agreeing to perform something he foresaw as likely to cause harm.

The employment condition is implicitly coercive in the sense that keeping a job or remaining on track for future promotions requires cooperation with upper management.   Even within this environment, dissent can occur safely through well reasoned argument at the conscious level or through persuasions at the emotional level.  This dissent is what makes continual service improvement possible.

The challenge for dissent is most acute for the unconscious level of intelligence.   In my last post, I described as a lack of discipline the inability of the unconscious mind to find an opportunity to apply its skills in a novel circumstance.  There, a problem needed to be solved, but the problem does not explicitly solicit the skills of this individual.   I described this scenario as a problem of discipline of the unconscious mind to volunteer its services in new ways.   This occurs at the unconscious level so that the conscious awareness is only of the impression that there is nothing to contribute.   The unconscious mind needs to inform the conscious mind of this opportunity to contribute with unconscious skills.  If the unconscious mind were a dog, it would bark enthusiastically indicating eagerness to do something.

This failure of the unconscious mind to contribute in a novel scenario alternatively may be a form of dissent.   The unconscious mind may actually see what he may help but decides not to point it out.  Previously I described that as a problem of discipline, but it may also be a dissent when the unconscious mind sees a reason that his contribution may cause more harm than good.   In this case, the dissent is constructive but because it occurs unconsciously, we consciously observe what appears to be either laziness or incompetence.

For this discussion, I want to focus on constructive dissent that can contribute positively to continual service improvement.  The problem I want to focus on is the ability to raise a dissent instead of just blindly following orders.  Again, in the interview/audition context, there is a need to evaluate whether the unconscious mind can raise a dissent to the conscious level to make possible new opportunities for process improvements.

The problem with the unconscious mind is that it exhibits a behavior we consciously describe as pride.   A frequent illustration of the pride is the person who finds himself lost driving in an unfamiliar part of town but refuses to pull over and seek instructions from strangers.   At the conscious level, we describe as pride that the refusal to ask for directions and the determination to figure it out himself.  I do not think that is what is really happening at the unconscious level.   The unconscious level received a task (to navigate to a certain location) and it is a task it knows how to do.  The unconscious mind is accustomed to dealing with unexpected setbacks.  This makes sense because the skilled unconscious mind is valued for its ability to get work done even though there must have been many unforeseen challenges to do that.   The unconscious mind for driving is inclined never see itself as lost.  It knows the city has certain arteries so that if driven far enough in a certain direction it will reach a familiar street that can lead him to the correct destination.

This is a good example because it is very obvious at the conscious level that immediately asking for directions is so obvious and would be much faster.   The unconscious mind is instead working autonomously on exercising its navigation skills.   It does not see unfamiliar places as a sign of being lost, but instead as part of the project of navigation.   The unconscious mind’s refusal to give up on its task is the cause for the conscious mind not considering the option of giving up and simply asking for directions.

Technical challenges of a particular job do not have as obvious an indication of being lost.   The task itself often is to figure something out for the first time.  In some sense, the project starts with a state of being lost with no map and the unconscious mind has to figure it out.    The unconscious mind proceeds to employ its skills to the task with the confidence that it will succeed eventually.

The problem of being lost is not that one will never find a way to the goal, but that he will not do so within the allocated budget of time or resources.   Such budget considerations occur at the conscious level.  Most of the time the unconscious mind learns of these constraints only when the budgets are exhausted.  In the example of the city navigator: the appointment is missed or the gas runs out.

When evaluating the unconscious mind, we want to know more than just its skills and its discipline.  We want also to learn its ability to raise a dissent when the assigned task is not going work out well.

I’m reminded of the saying that when one has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail.   There is a lot of truth to that in real projects.  A person knows he is employed and has a task to perform.  He will use his skills to get that task done to satisfy his manager.  If the task does not get completed it is because the problem required more time to solve than expected.   The last thing we will hear from him is that his particular skills never were appropriate for the task.   For continual process improvement, that is exactly the information we want to learn.

It would be valuable to learn during the hiring process whether candidate’s unconscious mind has the ability to recognize a task as inappropriate for the specified skills.   And when that happens, the unconscious mind has the ability to express effectively a dissent for that specific assignment.   Projects can suffer from an exaggerated determination that the prior skills will eventually be able to solve the problem in the best way possible.

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