Regular readers of my column will know that last week I wrote about a famous weird (but apparently research-backed) nap hack inventor Thomas Edison used to come up with new ideas. That means this week the internet tracking gods showered me with a million more articles on Thomas Edison.
Most of them were bland and unnecessary, but one headline came out: “Why Thomas Edison asked job seekers to eat soup in front of him“Wait,” I thought, “this is completely nuts. The guy must have been even crazier than his weird napping habits suggest. Then, of course, I clicked.
How Thomas Edison selected the candidates
Andrew Martin’s Message Medium explains that Edison had a very specific and peculiar way of interviewing research assistants for his labs. He had invited candidates to a meal, then ordered soup for the table.
“The raison because this soup test was that the famous inventor wanted to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted before proceeding to seasoning », Explains Martin. premature seasonal workers because he felt he didn’t want employees who were relying on assumptions. In his opinion, those who were content to bow to received ideas had no place in his business because the lack of curiosity and willingness to ask questions was antithetical to innovation. “
Was Edison just nuts?
This tip would not be practical at all in today’s business environment. Using restaurant meals to screen applicants isn’t exactly to scale (and many applicants today would have an allergy or food restriction that would rule out the soup you ordered). But even more fundamentally, the idea just seems crazy. Is there something other than the professor’s insane idiosyncrasy behind Edison’s soup-based interview technique?
While using soup alone to assess candidates is clearly not a good idea, reading Edison’s unusual approach to hiring reminded me of a body of research on job interviews. which actually suggest that Edison’s idea isn’t as crazy as it first appears.
First of all, it is important to know that study after study shows that interviews as they are usually conducted are almost unnecessary. Asking people questions (even behavioral or hypothetical questions recommended by experts) tends to favor skilled speakers over genuinely competent people (although there are a few tricks to minimize this effect). Interviewers are also notoriously influenced by biases and irrelevant details of self-presentation.
What does modern science suggest instead? Perhaps not all that surprising, by simply testing candidates on the actual skills and competencies required to do the job. A trial assignment, sample work project, or area-specific test goes far beyond talking with applicants about their previous work experience, character, and goals.
Show, don’t tell.
In short, actions speak much more than words. Which perhaps means Edison’s weird soup test wasn’t that crazy after all. When someone seasons their food, it is a real behavioral indicator of how they solve problems and, as such, is more likely to reveal something true about their state of mind than abstract discussions.
The big takeaway here isn’t that you need to take potential new hires to lunch (unless you’re hungry or obsessed with good table manners). The point is, Edison was right about a fundamental truth of the interview. If you really want to understand who the candidates are and what they can do, devise ways to observe them solving the relevant problems. You will always have a better idea of a person based on what they do than what they say.