The Neuroscience of Recruiting: 3 Key Discoveries & Implications

February 5, 2015

Recruiting has always been a combination of art and science. Until recently, the science of recruiting has mostly consisted of the statistical analysis of personnel data (usually resumes) and psychological testing to find the best fit between jobs and job candidates.

Over the past ten years, however, there have been several discoveries in neuroscience—the study of the human brain—that could transform the way companies hire and make job assignments. Here are three examples:

1. Male and female brains are wired differently.

According to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the structure of neurons and synapses in the right and left sides of female brains are fundamentally different from the structure in the brains of heterosexual males.

The MRI scans that make up the study showed that women were, on average, better at multi-tasking than men. Furthermore, the scans provide physical proof of some anecdotal gender stereotypes, says Ragini Verma, one of the scientists who conducted the study.

"Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things," she explains. "When you talk, women are more emotionally involved—they will listen more."

Women’s ability to listen more effectively and read emotional cues has enormous implications for how businesses are run, especially in the crucial area of teamwork. According to recent studies at MIT, there's a positive correlation between the ability of teams to accomplish group tasks and the number of women on the team.

In those studies, scientists asked randomly selected groups of volunteers to undertake tasks that in the workplace are typically assigned to teams: logical analysis, brainstorming, etc. The scientists then measured how much each accomplished.

Contrary to expectations, teams with a higher average IQ accomplished no more than teams with a lower average IQ. Similarly, teams with members who characterized themselves as highly motivated did not score significantly higher than those that didn't.

The winning teams possessed members with a higher average EQ (emotional intelligence), which led to greater equality of contribution. That higher EQ correlated positively with the number of women on the team.

The correlation between team success and gender was not the diversity of the team, but the actual percentage of women on the team. The more women on the team, the more effective the team, even when they worked online without face-to-face meetings.

What this means to recruiters: Rather than treating the hiring of more women as an issue of fairness, recruiters may need to view hiring more women as a workable strategy for creating stronger, more effective teams. Such a strategy is likely to become increasingly important as social networking increases the amount of team activity in the workplace.

2. Long work hours decrease productivity.

Conventional business wisdom is that there's a positive correlation between long work hours and employee productivity. For example, a programmer working 80 hours a week is assumed to be twice as productive as a programmer working only 40 hours a week.

Instead, the opposite is true, according to the latest neuroscience. It's now known that long work hours reduce creativity by decreasing the amount of waking hours when the mind is at rest.

Furthermore, numerous studies show long work hours create workplace stress, which in turn causes health problems that negatively affects employee performance. Rather than getting more done, employees get sick more frequently and make more mistakes, which then requires extra work to fix.

Ironically, the false economy of long work hours was scientifically proven 100 years ago, when the Ford Motor Company discovered through extensive testing that the ideal work schedule was 40 hours a week. Those studies showed that working additional hours produces a temporary productivity increase that after four weeks turns into a net productivity decrease.

What this means to recruiters: Today, recruiters tend to view a candidate's history of working long hours as a positive indicator of commitment. In the future, however, recruiters may need to interpret a history of working long hours as a negative indicator suggesting a lack of balance and a consequent inability to think creatively.

3. Clear wording reflects clear thinking.

Neuroscience is rapidly changing our understanding of how human memory works. Previously, it was widely believed that the human brain recorded events like a video camera and that through a process of "rediscovery" even "lost" events could be retrieved and played back.

We now know that the human brain does not behave that way at all. When retrieving a memory, the brain reassembles and reorders its various parts and pieces, in effect creating a completely new "memory," often including details that seem real but which turn out later to be impossible.

The same process takes place when the brain remembers words and orders them together either to think analytically or attempt to express thoughts. Rather than having a dictionary-like definition, words in the brain are stored as an ever-changing set of connections that constantly update their meanings.

When people are reading, writing, listening or speaking, their brains are creating new connections and hence new definitions. This phenomenon manifests itself in the well-known tendency of business arguments to devolve into discussions of semantics rather than address the actual issues.

The brain's inherent plasticity when using words greatly increases the value of business communications that are clear and precise. That clarity and precision (or lack of it) is simultaneously rewiring the word connections and definitions both in the brain of somebody who is writing and speaking as well as someone who is merely listening or reading.

Unlike communications that are clear and precise, business communications that are fuzzy and imprecise generate connections between words that are similarly fuzzy and imprecise. In other words, it's a feedback looping going on: fuzzy thinking creates fuzzy wording which in turn creates fuzzier thinking. Conversely, clear thinking creates clear wording which in turn creates clearer thinking.

What this means to recruiters: Today, many organizations tolerate the use of fuzzy and imprecise wording, typically in the form of buzzwords and jargon. As those organizations hire people who communicate in a similar way, it increases the amount of fuzzy think, making the overall organization "dumber." In the future, recruiters must put additional emphasis during the hiring process on a candidate's ability to write and speak with precision and clarity. As a result, the hiring process will tend to make the overall organization progressively "smarter."

*Image by Ben Cadet

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