In an application process, it is not necessarily better to always rely on the best candidates. In certain circumstances, companies should select their employees at random. At least that’s what Chengwei Liu is convinced of. He is an associate professor for strategy and behavioral science at the private university ESMT Berlin and researches the topic of happiness in business and society.
SZ: In many companies, performance counts above all: only the best are hired. They advise against it. Why?
Chengwei Liu: I think it is dangerous to focus mainly on impeccable résumés. Because they often belong to people who tend to stay in their comfort zone. Someone with a less than brilliant vita may have learned from unsuccessful attempts or mistakes, or has developed different perspectives. Often these are people who dare to try different things and who usually think differently from the majority. And that is essential for diversity in a company. Most of the time, the best are pretty similar and think very similarly. As a rule, a lot of chance and luck were also involved with them.
Can you explain that in more detail?
Although professional success is mostly due to a mixture of skills, talent, hard work, family background and relationships, there is still a heuristic: the more successful a company or a person is, the greater the likelihood that luck and chance will have a major one Played a role – and the less we learn from this company or people. This is completely contrary to our intuition: extraordinary successes draw our attention, but they shouldn’t. I use different approaches such as mathematical models or empirical studies to show this. One shouldn’t imitate the strategies of the extremely successful ones either. Happiness cannot be imitated, nothing can be learned from happiness.
So does it make sense to let chance decide in selection processes?
Of course, it would be stupid to always pick at random. But when it comes to positions in which very complex tasks and problems have to be solved, it makes sense. Then it is important to incorporate various knowledge, assessments and perspectives that an expert alone can never have. Most companies have reliable selection processes that filter out those that are “good enough” on paper. Now comes the difficult part: Which of these candidates is the most suitable? This is where the random selection helps.
What are the arguments in favor of relying on chance here?
That many prejudices can be overcome in this way. Again and again you choose people who look like you. Prejudices against a person’s gender, appearance or origin are also often brought into play. Or applicants get their jobs through relationships. All of these can lead to bad decisions. Therefore, random selection would often be better.
Perhaps employers fear that this could reduce the motivation of their employees?
Yes, especially if you think people are mainly guided by external factors such as a higher salary. If the payment is then disproportionate to the performance of an employee and, above all, can be attributed to chance, one naturally tries less. This is definitely a serious problem. But I think that there are more and more companies in which many people are self-motivated, for example in the creative industry. However, it is important that companies first understand why too much rationality in the selection of applicants can be harmful. Otherwise it will be difficult to implement random selection.
You have won many awards, were voted one of the 50 most influential thought leaders in management and were among the “Top 40 under 40” MBA professors. When did coincidence help you?
When he played into my hands the most was at a conference when I met a professor who had been researching happiness for years. We kept in touch and when I was working as a postdoc he was my mentor too. That helped me a lot, because with my rare research topic happiness, I was very much on my own. He was just doing research in the United States and I was in Cambridge. Eventually he moved to Oxford, which made our collaboration a lot easier. Without him, I couldn’t have made so much progress. Otherwise I would have been patting in the dark a lot longer to find out which approach makes sense. Lucky.