If you really want to know who a person is, would you rather know what they’ve accomplished, or how they’ve performed?

You may already have an answer in mind, but how sure are you?

Two stories from my childhood may shed a bit of light on the controversial issue of knowing what vs how.

Childhood Example #1 : “Sour notes”

When I was in third grade I picked up my Dad’s violin and began playing a few simple songs. Noting that I could make the ole fiddle produce recognizable tunes, and desperate to find something I was good at (neither academia nor sports were my thing in grade school), my folks signed me into violin lessons.

By my fourth year of lessons it was time to demonstrate my virtuosity to the rest of the school. For this grand debut, my instructor suggested I play a duet — WITH MY MOTHER! Had smartphones been around, this would have warranted a classic, “OMG” text — or worse. But I’m committed to keeping these posts at or below a PG-13 rating. {Note: That isn’t me in the picture — but that’s how I felt.}

My mother was an accomplished pianist — and she can still play — but some of the virtuosity of her material has ‘frayed’ a bit with disuse. Nevertheless, her part was easy for her (even today). As for me, despite the fact that I’d be: playing a violin, in front of my classmates, with my mother — my part was a real stretch for my skill level.

The first time we played together was for my instructor after a week of independent practice. My contribution sounded like cats fighting in the night (I think that’s what they’re doing; remember, PG-13). When the instructor commented on my, “noble effort”, my mom more candidly on my “embarrassing performance” I immediately shifted into defense claiming, “But I practiced a LOT!” (You may recognize this tactic if you’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of providing corrective feedback to an unreceptive employee.)

So what?

Do you think my near victimized, “how” (practiced a lot) made up for my “what” (dismal performance)?

What vs How? What’s the real story here, How hard I ‘tried’ or what I produced?

Childhood Example #2: “Good luck”

At about the same age, I took up archery (probably to compensate psychologically for my experience with the violin). One day I shot an arrow straight through a leaf — and from some distance. The arrow pierced the leaf so precisely that it didn’t even tear, nothing but a clean hole smack dab in its center.

Amazed at my marksmanship, I ran to tell my grandfather about the incredible shot I had made, “Look, Granddad, I shot an arrow right through the center of a leaf.” I even produced the pierced leaf as evidence.

Granddad was always supportive, but he was also an engineer – primed for practicality and exploring how things work {hint}. In this case, praise hung on a contingency.

“Were you aiming for it, Speedy?” he asked. “No”, I said with some question in my tone. Contingency confirmed, Grandpa responded, “I’d be a heck of a lot more impressed if you’d said you were.”

What vs how – how ’bout this time?

The infallible grad school answer: “It depends”

You may be tempted to say “both matter equally”, or, “it depends”, an answer I discovered was never wrong in graduate school. But in this case, neither of these would be correct if your goal is to understand the individual’s true capability.

Regardless of the situation, you should ALWAYS seek to understand HOW a person performs regardless of WHAT they’ve produced if you want to know about their true capability.

Granted, there are many good reasons for wanting to know “the whats.” We live in a results-oriented world. What you accomplish is the ultimate test of value and great efforts with fruitless results are performances only parents can appreciate.

But knowing ‘what’ is — at best — insufficient.

No matter “what”, in order for any accomplishment to be accurately attributed to the individual, one has to know two things — both of which dig for the how.

1.  What was the individual’s intent?

This point is illustrated by the example dashing my momentary childhood dream that I was a skilled descendant of William Tell. Absent my intent, the feat was merely amusing luck. Intent (a covert psychological factor) helps us assign causality to individuals versus situations.

2.  What were the circumstances?

Despite my scouring violin performance, my hope was that claiming how hard I’d practiced would make up for a soft performance. Yeah, how’d that work for me?

Some circumstances appear so obvious that they pass as unnoticed or unnecessary assumptions. If someone claims they won a marathon, it’s probably safe to say they have stamina. But the “how” is still assumed – even if taken for granted. (I hate to bring up the illicit performance of some athletes).

Even though some achievements appear to point clearly to the prowess of the individual, in reality, you still need to know the intentions of the performer and the circumstances of their performance. Only then do you have good insight into who they really are and what they’re capable of — going forward.

{Incidentally, regarding my early retirement from a career as a violinist, my mother ratted me out to the instructor. She knew I hadn’t practiced and forced me to “fess up.” So, even in this case, how really did matter more than what.}

Looking for “What” While Hoping for “How”

Assuming you buy in to some of my logic so far, why does “what” figure so prominently into both our work and daily lives?

Enter psychology.

Cognitive processing (thinking) requires effort. It’s physically draining to think really hard. In fact, I had a grad school friend who could work up a sweat just by thinking! (If I was planning on spending much time with him, I kept the conversation pretty light). The point is, most of us don’t like wasting time or effort when an easier option is available.

Unfortunately, when it comes to assessment, pursuing ‘what-type’ information is a tantalizing option to doing the work of discerning “how”.

“Cognitive miser”, a term coined by psychologists, Fiske and Taylor (1984) to describe the tendency for humans to take mental short cuts with information processing, also applies to assessment. “What” information is much easier to discover, tell and understand than “how” information.

So, one reason we over emphasize “what” in job postings and resumes is because it’s easier than detailing or discerning “how” information. It’s more “objective.”

Just because information is more objective doesn’t mean it’s more informative.

Yes, I’m saying that sometimes we choose the things we measure because they’re easy, even if a more accurate, but effortful, way exists. We really can fall victim to “judging a book by its cover.” This creates a number of problems beyond my scope here.

Despite our easy approach to understanding people via “what”, in fact, what we really want to know (sometimes subconsciously) is “how” they behave.

To illustrate, consider the ironic difference between pre-employment selection and post-employment appraisal. As has been described, selection assessments largely focus on what a person has achieved. Once an individual lands a job, the focus typically shifts. Even in informal appraisals of an individual at work, judgment tends to land on how a person behaves. “They suck up to the boss” or “They always have to be right.” These are the things that matter.

As for more formal appraisals, you’re likely to be evaluated according to a competency model (usually in addition to performance objectives). Competency models get at ‘how’ an individual performs vs ‘what’ they achieve. Sometimes the highest selling salesperson isn’t the “most valuable player” (we all know of cases where results contradict performance). Competency models are intended to sort this out.

Getting to “How”

This is my job: discerning how from what. In terms of selection or promotion, my goal is to predict what an individual is likely to produce based on how they think, feel and behave. It isn’t the easiest way to make a decision, but it’s far more accurate than traditional methods.

In selection, a lot of resumes look the same, in large part due to the reality that job postings channel resumes to feature “the whats.” We tend to believe that what people have done is the main differentiator in determining who’s qualified for the job. This happens on both sides of the desk. Employers want to know what experience a candidate has; prospects often think of or even introduce themselves (formally or informally) by their job title. (For a real example of the alluring power of “what”, the next time you’re introducing yourself, see how long you can go without sharing what you do).

Fixing Staffing

Adding behavioral assessments (i.e., personality inventories, aptitude assessments, simulations) before a decision to hire is a crucial step in understanding ‘how’ a candidate actually performs. Scientists are in strong agreement that such assessments, when appropriately used and interpreted, are MUCH more predictive of subsequent performance than resumes or interviews. Just remember the people in your graduating class, or your team members at a particular job – were they all the same? Not even close.

So if how offers so much more intel on an individual, are you going to keep looking so exclusively at what they’ve done, and where? Or are you going to go the extra mile to understand how they have behaved?

Seek the how. It really matters.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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