Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

4 Fast Ways To Understand People Better

What predicts success? Hint: it's not your test scores, how loud you are, or your follower count.

We're usually wrong about people.

Mighty Google once surveyed tens of thousands of interviewers and interviewees, tracking the way one scored the other and then how the candidate eventually performed—and as we learned yesterday, there was "zero relationship" between the interview scores and on-the-job performance.

Turns out we're just as bad at hiring as we are at dating.

But why are we so easily fooled?

As Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck coauthor Anthony K. Tjan observes on the Harvard Business Review website, we often grope after obvious signals of who a person is, though such "extrinsic markers" leave ham-fisted first impressions: net worth, social status, titles, academic scores, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, dietary preferences, resume font, facial symmetry.

But these markers, he cautions, don't tell the whole story: They miss out on the more subtle traits that make up a person's character (and whether they end up in jail).

"You can teach skills." Tjan quips, "Character and attitude, not so much."

Since these character traits are finer signals—the why and how that drive their actions—you need to tune in more closely to pick them up. Tjan's full post breaks down 10 tips. We'll take a few in depth here.

Do they listen or talk?

One of the best ways to become a hate-fetching boss is to interrupt everybody all the time. But this issue is higher than the higher-ups. Though we know the loudest people aren't the smartest—Tjan says you want people who aren't afraid to express their views.

But if they're talking more than 60 percent of the time, he says, you need to ask why:

Is it because this person is self-important and not interested in learning from others—or just because he is nervous and rambling?

Who are their people?

Sage-in-residence Warren Buffett says that one of the keys to growing your professional life is to associate with first-class people.

Similarly, Tjan reports that a key to getting a super-important hire right is to go out with their spouse, partner, or close friend—the company they keep will predict the company they'll be.

How do they treat the cab driver?

Relatedly, Tjan says to cast a keen eye on to how a person treats those they barely know: Do they banter with the barista, cackle with the cab driver, warble with the waiter—or ignore them or treat them like crap? This will signal their kindness and empathy—two leadership keys—or if they're emotional vampires. Which kind of person would you want to put your stake in?

Is struggle a part of their story?

During their research on Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, Tjan and his coauthors found an nonobvious predictor of entrepreneurial success: some sort of resilience-breeding hardship earlier in life. He explains:

"Around two-thirds of people who were 'Guts-dominant'—those who had the desire to initiate and the ability to persevere (so crucial in entrepreneurial ventures)—had some financial hardship or other challenges in their formative years."

What's the lesson? "Early failures and hardships shape one's character as much or more than early successes," Tjan observes. Or, as Sartre said, freedom is what you do with what's been done to you—and whether, as a result, you treat everybody like a jerk or like a friend, whether you're an indispensable resource or a reprehensible asshole.

Becoming a Better Judge of People

[Image: Flickr user Michael Cardus]

Add New Comment


  • Kent Johnson

    I was being interviewed once by the owner of a company (that I was about to work for). A pizza guy delivered his lunch. This owner treated the delivery guy like a FRIEND. It was great. At that moment I knew this was a great guy and I wanted to work for him.
    WRONGO. He was an A-Hole. He regularly fired people and scapegoated them to the client he was having trouble with and said.. now the account will be better. He was just nice in the short term. OOPS. I got fired too a year later for something that was not my fault. And everyone who got fired leaped for JOY.

  • Fatemeh Fakhraie

    I agree with almost everything in the article! However, I don't think measuring small talk with people they don't know is indicative of niceness--it's more a measurement of how comfortable they are making small talk. As an introvert, I don't like to chat with people I don't know much, but I'm always polite to waiters, cab drivers, etc., because that's the right/nice thing to do. 

  • MTM

    Thanks for your article Drake. I agree with you 100% here! Your points remind me of the invaluable advice my dear grandmother once gave me when I was young and impressionable.
    She said, "Now remember honey, you'll only be as good as the company you keep." That, and so many others, I intend to place in a manuscript for my own <maybe someday=""> grandkid(s).

  • Mike M.

    Love this article, but I hate the annoying motion graphic in the middle. I don't "get it" - and it is keeping me from sending this article to several people.