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.

4 Fast Ways To Understand People Better

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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.