A few years ago I met with a hiring manager who left me waiting in his office while he finished up a meeting. His office looked cozy and pleasing – with plants, holiday photos and artwork. His desk was another story, with Post-it Notes and memos scattered everywhere amidst the clutter. Almost unconsciously, I was sizing him up based on cues around his office. When he did come in, we immediately connected and got along famously. I never really understood why. That is until I read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, who recently spoke at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
In Blink, Gladwell argues that thin-slicing — making decisions very quickly with limited information — can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously over time. Essentially, first impressions and snap judgments when we barely know someone are more accurate than long, drawn out, “get to know each other” conversations.
Gladwell cites a study from the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology by Samuel Gosling, a Texas-based psychologist, as a great example of thin-slicing. Gosling’s idea was to use a person’s personal environment to assess their personality. In two studies, participants were asked to complete a personality test called the Big Five Inventory — a questionnaire measuring people across five personality dimensions. They included extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to new experiences. Gosling then asked close friends of the students and employees to complete the same questionnaire rating their peers. Not surprisingly, the results showed that close friends who know us well (a thick slice) can describe us quite accurately.
Gosling then called on complete strangers to rate the personalities of the students and employees by looking through their dorm rooms or office spaces for 15 minutes.
The results from viewing people’s personal environments showed that room observers did not do as well as close friends on extraversion and agreeableness. On the remaining traits, however, the strangers ended up doing a much better job than friends for conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to new experiences.
Gosling points to three kinds of clues. The first he calls identity claims, which are deliberate expressions about how we want to be seen by the world (a Harvard degree). The second is behavioural residue defined as unplanned clues we leave behind (like an alphabetized bookshelf). Finally, there are thoughts and feelings regulators, which are changes we make to affect the way we want to feel around items (like a plant or candle). As it turns out, these most personal of belongings contain a wealth of very telling information about a person.
The next time you meet with a potential employer or new acquaintance, take the time to recognize important cues in his or her space. It may make all the difference.
Flavian DeLima is a career and business coach and consultant.