Next time you’re in the market for a new sales manager, try this test to judge their interpersonal skills:

1. Record an interview with candidates. It doesn’t much matter what you ask — their educational background, their greatest success, biggest challenge, whatever.

2. Take three random 20-second clips from the interview.

3. Ask a bunch of people who know nothing about sales to listen to the clips and tell you what they think of the candidate.

Sounds crazy, right? But when researchers tried this approach, they found that assessments by these “naive” listeners were remarkably consistent with evaluations by the sales managers’ bosses. They also correlated with objective measures of the sales managers’ performance.

Perhaps most intriguing: The assessments lined up even when the recordings were intentionally garbled so that you couldn’t make out what the managers were actually saying.

One thin slice, please

These findings are consistent with other studies of the phenomenon known as “thin slicing,” which was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink. It turns out that for certain kinds of judgments (often ones involving social interactions), people can make remarkably accurate and insightful judgments based on just a “thin slice” of experience.

Though we’ve all had such gut feelings, one interesting implication of this study is that those thin-slice insights can be overriden by exposure to too much information: It turned out that listeners were much better at picking up on anxiety when they could hear only the speaker’s tone and not their actual words. (The researchers electronically altered the recordings to create what they called “content-free speech” — something many salespeople can produce without fancy electronics.)

While I’m not seriously suggesting that you subject sales candidates to this regimen, these findings do suggest a couple of practical takeaways:

1. Pay attention to first impressions. The study showed that content — what the person says — can crowd out thin-slice judgments. So before the conversation begins in earnest, take a moment to jot down your gut reaction to a candidate. That’s not the only piece of data you’ll use to make your decision, of course, but you don’t want it to get lost.

2. When you’re interviewing candidates — whether it be for sales, sales management or any other job — you might ask them to spend a few minutes with someone who’s not directly involved in the job. For example, you might ask a sales rep to meet with your CFO or IT director. The fact that this interviewer knows little about the actual job could be a plus. All they have to go on is their gut.

Source: Ambady, N., et al. (2006). The 30-sec sale: Using thin-slice judgments to evaluate sales effectiveness. J Consumer Psych 16(1):4-13.

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