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How 'Star Trek' helps evaluate new hires

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What can science fiction teach managers about measuring employee performance?
What can science fiction teach managers about measuring employee performance? - (Thinkstock)

Interviews, resumes, and references can all provide managers with a good sense of whether someone is the right candidate for a job. That's what makes them the go-to techniques for vetting job applicants.

But each of those tools has a weakness. Resumes are by nature self-reported, and will accentuate positives and minimize shortcomings. Interviews provide only a snapshot of someone on their best behavior. And applicants only provide references expected to speak highly of them.

For those reasons, managers should look elsewhere for ways to measure applicant and employee performance.

Let's talk about Star Trek.

I know you're skeptical, but hear me out.

Let me reiterate here that this is best applied to interns, recent graduates, and others who are new to the job market. Whether as a pre- or post-hiring test, I'm not sure applying the below to a seasoned professional would be a good idea. I think you'll see why in a minute.

In the futuristic science fiction realm of Star Trek, the interplanetary exploration body known as the United Federation of Planets trains its young cadets for leadership positions at the Starfleet Academy.

Starfleet's curriculum includes a training exercise for all those who hope for a command position. It requires a cadet, playing the role of starship captain, to decide between risking his crew and an all-out war to save a spaceship full of innocent civilians from hostile territory, or abandoning the civilians to certain death.

The test, named after the civilian ship the Kobayashi Maru, is unfair, because it is unwinnable.

The Kobayashi Maru ends, no matter what decision the cadet makes, with the realization that the decision was wrong. Attempting to save the civilians leads to the destruction of the cadet's own ship and triggers massive interplanetary warfare. But refusal to attempt rescue ends with the cadets listening in horror as everyone on the Kobayashi Maru dies.

Thus, the Kobayashi Maru is not meant to test knowledge or skill. Instead, it is a test of how one performs, not only under pressure, but in the face of absolute defeat. In that way, it tests leadership skills, coping strategies, communication abilities, critical thinking and whether or not someone is willing to accept the responsibilities entrusted to them. It is, put simply, a test of character.

Consider giving interns and new hires a Kobayashi Maru. The stakes don't need to be as high as two spaceships fulls of innocents, but the assignment should look genuine. Explain the importance of the assignment, and that it's being given to the new employee to test their performance on big projects.

Behind the scenes, ensure two equally important but impossible choices arise from the assignment. And, most importantly, guarantee the employee's failure.

Do they avoid the decision altogether? Do they pick one of the unwinnable choices right away, to minimize work and stress? Do they blame someone else? Do they take the fall?

Captain Kirk only passed the Kobayashi Maru because he hacked the simulation computer to make the test winnable, saying he doesn't believe in the no-win scenario. Yes, it was cheating, but he got a commendation for original thinking. Is your employee the type of person who will refuse impossibility?

I have found myself in a few Kobayashi Maru situations during my eight years in the working world. While I don't think any of them were deliberately set up by my employers, I learned a great deal about myself every time. Impossible situations have made me a better employee, and I can easily track my growth over the years. I started with avoidance, then began taking responsibility, and finally learned to change the rules by staying late and seeking advice from C-suite executives to ensure a successful project.

Follow up with the employee to discuss the exercise and offer advice. The point is not to hire someone who can "win" or "beat" the Kobayashi Maru. The goal should be to find out whether their reaction to the impossible is compatible with your company's values. Your feedback will be critical in ensuring the exercise is seen as more than a prank.

The Kobayashi Maru is a valuable way to learn about someone, and to teach them about themselves and the company they have joined. It can be a powerful addition to the more common ways in which employers assess potential and newer employees.

Business runs on successful outcomes, but how an outcome is reached affects, and is affected by, the people who get there. That knowledge is a vital part of identifying and empowering the best employees.

Digital content editor Joe Ross is @joeross on Twitter.


Share your thoughts on unusual performance evaluations, the Kobayashi Maru, or your own experiences in the comments, and consider sharing this article using one of the buttons below.

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