“There are two sides to every question: my side and the wrong side.” –Oscar Levant, American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor

MOBIUS COIN/image and concept: Michael Moffa

Whenever you bet on a candidate, you assume that, of course, there are two and only two distinct outcomes: Either the candidate you’ve just placed will be right for the job, or not—which usually entails that she is or isn’t is what she seemed to be in the run-up to placement. Now, imagine a very different scenario, in which the candidate is and isn’t what she seems to be, even though right for the position.

In such situations, the simple  “heads-or-tails”, “yes-no”,  “is-isn’t”,“right-or-wrong”coin-toss model that covers your bet that the candidate is what she seemed to be OR is not doesn’t apply.  Replace that visual model of a normal coin with the model in the illustration shown here. This is a “Mobius strip”, familiar to almost ever school kid ever handed paper, scissors and glue by a fun math teacher, and described as a “one-sided” surface.

To create the Mobius strip, just take a narrow rectangular strip of paper, and twist one of the ends 180 degrees before pasting the ends together into the loop shown.

Adapted to this discussion, it is what I have chosen to call a recruiter’s “Mobius coin”, which I recently designed.

The Mobius Strip Becomes the “Mobius Coin”

The Mobius strip, discovered independently by the German mathematicians August Ferdinand Mobius and Johann Benedict Listing in 1858, is considered to be a one-sided surface because if you place your finger on one side, you will be able to smoothly move along that surface along to every other point on the strip, without ever lifting your finger to get to what appears to be the other side.

You cannot do this with a conventional  two-sided paper ring or coin without flipping or removing your finger from the side you are on.

(Note: As pure, abstract mathematical objects, all 2-dimensional strips or discs have no thickness, so you cannot imagine sliding over a non-existent 3rd-dimensional edge to get to the other side. The only way to do it is to lift your finger from the surface you are on and to place it on the reverse, second side.)

If you put your finger on the Mobius coin’s head image, you can continuously and smoothly slide along the surface to a tail, without having to flip or lift anything to get to the other side. That’s because there is no “other side”. There is only one “continuous manifold”—an unbroken surface that appears to have two sides, but actually does not.

If you toss this Mobius coin strip, assuming it’s made of plastic or metal, the result will always be both heads and tails, or neither—depending on how you prefer to interpret the result, or, most importantly for this discussion, it may be seen as heads and then tails, in just one toss.

[You may think that this is not different from having a coin with heads and tails stamped on each of both sides, so that each  of the two sides is both a head and a tail. However, the “Mobius coin” is different from that. One difference is that the Mobius coin has only one side. That’s the difference between saying that there are two sides to every story and saying there is only one side to every story, but with two outcomes.]

Applying the Mobius Model to Recruiting

In teaching logic, I have applied this model as a visualization of the so-called “Epimenides paradox” created by the statement, “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it’s false; if it’s false, then it’s true.  Replace “heads” and “tails” with “true” and “false”, letting the loop represent the statement “This statement is false.” That’s nice, but how can this Mobius model be applied to recruiting?

Here’s how: The Mobius model allows that the right candidate is and isn’t what she seems to be. By this, I don’t mean that at any specific point in time the candidate is right for the job in some important respects and wrong for the job in other important respects. The reason for this denial is twofold:

First, from the circumstance that an applicant is and isn’t what she seems to be, it doesn’t follow that she is and isn’t right for the job, because not all such “contradictions” impact job performance. For example, although the display of essential moral characteristics, such as “honesty” must never vary, the display of personality traits, such as being reserved, often can and should be allowed to—not only without detriment in the workplace, but also with frequent enrichment of it.

Second, it is trivially true of virtually all applicants and is really too obvious to belabor that at at the time of interviewing a given candidate can be right for the job in some ways and wrong in others, e.g., a candidate has great people skills, but is weak in organization; or has an excellent technical background, but poor communication skills.

Although, as stated, this is trivially true for virtually every candidate, nonetheless, a popular recruiting model underlying this very conventional wisdom is flawed in a way that is exposed by the model of the “Mobius bet”. That’s because the Mobius bet does not accord with the conventional wisdom of the conventional coin toss that insists that candidates cannot be both one thing and its opposite.

The “Static Inventory Model”

The problem with the conventional coin-toss model, in which the candidate, like the outcome of a single coin toss, is X and not also not-X, is that it is based on a single-outcome “static inventory” model—worse, an often superficial model—of what a candidate or, indeed, any individual is.

The static inventory model is essentially a static cross-sectional profile of a candidate: “Candidate X has degrees and diplomas A,B and C; attitudes D,E,F and G; experience H, I, J and K; references L, M, N…,  character O, personality P, values Q, etc.” Like a tossed coin, her resume comes up and you stare at it, like the unchanging face of a coin. “Oh, she IS very qualified, because she HAS…” Static. Very static, like Lincoln’s unchanging face on a penny or at the Lincoln Memorial. Sure, credentials can be upgraded, output increased, but who and what the candidate is are supposed to be consistent and predictable.

What this conventional coin/cross-sectional inventory and decision-making process lack is a dynamic time-and-situation-dependent dimension, of the kind the Mobius model suggests.

Carefully consider the usual way of looking at a candidate in terms of what he or she is, has, does, wants, can do, plans,etc. These are all static verbs constituting a frozen snapshot of a candidate’s inventoried assets and liabilities. Within the framework of this model, given the job description and the candidate’s attributes, if the candidate is a good fit, the bet is of necessity equally good and the candidate can be expected to perform predictably. Heads means heads. Lincoln is Lincoln. The candidate is what she is and what she seemed to be.

The Mobius Morph

Now compare the Mobius coin: In this model, when the bizarre coin is flipped, your gaze may fall on the head showing to the left. Great. So far, that’s just like a conventional penny toss. But now, allow your finger to move along that “side” until that head morphs into the tail on the right. Suddenly, having allowed for a dynamic time-dependent variable of motion, the bet outcome on the single toss flips from heads to tails, but does so through a smooth transition of the kind that is impossible with a single toss (your bet) of a two-sided coin.

The Mobius coin toss is telling you that if your candidate seems as perfect and predictable as Lincoln’s face, pause for a moment and then follow the surface contours and dynamics to discover she is somehow the exact opposite of that. Less extreme, and more likely, is that the candidate is and is not what she seemed to be when placed in the job, i.e., has a second side to her that is somehow not a separate side. She is heads and tails, not heads or tails.

The Mobius-Fromm Critique of Corporate Culture

How can someone be and not-be X? Or to turn the question around, how could it possibly be denied that all of us are somehow heads and tails, rather than just heads or tails?

The answer was sketched decades ago by psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, perhaps most famous for The Art of Loving, which has hugely contributed to making “unconditional love” the misunderstood yearning that it has been for generations of romantics. His other ruminations on modern society and psyches fill his very insightful works on character, personality and culture, tomes such as The Sane Society, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, and Escape from Freedom.

Fromm issued a warning about how modern employers evaluate employees in terms of their presumed fixed and stamped “character” and “personality”—an observation that, here, doubles as a critique of  the “cross-sectional inventory model”. He said that the kind of dependability, predictability, quality control and uniformity of performance of manufactured commodities made possible by the industrial revolution has also come to be expected of the personalities and character of the people who make them and, indeed, of almost everyone who works for someone else in a “profession”.

What his musings suggest is that just as the face of Lincoln stamped onto a mass-produced coin should be unvarying from coin to coin, transaction to transaction, day to day (apart from wear and tear over time), it is now expected that an employee’s character, personality, mood, performance and often his or her smile should be assured and and as good as that of the previous and next employee in that job category. In the parlance of HR management psychology, the stamped McDonald’s smile is a form of required  homogeneous “emotional labor”.

In other words, Fromm was concerned that the standards of uniformity, predictability, and dependability applied so successfully to the quality-controlled manufacture of industrial products have been perilously applied to the manufacture of workplace concepts of “character” and “personality”, in an attempt to ensure smooth economic performance without any “out-of-character” moments or surprises, e.g., a blank look with your burger and fries, in exchange for your money.

The danger in this application of industrial standards to personnel is that the rich natural variability and variations within and among employees, their natural cycles, mood changes, ambivalence in the human soul, reversals of motivation from, e.g., serious to playful, the impacts of unexpected events, changes in personal or corporate values and perceptions and myriad other aspects of being human that define being human will be denied, ignored in or banished from the workplace.

In the reasonable attempt to maintain high production and service standards, harmless variability in the psychological and social makeup and performance of employees has, in many work venues, been squelched, ignored or denied to even exist, as though all psychological and behavioral variability were tantamount to moral or economic deviance.

As a result, the modern concept of being a “professional” seems to have this concept of  psychological “commodity quality-control” as an underlying paradigm and premise, and can hang like a funeral shroud or crepe over a workplace, stifling spontaneity, authenticity and mutual awareness.

The Mobius model, on the other hand, allows for the co-existence of and reversals from heads to tails, from serious to playful, from extroverted to introverted, from mood to mood, moment to moment and situation to situation—without necessarily impacting the corporate bottom line.

A Recruiter’s Toss on a Placed (Candidate) Bet

What the Mobius coin iconically—”icoinically”, to coin a term—displays is that your bets on recruits do not have to  be black or white, heads or tails, win or lose, or—most importantly—static. The coin reminds you that the candidate you place today should be allowed to be, given that she probably will in some way be, a very different person from time to time, rather than a quality-controlled unchanging and indistinguishable cog in a well-oiled machine.

In this connection, it is important to note that “is-isn’t” is not equivalent to “right-wrong”. The likelihood that any given candidate is and isn’t what she seems to be does not entail that she is and isn’t right for the job. Of course, as noted above, variation in moral, character performance cannot be allowed. However, for many unexpected displays of personality or mood—whether delightful or sorrowful, acceptance of a Mobius coin model of who she is and should be allowed to be implies only that she is fully human, as well as being fully capable of doing her job.

The next time you bet on a candidate, you should toss a coin with only one side….

….and allow, as well as be prepared for her to reveal more of her sides.

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