Friday, October 03, 2008

Identifying Sycophants

I just finished attending some continuing education lectures taught by Joel Klass, MD, a famous forensic psychiatrist who has treated over 18k patients and testified in some of the most publicized cases of the 20th century.

Dr. Klass is a great speaker, and the best part is his sharing his insider secrets for evaluating potential witnesses and patients.

Joel has one example which really struck home for me, a fool-proof for identifying sycophants, butt-kissers who are easily influenced by people in a position of authority.

Is it OK to Fight?

In order to identify kids who may have been unduly influenced by an adult, Klass asks children the question “Is it OK to fight?” If the patient responds “yes”, re replies in a strong voice “You really believe that it’s acceptable to fight?” Conversely, if the patent replies “no”, he replies in an equally strong voice “You really think that it’s never OK to fight?”
A sycophant will always flip-flop, and he says that it’s a great way to evaluate children in child custody cases, where a parent has been brainwashing a child.

But this technique has applications in the technical world as well.

I work in a high tech consulting company, and it’s critical for me to hire experts who are not afraid to be the only dissenting voice in a room. One of my favorite “butt-kisser” evaluation techniques is to ask a similar question to “Is fighting OK?”, but referring to a controversial technical topic.

Regardless of how the job candidate responds, I take a strong oppositional position and observe their reaction.

Technical experts tend to be a tad short on interpersonal skills, and it’s not uncommon to find uber-nerds who “don’t play well with others”. Identifying these shortcomings and other neurosis are critical when hiring expert consultants, and there are many tricks that we use to access the personality characteristics of a technical expert.

My friend Mike Reed says it best in this cartoon from his amazing "Flame Warriors" collection:

Mike Reed's famous "Flame Warriors"

While I cannot reveal my trade secrets, you can learn more about this by reading the great book “Unobtrusive Measures”, and the books “Conducting the Programmer Job Interview” and the “Oracle Job Interview Handbook”, by Andrew Kerber, a West Point graduate and Oracle ACE.