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Categorical Thinking in Executive Search

I recently stumbled upon the topic of "Categorical Thinking" and its impact on the business world.

What in the world is categorical thinking, you ask? Well, as a concept, categorical thinking is quite natural. In fact, it's all around us, every day.

In essence, it's just the mind's way of grouping things from our complicated world into "categories" that are easier for us to digest. This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as how we might determine if someone we meet is friend or foe, or if something in our natural environment is dangerous or not.

Turns out that for the most part our brains are pretty lazy. We rely on mental shortcuts, stereotypes and speculations which can sometimes lead to biases and poor decision making. From a business perspective, this has many broad implications, such as bad hires, missed opportunities, and unintentionally discriminatory actions.

Imagine that you are leading an executive search in your company and have narrowed things down to the final 3 candidates. On paper, all of them are quite similar and the interviews have all gone well. Inevitably, your mind will start to categorize each candidate into a more familiar model.

Sometimes this can be in the form of what's called compression, where you oversimplify and group everyone together as being the same "type" of candidate, thereby ignoring the variations in talent that likely exists. In other ways, you may amplify or exaggerate differences between the candidates based on your own categorization.

If you hear alarm bells going off, its entirely justified. This is exactly how well intentioned leaders and organizations can upend their DEI strategies, or worse....

So, how do we battle such mental heuristics? Since it's incredibly difficult to rewire how your brain works, the key for the enterprising leader can be as simple as one word:


Being more aware of the hidden influences, and stereotypes of the mind is the first step to controlling them. In addition, continuously reviewing all of your decision making criteria, interview questions and recruiting tools should be standard.

Finally, everyone should engage in deliberate discussions and brainstorming to investigate the prevailing assumptions being used in your hiring and business processes. By doing so, you may be alarmed at the lazy categories you've all lumped things into....and more alarmed at how incorrect they are.

Categories are immensely useful, but have limitations. As the battle for top talent in executive search continues, and as we strive for a more diverse and inclusive workforce, we need to take a step back to avoid unwanted categorizations where none actually exist.

Planning for healthcare executive search
Categorical thinking in executive search



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