Lori Wiser is not your average business consultant. A partner of Wiser Insights Group with her husband Mark, they combine extensive experience as client-side and agency marketers with a scientific approach to consultancy, with Mark specializing in quantitative methods and Lori specializing in behavioral science. With training in anthropology, she will explain why it is necessary to go beyond focus groups and conduct a full-fledged ethnographic immersion into her clients’ businesses.
Lately, Lori has become passionate about viewing organizational behavior through an evolutionary lens, focusing most closely on overcoming biases in the hiring practices of corporations. Our conversation covered both her unique journey of overcoming biases in the workplace and her ambitious plans for the future.
David Sloan Wilson: Greetings, Lori! I know that you have been following the Evolution Institute and TVOL for a while, especially our inaugural article on “This View of Business”. Now I am pleased to showcase your very interesting work in this area.
Lori Wiser: Thank you, David! It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I love the content TVOL is putting out! When I first started reading “This View of Business” I felt like you must have been eavesdropping on a recent meeting I had in which I was proselytizing the very idea that the workplace is in dire need of transformation.
DSW: I suppose that everyone’s journey is unique, but the story of how you entered first the corporate and then the consultancy world is especially fascinating. Tell us your story up to the point where you began to adopt a specifically evolutionary perspective.
LW: Well, I grew up in a “non-traditional” environment with a very violent father. I believe the psychological euphemism is “chaotic parent.” I had always loved books, likely because they took me to another place, and one of my earliest memories is of my mom saying, “if you can read, you can do anything.” Incidentally, I believe that to a fault, but that’s a different interview.
So, I decided to study English Literature, but I was always fascinated by people’s behavior in groups, specifically how it changes based on the dynamics created by the group’s participants. I minored in Anthropology as an undergrad, forever solidifying my unyielding love for Margaret Mead, but it was really “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz that left its indelible mark and sparked my passion for ethnography.
DSW: Ah yes, a classic! Geertz is disparaged by some evolutionary psychologists but he got many things about culture right.
LW: There were two things that really struck me – I like to say ‘vibrated at a different frequency’ –in the essay. 1.) The idea that, “In Bali, to be teased is to be accepted,” and, 2. The breakthrough moment when Geertz and his wife were treated differently after hiding from the police with the villagers, the idea of assimilation.
The reason these things stood out is that I was teased mercilessly as a child, pretty much by everyone, including my family, because I was “different.” My grandma explained that they really love me and it’s “just their way.” Wow…just like Bali! I also thought the idea of creating trust through assimilation was powerful. It’s an adult behavior I think you witness as a child and unconsciously participate in with peers, but it has no language assigned to it, no articulation or explanation from the world.
When I read what is arguably a difficult snapshot of a violent practice with ethical considerations from Western point of view, that resonated as well. I mentioned my father was violent; loud and blustering and threatening, and what I think you learn in proximity to that type of conduct is the hypervigilance to determine what is “real” and what is “noise” from a risk perspective. You learn to filter inflection and behavior as a means of survival, and you learn how to filter at lightning speed. Things begin to sound different, good things and bad things, and you start to identify patterns. Not that I would ever espouse this parenting approach, but that particular skill set has served me very well in the business world, so there’s that.
DSW: How did this adapt you to the business world?
LW: Well, active listening is a lost art as far as I’m concerned, and slight shifts in tone and body language can telegraph a person’s position on an issue and even reveal intention. Without the friction created in my formative years combined with the volume of reading I have done, I wouldn’t have developed this skill or at least honed it to its current form. In many ways (dare I say) I’m actually more effective as an adult compared to others who have had no friction in their lives, no reason to develop any kind of coping mechanisms. They lack tenacity, intestinal fortitude, and resilience and often crumble at the slightest obstacle or sign of adversity because they’ve never dealt with any…unless, of course, it’s when playing lacrosse.
DSW: There is a new review article on this very topic by Bruce Ellis and colleagues titled “An Adaptation-Based Approach to Resilience”. I’m sure you’ll see yourself in there!
LW: Well that’s great news. More people should understand that those of us with high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores aren’t all damaged goods who lack the ability to contribute to society as high-functioning adults.
DSW: Right! So, getting back to our discussion on overcoming bias in the workplace, where did you go from Geertz?
LW: All of the symbolism Geertz gathered and analyzed created the insights that decoded Balinese behavior as a people, as a culture, in the aggregate, as a whole – a GROUP. It seemed to me that this was the key to truly understanding people – all people. You have to understand them in some context, as in the context of a novel. This became particularly important for me as someone who is fascinated by different cultures, especially those which are ancient and/or most different from ours. America is a young civilization, though sadly, we have lost some of our civility along the way.
DSW: How did you get to evolution?
LW: Yeah, I’m not really good with straight lines. So, growing up, I was a huge fan of “Bewitched” (The Dick York years in particular). Darrin Stevens made me want to be in marketing as a career, but I always felt more like Agnes Moorehead. And I loved the characters – Uncle Arthur, Gladys Kravitz, Dr. Bombay, Esmerelda – you name it. The wacky things that would happen seemed representative of my turbulent youth and like metaphors for the wild world of advertising (which turns out to be true by the way) so working in an agency was always a long-term goal.
While I was studying English and Anthropology as a grad student, something clicked about marketing. All of the marketing literature and classes focused on psychology, individual psychology and tapping into that, defining psychographic profiles etc. It made much more sense to me, that group psychology, more specifically behavior in social systems, was a more powerful way to persuade people to do what you want them to do, think what you want them to think, buy what you want them to buy, because behavior and decision-making change based on the presence and nature of others, specifically for status building, affiliation, affection, mating, and ultimately survival. BOOM! Straight line to evolution.
It’s also why I won’t conduct focus groups unless there’s a gun to my head, preferring ethnographic work to contextualize quantitative data and provide insights. Quantitative provides the “what” and qualitative helps tell us “why.” We start in the retail environment or in people’s homes and assimilate into their communities to truly understand a “day in the life” in order to inform qualitative instruments so they represent actual consumer sentiment and articulate features and benefits of brands, products, and services and have answer choices in their language.
DSW: So you don’t like focus groups? Aren’t focus groups the “go to” qualitative method used in consumer research in the business world?
LW: Sadly, yes. I believe focus groups are like skipping a stone across water. You can skim the surface of some issues but you have a whole host of other things happening, from dominant responders to research pollution, because some respondents participate in focus groups as a full-time job. Also, people can’t visualize what doesn’t already exist. If the market relied on focus group testing, we’d never have Starbucks, Dyson vacuum cleaners, or Seinfeld and a laundry list of other goods and services, some of which revolutionized a category or industry. Again, another interview. And that doesn’t even get into the fact that twelve strangers with nothing in common sitting around a conference table in the sterile environment of a 1970s office building is the furthest possible thing from the moment of truth when people are making actual purchase decisions. It’s pretty uninspiring.
DSW: So ethnography provides a clearer view of behavior?
LW: Yes. It allows the researcher to glean insights into why certain behaviors manifest in different ways under different conditions. Decoding the conditional nature of quantitative data is really important to us at Wiser Insights Group. For example, you see studies all the time that show top 2 box scores in the 80s and 90s of consumers agreeing that they will buy products and services that have a portion of their cost donated to a non-profit organization. What this doesn’t capture are the conditions under which that is true, such as long as it doesn’t cost more, or is less convenient, and so on.
DSW: Fascinating! Let’s get back to your career trajectory.
LW: Well, shortly after graduating, I landed a job with a fairly large agency handling the McDonald’s business on the East Coast. If THAT wasn’t a petri dish of small group dynamics and multilevel selection, I don’t know what is! I actually took up golf and smoking while working on that account as I observed that most of the big strategy and budget decisions were happening on the breaks at meetings or on the golf course afterward. (I still golf. I stopped smoking.) This was confirmation that all of the things I loved about anthropology and evolution were true! Without that predisposition toward those ideas, I wouldn’t have recognized that the decisions that really mattered were happening outside of the actual meetings, and even if I had, likely wouldn’t have known what to do to infiltrate and influence it.
After a number of years, I started interviewing at other agencies to branch out from working on one major account. I was a lot older and a few pounds heavier, and there’s an aesthetic in agency world, a “look” that’s typically tall and lean with A-line sleeveless dresses cut just above the knee (even in winter) to mirror conventional beauty ideals of Western Culture. As someone who’s 5’3”, every pound gets its chance. I’ve been told “You’re Janet and I was expecting Chrissy” on more than one occasion. (If readers don’t understand the reference, I’ll pause while they Google “Three’s Company.”) I was told things such as I might not be “cool enough at my age for a position in Strategy,” and was told “I want to like you for the right reasons” as part of my interview processes.
DSW: Sexism in the workplace…
LW: Yeah. I’m sure for every new #MeToo story on sexual harassment there are greater numbers of discriminatory things that have been said and done to people in the workplace. I mean, the reality is, I was getting interviews because I had great credentials and experience, but I was having trouble getting job offers. I didn’t look like the other kids. There was one agency though where my hypervigilant observation and listening skills were an asset. I was hired and spent nearly 10 years with that agency. However, while employed I was asked (among other highly inappropriate things) if I had ever considered bariatric surgery. I responded, “No, because I don’t qualify. I’m not at least 100 pounds overweight,” so discrimination of all kinds was rearing its ugly, unrestrained head throughout the hiring process and beyond.
Over the course of my time there as a hiring manager and member of the hiring panel for critical, high-level positions, there were assessments made (not by me) based on feeling a candidate wasn’t “hip enough,” “looked too dorky,” or “can’t hang with us in a big pitch,” all of which were completely subjective and intangible, and had nothing to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job well, not to mention, having no basis in fact. Evidence-based decision-making isn’t necessarily a strength in commercial enterprise.
When I ultimately left the agency world to join my husband’s consulting practice of 10 years, I needed what I call a “reentry period” to adapt to a life without the constant pinging of emails, text messages, multiple ringing phone lines, and people lined up outside my office door from the minute I walked in to the minute I left. I was so over-scheduled, (and I’m not alone) that people would follow me to the bathroom to ask questions and get information. The funny thing is, everything seemed to be treated with the same urgent priority without any discerning criteria applied to determine what actually mattered. Very unscientific. That adjustment period took about four months.
DSW: What did you do during that four-month period?
LW: Aside from ride my bike, reconnect with nature, and spend much needed time with my family you mean? I honestly started trying to figure out how I got the job in the first place and how I was so successful for so long in that environment. I hit some gender and age-based milestones in the organization’s history, which is ironic because I was in my 30s when I got hired but considered too old and likely not digital or social-media savvy as a result. It brought me to the realization that there was something else that could have predicted my success and could have helped me identify the types of organizations in which I could assimilate and succeed, strategically narrowing my job search.
It got me thinking…If my assumption was right, I should be able to do a regression analysis on long-term employees, adjusting for variables of “protection” such as nepotism and identify common success variables then overlay qualitative interview data to identify the “Freakonomic” factors – those that are either seemingly either tangential or counterintuitive, that have a high contributing value, such as an ACE score for example. It also brought me back to evolutionary theory in terms of reasons people sought and/or remained in certain organizations, leveraging Geoffrey Miller and Douglas Kenrick’s books. Coincidentally, I was reading Rob Kurzban’s book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite at the time and everything converged at that moment.
I wrote an experimental design and presented it to the parent company of my former agency and, while they were very interested, they said they did not have any resources to dedicate to such an effort, but if I could deliver a proof of concept, they might be able to participate. That conversation took place in December 2016.
DSW: So, what did you do?
LW: Well, I decided not to wait for someone to buy into the idea in order to provide data, so I’ve co-founded a company called Uscore™, which seeks to utilize facial recognition and personality attribution to remove unconscious bias from the recruitment and hiring process. We essentially want to “level the playing field” for what I call the “chronically marginalized” utilizing all of the theory unearthed from my four-month Emersonian ponderfest.
When I started seriously researching the issue, I found an average new hire failure rate of 50% within the first 18 months of employment. I was convinced that tribalism is at the root of the issue and we need to let people off the hook – “make it OK” – that they’re biased. We have to educate people about evolution and adaptation. They have to understand our existence in context much like we need to understand purchase behavior in the market research we discussed. They have to understand that we haven’t been on planet Earth long enough to adapt out of our evolutionary survival tools. Culture has changed faster than we can change as a species.
So, we want to bring this and other evolutionary concepts into a business environment where they can really improve group dynamics and organizational behavior in a way that increases morale, productivity, and efficiency. We need to tell people that it’s essentially not their fault that they’re racist and biased (to a certain degree) because it’s only been ~7,500 years since our species met strangers and didn’t have the urge to kill them.
DSW: This is a theme that emerges loud and clear from the “This View of Business” commentaries. Tell us more about Uscore.
LW: Uscore™ is looking to leave the marketplace demonstrably better off than it is now and help bring greater diversity to the corporate landscape by removing barriers that cause recruiters to source candidates in the company’s existing image. There are many people who fall through the proverbial cracks who could provide extreme value to organizations if they were able to get through the very narrow existing image of the company and get to an interview. (My personal experience detailed herein included) This is a disservice to both candidate and employer and the new hire failure rate becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The reality is, companies are great at evaluating skills but are inconsistent at evaluating temperament due to unconscious bias. After vetting candidates based on skill set, recruiters winnow the list down based on if they think a candidate “looks like they’d fit.”
"Fit" is currently a subjective call, made in mere seconds by viewing a photo of the candidate. Uscore changes that by employing cutting-edge behavioral science data, including digital face recognition and machine learning to remove unconscious bias and human judgment error. It evaluates Trustworthiness, Likability, and Confidence, the most powerful attributes for making connections and working with other people successfully.
We have the opportunity to leverage this moment of cultural conversation about equality and acceptance and CREATE A MOVEMENT, especially with all the confirmation bias on social media.
The visceral reaction to facial recognition and attribution modeling is that it seems inherently discriminatory. I can assure you, it is quite the opposite, and it can help us put the “Human” back into “Human Resources.”