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"...but I really like that person!"

Often times, in the hiring process, we are actually answering the wrong question and not even knowing it. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky gave us some of the most important research in the last 30 years on the subject of decision-making, yet I find their advice largely unnoticed or unheeded when it comes to hiring practices. Unless you use a skilled organizational or industrial psychologist, with standardized assessments and professional interpretation of the results, the odds are pretty good that you aren’t even “marginally better than chance” at hiring the right people. Without a good “system” of evaluation tools, predictors of success, and a repeatable, simple scoring system, the research shows that you are likely to be 20-50% correct in evaluating and hiring the right people: those that can take your organization or group to the next level. (As behavioral psychologists, Kahneman and Tversky found that they were, at best, 60% right in predicting successful outcomes until they understood their own decision-making process and applied some simple principles and structure to their assessments.)


Why is this? Hiring choices are quite complex decisions, and without the right structured approach, too many decisions are made with the emotional brain, or “fast brain”. Without the ability to answer the right question - “Can this person succeed in the job?” - the mind will answer an easier-to-answer but related question: “Do I like this person?” No one I know goes into the hiring process with an attitude of finding someone who just meets the minimum requirements and will be a mediocre employee. Rather, we have great expectations of their performance. Brad Smart, in his well-written book, Topgrading, indicates that 75% of the people we hire will not turn out to be top performers. Lest you think this isn’t true, just try rating 50-75% of your employees as “Exceeds” or “Far Exceeds” at your company’s next evaluation and rating cycle! The financial repercussions for poor hiring decisions are enormous when one considers the costs of recruiting, on-boarding, training, lost opportunity, management cycles, and separation packages.


While no system of hiring is completely fool-proof, there are ways that you can increase your accuracy of hiring the right people. But here’s the caveat: It takes time, hard work, and the right structure to do so. In other words, you must take your hiring practices to a “slow brain” decision process. Good hiring “systems” include a list of salient experiences, 3-5 competencies, 5-8 behavioral predictors of success, and a consistent and calibrated scoring system (the simpler, the better).


We tend to make decisions based on categories, in part, because that is how our brains are wired. Categories are how we interpret experience. If you were bitten by a dog or two when you were young, for instance, you tend to grow up with this categorical fear that “all dogs bite”. Making a (categorical) profile match on people who have previously succeeded in the job or a similar job at your competitor can trip you up. Not all “ENTJs” (Myers-Briggs), for example, will perform the same way in all corporate cultures and all operational contexts, and it is a fallacy to think so. Likewise, neither experience nor past-performance are good predictors of future performance. They may be indicators of potential, but they are no more predictors of future performance than one flip of the coin predicts the next.


Indicators of potential are important, but predictors of success are far more important and powerful. Every job has predictors of success that are rooted in capacities and behaviors. One of the challenges of leadership is to enumerate the right predictors of success for a particular position – before the interviewing process starts. Without these, even an arsenal of assessment tools can’t help you succeed. For any job (yes, even for the chairman of your company) there are only 5-8 behavioral predictors and 2-3 capacities that will be good predictors of a candidate’s ability to succeed. If you have more than 8 behavioral predictors of success for your open position, then you don’t really understand the scope of the job or the behaviors that contribute to successful and sustainable outcomes.


Capacities are the leadership, relational, or technical dimensions that are necessary to successfully perform the job. For instance, “Connects the organization to the outside world”, or “Inspires and motivates people to high performance” are dimensions that can be evaluated. Here, you can explore a candidate’s capacities with the right open-ended questions. You wouldn’t hire someone to lead your security department who didn’t have some kind of law enforcement experience, for example. Behaviors are the habits, actions, responses, and activities that are key to the candidate’s and the company’s success. The research shows that behaviors are more than twice as powerful as categories at predicting performance, or outcomes. If important behavioral predictors of success are problem-solving and collaboration, for instance, the candidate should be able to cite evidence from previous jobs of their problem-solving activities and methodologies as well as their ability to effectively collaborate across silos in the organization. Explore these behaviors with several open-ended questions to allow the candidate the opportunity to give you the evidence you are looking for - but be careful not to coax them to make up a disingenuous answer if they don’t have good examples right off the bat.

Without a well-scripted set of questions around behavioral predictors, you will spend the entire interview asking questions that confirm what your brain decided in the first 20 seconds of the interview. If you like them, you’ll ask questions that confirm the sentiment; and if you don’t like them, you’ll have slightly different questions to confirm that sentiment, as well.


To know more about the structure necessary for effective hiring processes, contact Mike Felix, PhD, at mike.felix@att.net, or visit me on LinkedIn.



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