A Parable: Who Moved My Behavioral Interview?

This is a story I heard about sheep as a young boy, which I hope you will find as useful as I did. At the time I heard it thought it was about being grateful for being able to have a hot lunch every day. Now, I’m not so sure. One day, many years ago, two sheep ó Molly and Harold ó were discussing the woes of the flock. While wool production was high, sales were low. New “sales sheep” were needed, and Molly as the flock recruiter was given the responsibility to find them. Harold was the VP of sales. He knew that without additional sales, he had to have a reduction in force. And there was no coming back from a layoff in his world. Time was of the essence. They decided to write a job description. Molly had just attended a course on behavioral interviewing and was excited to try out what she had learned. Harold wasn’t as sure, but he was willing to try anything now that the pressure was on. Molly asked Harold to describe the key behaviors or traits common to the top wool sales sheep. After a few hours of ruminating, they came up with four. Generally, their best sales sheep were assertive, listened well, had about five years of experience each, and had clothing industry experience. “Great,” Molly said. “We’ll post an ad on wolf.com, listing the skills and experience traits as requirements, and filter out anyone who doesn’t meet them. We’ll then ask candidates to give us examples of accomplishments for which they used the behavior traits. This is why behavioral interviewing is so good.” “Not so fast,” said Harold. “I’m confused. If we use this criteria we’d filter out someone like Anita. She’s very unassertive and didn’t have a lot of experience when she started, but she still meets all of her sales goals through extra diligence. And the customers love her attention to detail and service.” “Then there’s Wooly,” he continued. “He’s assertive and seems to listen well, but he rarely makes quota. He gave us plenty of examples of listening and selling during the interview, but he still underperforms. While he had plenty of experience in the clothing industry, his types of former customers were different than ours. They bought on price only. We sell on quality and service.” “Hmmm. I see what you mean,” said Molly. “This does seem a little illogical.” “Wait,” Harold said, “that gives me an idea. I took a logic course in college when I was a freshman, and the professor posed this problem on the board. It went something like this ó ‘All supporters of the Oslo accords want peace.’

‘Mr. Smith is not a supporter of the Oslo accords.’

‘Mr. Smith does not want peace.’ “I think the professor referred to this as a logic flaw called ‘asserting the consequent,’ and we were supposed to figure out if the conclusion was true or not. It turned out that Mr. Smith really did want peace, he just thought the Oslo accords weren’t the best way to get there. I think the part was played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie version, something to do with a trip to Washington, but I could be wrong about that.” “Well how does this apply in our situation?” asked Molly. “I’m not sure,” Harold replied, “but I think it means that just because a sheep listens well, has five years of experience, and is assertive, it doesn’t mean that sheep will be any good at selling. It’s more complex than that. I think we’re asserting the consequent.” “I beginning to see what you mean,” Molly said. “Is there another way to get out of the dilemma? We still need to hire some sales sheep. So how should we go about determining if they’re competent?” “I’ve got an idea!” said Harold. “What if we look for candidates who have a track record of great sales and who consistently meet quota. During the interview, we’ll ask them to describe how they’ve met quota. They can then walk us step-by-step through some of their major sales accomplishments. This way, we’ll see how they’ve met their challenging sales goals on a consistent basis. We’ll also be able to understand their customers and what motivates them to work at peak levels. “It’s clear that the individual factors by themselves aren’t the answer. It’s the combination of these traits coupled with personal motivation that’s the key to success. In fact, I suspect some candidates will be like Anita, using a different process to achieve success. Others, like Wooly, will have achieved success with a different class of customers in a different environment. That’s why they might not be as successful here. We might even find other ways to be successful here we haven’t even thought about. This would expand the pool of talent.” “You’re right,” said Molly. “That’s a good idea. I think your approach will work. Let’s at least try it out. It’s much clearer to me now. I think traits and behaviors are secondary aspects of success. They’re the ‘consequents,’ so to speak. You just can’t look at them in isolation and assume people with them will be successful. It’s better to get detailed examples of accomplishments and see what behaviors were used and how they were used. We can then compare the process used to achieve success to what we need done here. The behavioral interviewing course I took assumed these traits and behaviors were the primary cause of success, but they’re not. This is a perfect example of the ‘asserting the consequent’ logic flaw. I bet competencies and skills are just the same. Having the competencies and skills doesn’t ensure success. It’s better to start by figuring out how a sales sheep achieved success. From this, you discover what competencies, behaviors, and skills were actually used. I suspect many will be similar, but it’s the results achieved with them that’s most important.” Just then, by pure chance, a diverse group of lambs, plus a piglet and a calf, came by covered in mud, carrying a pawball. They were laughing heartily, pushing and shoving each other, having a grand old time. Molly asked who won the pawball game, but no one seemed to really care. Somehow they had forgotten. The group was just having a good time being with one another. A few minutes later Billy-Willy came by, also covered in mud. Molly asked him how he enjoyed the pawball game. He looked at her as if she was a space cadet and said, “I couldn’t play because I had homework to finish, and now I’m all covered in mud because I tripped on the way to the library.” As this point Harold chimed in. “This must be an omen. Billy-Willy is caked in mud ó not because he was playing pawball, but because he just tripped. We assumed he was playing pawball because he had mud on him. This is another example of asserting the consequent. I wonder how many other bad decisions I’ve made or conclusions I’ve come to using this faulty type of reasoning? For example, maybe first impressions or initial nervousness aren’t indicative of job competency after all.” “Wow! That really gets you to think, doesn’t it?” Molly said. Just then, again by pure chance, the lunch bell went off. The last time the lunch bell went off, they were served a generous helping of mash. They had mash the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, for as far back as they could remember. So they assumed they would have mash this time, as well. But then Molly and Harold looked at each other, wondering, and hurried off to see what was for lunch. Moral: Watch out for the mud.

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Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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