I have a brilliant nephew — Harvard grad, etc., — who is, shall we say, a bit left of center. He has an executive position in the California state government, which is enough to further pinpoint his political persuasion. While I love him dearly, during the holiday season we have some rather contentious discussions regarding the politics of the moment, given I’m his somewhat right-of-center uncle. While civil, at least in most cases, these discussions involve a bit of one-upsmanship on both our parts, but never involve ad hominem. At least for me, this Thanksgiving was a real hoot and I looked forward to it with glee, given the recent election results, and all. However, all did not go as expected. Which gets me to the point of this article. Decisions with respect to hiring candidates occur long before any evidence the candidate is capable of doing the work are made.
This seems like a rather odd conclusion to draw from what on the surface appeared to be nothing more than traditional inter-family holiday banter. So to elaborate, and in an attempt to prove my point, let me get back to the Thanksgiving repartee and how discussions involving turkeys relates to how hiring decisions are made.
While my nephew made convincing arguments about the worthiness of the President and his policies, these were from a point of view (POV) that the President was exceptional, and all liberal policies, whatever the source, are worthy. And while the evidence he presented was convincing, in-depth, and insightful, it was sought out with the intent to prove the worthiness of the main argument itself. The factual data I had to prove the opposing POV paled in significance. The only winning point I could make was to suggest that his initial bias was the driver behind his evidence gathering. With this bias, any counter-arguments or disproving evidence was overlooked, ignored, minimized, or not considered. Some minor agreement in the form of nodding and chin-rubbing was made on this point, at which time the turkey was served, at which time all arguments ceased — at least until Christmas.
Now for the link from holiday discourse to hiring. I’m going to suggest that most hiring decisions are made in the first few minutes of meeting a candidate, with the balance of the interview used to gather evidence to prove the interviewer’s initial biased judgment. There is real science and research to prove this point, but I know if I sought it out and presented it here, I would be accused of the same “POV drives the evidence gathering problem” I’m accusing others of — e.g., only seek out evidence that proves your point, while ignoring anything that refutes it.
If doesn’t take much more than casual observation to suggest that when you meet a candidate you like, you ask softball questions, rationalize away wrong answers, and accept minimal proof of competency. Then you boast about your interviewing prowess.
On the other extreme, if you are instantly turned off by a candidate, you ask hardball questions, amplify wrong answers, and seek out proof of your initial first impressions. Then you boast about your interviewing prowess.
Worse, in either case, you believe you’re blessed with some inner wisdom that allows you to determine competency and fit within five minutes. Unknowingly, your POV drove the evidence gathering, incorrectly validating your first impression.
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If you want a more honest assessment, here’s a big interviewing secret that anyone can use to increase their assessment accuracy and eliminate 50% of all future hiring problems: stop doing the above. Instead let the evidence gathered objectively form the POV and the ultimate hiring decision. Following are some ideas on how to implement this rather quixotic idea of letting evidence drive the decision-making rather than the POV of your gut.
First, if you, or any of your hiring managers, are prone to this “POV drives evidence” gathering during the first interview, you might want to try out the exercise described in this 3-minute video. It’s pretty simple, and if done before every interview, you’ll uncover your POV and squash it into oblivion, or at least until the next interview. Even better, you’ll stop hiring underperformers who only make good first impressions, and hire a few more top people who were temporarily off their game.
If this doesn’t work, here are some other things you can try.
- Reprogram yourself in real time. When you first meet someone, note your immediate reaction, positive or negative. I use plus and minus signs on a yellow sticky pad to do this, but the point is to become aware of your reaction to the candidate’s first impression. Then do the exact opposite of what you would normally do. For example, if you like the person, ask tougher questions, going out of your way to prove they can’t do the work. If you don’t like someone, ask easier questions, going out of your way to prove they can do the work. This will help you make a much less-biased assessment.
- Don’t interview alone. Emotional reactions due to first impressions are diluted when there are more people in the room to absorb the impact. Also, structured panel interviews using one leader and multiple fact-finders tend to be more businesslike than unstructured one-on-one conversational interviews.
- Conduct a phone interview first. I personally never meet a person in person unless I’ve conducted a 30-40 minute phone screen first. This way I already have a sense if the person demonstrates the achiever pattern and has handled projects comparable to the real requirements of the job.
- Ask everyone the same questions using a structured interview. A structured interview — even one with dumb questions –minimizes the impact of first impressions, good and bad. A structured interview with behavioral questions is better, and one with performance-based questions is better still. The key is to ask the same questions whether you like the person or not. As Ben Bernanke said, even a bad plan is better than no plan. The same holds true for interviewing.
The key to all of this is to understand how your POV determines your approach to evidence gathering. This is not restricted to just interviewing. It happens when you’re conducting any type of analysis where you’re trying to justify an outcome you believe to be the correct one. This happens in business, politics, sports, and life in general. Developing a POV based on the evidence seems like the best approach, but somehow we’re innately programmed to do just the opposite. Of course, if this weren’t the case, think how boring family gatherings would be.