I’ll See It When I Believe It! How We See What We Expect to See

Interviews are examples of how easy it is to abandon the tools of objectivity – the scientific method, logic and the rules of evidence – for our “gut” or for “chemistry.” While there is considerable evidence showing that testing candidates improves retention and productivity, most organizations don’t test people. And, while numerous researchers have pointed out the need to gather a variety of data about a candidate we generally settle for an application form and an interview. Why are we so resistant to testing and other more objective sources of data? Perhaps it is because our expectations, preconceptions and prior beliefs pretty much always influence our interpretation of new information. Experiments conducted over and over have shown that we see what we expect to see and conclude what we expect to conclude. Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, writes: “Information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted.” So, when we see a candidate who meets a large number of our pre-existing conditions for employment; for example when we see a candidate who has gone to a school our hiring manager likes, has worked at a couple of companies that are respected in our organization, and has written the right key words on his resume, we have already hired him in our minds. If we were to be presented with evidence from a test that this person was not very good at whatever skill we were looking for, we would say that he must have had a bad test day or we would find some other excuse to downplay the tests results because we want to hire him. On the other hand, if the person had not gone to the right schools and not worked at the right companies, we would accept the test results as accurate more easily. There are countless examples of how we deceive ourselves in the process of interviewing and screening candidates. We ask leading questions to elicit the responses we want: “You have made presentations to senior management, haven’t you?” We ask references the same kinds of leading questions. It is not that we don’t examine information critically. In fact, experiments have shown that we look at all the evidence quite carefully, but we subtly massage it to make it support our preconceived idea or wish. If evidence seems negative of our desire, we find excuses for why the information is bad or we lower it in our priorities for making a decision. And we do just the opposite for favorable information. We also will find data to validate our choices later on. If a person is successful, we will tend to attribute that to our superior interviewing skills, but if they fail we will find other reasons. Managers and recruiters are experts at the art of scapegoating their poor hiring decisions. What is most interesting to me, is how often someone removed from the process predicts the end result well before it happens because they can see things more clearly and do not suffer the preconceptions. The bottom line is that Interviews are very poor tools for selecting people for specific jobs. It is almost impossible to apply objectivity to the interview process. Here are three things you can do to make you more effective as a “selector” or “recommender” of people.

  1. The first step to a better solution is awareness. While we cannot prevent our preconceptions from clouding our judgment, we can apply corrective measures. We can develop criteria for jobs that are based on competencies, not on vague personality traits. We can apply the scientific method to the recruiting process, just as we do to most other aspects of manufacturing, production, and research and development. I highly recommend you read the book, “How We Know What Isn’t So” by Thomas Gilovich at Cornell. It is easy to read and is an eye-opener to how easily we are duped and misled by seemingly objective evidence and by our own human nature.
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  3. We can remind ourselves that superficial and circumstantial evidence, may be very wrong. Every court of law has developed elaborate rules of evidence to ensure that they see as accurate and well-rounded view of a situation as possible. And yet, even with all of those rules and procedures, may innocent people still get convicted.
  4. We can use more objective tools such as testing of skills and abilities. We can refine and hone these tools until they are excellent at predicting success. Proctor and Gamble has been doing this for more than two decades with remarkable success.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


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