Performance Before Personality

A candidate of mine, let’s call her Karen Jones, just went out on an interview for a marketing manager’s position. To my mind, the candidate was a perfect fit: professional, a track record of comparable performance, strong industry background and good academics. But she didn’t get the job. Elizabeth, the hiring manager and VP of Marketing, also thought Karen was very good. Her background in launching new products and setting up complex multimedia marketing campaigns were exactly what the job required. Karen was equally excited. She thought Elizabeth was someone she would enjoy working for, and the job offered new challenges. Both wanted to go forward with the next round of interviews. Unfortunately, this next round was with Bill, the VP of Engineering. Karen was a bit nervous when first meeting Bill, and I discovered later that Elizabeth had painted an overly negative picture of Bill just before the interview. Since Bill was the primary internal client and key interface with Marketing, he had a big vote in the candidate selection process. Elizabeth told Karen this, adding unnecessary tension to an anxious situation. Most candidates get a bit nervous at the beginning of each new interview, but Elizabeth’s prepping worsened the situation. Bill sensed this nervousness and was immediately put off. His immediate conclusion, based on this first impression, was that Karen didn’t have the personality to work with him and his team of engineers. The interview was basically over in ten minutes. Bill went through the next 30 minutes of the interview looking for facts to prove his initial emotional reaction. He used this information to prove his case with Elizabeth – why Karen was not qualified. Things like this happen every day. The best candidate rarely gets the job. The candidate who gives the best interview usually wins. This is one of the reasons I developed the POWER Hiring system. I wanted to anticipate classic problems like this, and prevent them before they adversely affected the hiring decision. The E in POWER stands for Emotional Control, and it was developed to address this specific and common problem. (My big mistake here was forgetting to talk to Bill about it before the interview.) Here’s why controlling emotions and their impact is so important: Most interviewers are heavily influenced by a candidate’s first impression. We all make emotional decisions in the first five to ten minutes of the interview. It’s what happens next that’s the problem – interviewers looking for facts to justify this emotional decision. Interviewing personality is not true personality. While true personality is critical to job success and cultural fit, it unfortunately can’t be measured during the first interview. First impressions cloud the interviewer’s judgment. We go out of our way to ensure that people we like get through the interviewing process. We ask them easier questions, and quickly start selling them on the merits of the job. We also go out of our way to preclude someone we don’t like from getting the job. We ask harder questions, and sometimes even talk them out of the job. More errors are made in the first 30 minutes of the interview than at any other time. We hire people who are great personalities, but can’t deliver the expected results, and we exclude candidates from consideration who are temporarily nervous. If you can force yourself to forget personality and look strictly for competency in that crucial first meeting, your interviewing accuracy will soar. During the first 30 minutes of the interview, determine if the candidate is capable of doing the work. Do this whether you like the person or not. Get detailed examples of major accomplishments that are most comparable to your job needs. Ask about the process used to achieve these accomplishments, and the environment in which they took place. Explore issues like the pace of change, the types of people involved, the tools and techniques used and some of the key challenges faced. After you do this for two or three accomplishments, then determine if the candidate’s personality fits the company’s culture. By measuring performance before personality, you’ll fundamentally change the whole assessment process. Candidates who were initially nervous will calm down and become their real selves. Candidates who were artificially friendly and enthusiastic will also reveal their true selves. You’ll also be able to observe much of the candidate’s true personality – the stuff that really matters – in their accomplishments. In Karen’s case she was a strong candidate for the job, but got temporarily nervous and sidetracked when she met Bill. It was an insurmountable problem. If I had led the interviewing session (a good idea for all recruiters), or if Elizabeth had intervened, we could have addressed the issue right away. We didn’t, and lost a great candidate. It’s a good lesson for us all – performance and personality are both critical to job success, but we should measure performance first. By measuring performance before personality, you’ll discover some great candidates who seemed pretty average when you first met them. (You’ll also discover some outgoing and enthusiastic people who are not qualified to do the work required.) Wait 30 minutes and measure performance before personality. Get your clients to do the same. It will change everything.

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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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5 Comments on “Performance Before Personality

  1. I was in the recruiting business for 18 years, involved with hiring all manner of consultant and permanent employee. I have been in the Recruiter training and consulting business for 18 months, and although I applaud Mr. Adler’s premise, I think it is fundamentally flawed. I think to back -burner a first impression is suicidal for a recruiter. What do we have if not our instincts? In my training of recruiters over these many years one of the things I tell them is to never question a gut response. We aren’t psychologists, we aren’t mind readers, but we are seers. We know that if a candidate, no matter how qualified and prepared, is uncomfortable sitting in the chair across our desk, then an interview with a hiring authority will most likely be problematic. Having said that, I do agree that an open mind is a smarter mind. It is our job as recruiters to sell a candidate to a buyer, as it is the job of the candidate to do the same. It is our job to help them be the best they can be (apologies to the DOD). Further, we have a duty to our candidates to prepare them to the nth degree for the meeting with the buyer, and as such we have to anticipate problem relationships between the buyers themselves. We have to ask the questions and read the innuendo when talking to the buyer about the interviewing process. I tell recruiters that what they are not hearing from the candidate and the buyer is as important as what they are hearing. Recruiting isn’t just science, it is also an art, and what is beautiful and acceptable in the mind of the viewer, and what makes it worth our consideration is all about first impression.

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  2. When I read Lisa Cohan’s comment “What do we have if not our instincts? In my training of recruiters over these many years one of the things I tell them is to never question a gut response” the advice from my Managerial Law professor came to mind the above; “What do you want to tell the jury, should you be sued?”

    Our gut feelings can also be a reflection of our own biases. I suggest that gut feelings should never be relied upon as a measure of anything other than our own feelings. That said, gut feelings should be investigated to see if there is something to be concerned about or just stomach gas. If we cannot find support for our gut feelings, we ought to question ourselves more than the applicant.

    “We aren’t psychologists, we aren’t mind readers, but we are seers.” As in the paranormal? Do we really want to tell a jury that we are “seers” and rather than use a validated method we relied upon our powers to “see inside the applicant”? This is a seriously flawed approach to evaluating applicants for their job suitability.

    “We know that if a candidate, no matter how qualified and prepared, is uncomfortable sitting
    in the chair across our desk, then an interview with a hiring authority will most likely be problematic.” That may be true, but it may also be irrelevant to job success.

    “Having said that, I do agree that an open mind is a smarter mind.” How do we keep an open mind if we first let our gut feelings dictate our initial actions?

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  3. Lisa – I used to agree with what you said, but field testing proved otherwise. When I now wait 30 minutes and then measure 1st impression again, when I’m not emotionally involved with the candidate, a true understanding of how 1st impressions affect your own judgment is possible. What I’ve discovered is that about 1/3 of the candidates I thought were great, turned out to be average, or they didn’t fit the job/culture. This happened because I dug into the details of what they had accomplished, discovering that there weren’t many, or they were the wrong ones. Another third of the candidates I thought were average, turned out to be much better, some even excellent. The other third were just what they appeared to be – either good or weak.

    Strong opinions held without scientific fact are the cause of more hiring mistakes. Think about all your clients that have arbitrary rules. By testing these opinions and being opened-minded new understandings are possible. Once I got people to try and wait 30 minutes and measure performance first, 100% agreed they were more objective in their assessments. If after 30 minutes your gut feel says you have a weak candidate, then go with it. I would.

    I hope this helps. I always tell people to try the principles out even if they disagree. These is the only way to determine if it works or not.

    Lou Adler

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  4. If this commentary is redundant, forgive me. I tried to submit the observation when I first read Lou’s article over a week ago. I said it then much more eloquently, but it goes something like this: Nervous behavior in an interview is still behavior, and good assessors never ignore behavior.

    Sure, we need to withhold judgment until we can confirm or deny our first, superficial impressions. And, yeah, interview settings often fail to replicate the real work environment. But, bottom-line, this marketing candidate was prepped for a tough sales presentation to a skeptical client. I am betting that any marketing person deals with those challenges every day. She overcomes them … or she doesn’t. Consequently, her nervous behavior in this interview is a legitimate and relevant observation.

    What frustrates me about most discussions on behavioral interview techniques is how little time is spent observing the candidate’s actual behavior in the interview. Not what the say they did when …, or might do if …, but what they are really doing now, right in front of our eyes and ears.

    What is that saying about pictures and words?

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  5. Marshall – I’m sorry to disagree with you. The only behavior that’s relevant is the candidate’s actual behavior in an actual work situation presenting real information to real people. An interview situation is artificial. If Bill gave Karen the chance to present how she managed the launch of products with engineering types exactly like Bill and his team, he would have seen her in action. If he had just waited 10 to 15 minutes and got one example of her accomplishments, he would have known she was top-notch. Bill (VP Eng) made a superficial judgment, did not get the facts, and made a bad hiring decision.

    People do get temporarily nervous (asking for a date, public speech, new situation, etc,), but if the nervousness is due to something normal like this, it’s not relevant to the real situation. The best candidates are not the best interviewers. So don’t judge candidates on their interviewing skills. Judge them on their ability to deliver results.

    Now if the person is still nervous after 20-30 minutes, then I am concerned. This is relevant behavior. Once interesting item I’ve observed is candidate’s who are initially very comfortable and self-assured often get nervous when having to present details about their most significant accomplishments, if these accomplishments are not very significant. Unfortunately, many of these people get hired, because of their “behavior.” This is the other bad hiring decision that gets made when too much reliance is placed on first impressions and initial behavior.

    Best,

    Lou Adler

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