The Dufus Factor

Interviewing for a job is a lot like a first date — neither party wants to look like a dufus. But it happens all too frequently, and I’d like to offer a few tips on how to avoid it. When you as a recruiter meets someone you like in the first moments of an interview, there’s a natural tendency to let down your guard. Dazzled by the person across the table, you overvalue strengths, ignore or minimize negatives, philosophize, chat and begin selling — definitely a bad idea. To a sharp candidate, you’ve just become an easy mark — a potential dufus. It’s a temporary condition, but one that can have profound implications on your ability to assess true competency. If you’ve ever been surprised by hiring someone who is only partially competent, you’ve been touched by this common affliction. And when you dislike someone at first sight, the impact can be even worse. From conducting more than 3,000 interviews, I’ve discovered that the stress of the situation causes about two-thirds of all candidates to get nervous to some degree. For some it’s absolutely terrifying. The fright vs. flight response causes temporary memory loss, stammering, beads of sweat to form in inappropriate places, loss of judgment, lack of humor, superficial answers, inability to concentrate, poor eye contact and the complete absence of any confidence. In this case, you perceive the CANDIDATE as the dufus. You maximize negatives, minimize positives and ignore the candidate’s answers. And many times you let a great candidate get away — perhaps even to your competition. Here’s the single most valuable thing I can tell you about the interview process: Wait 30 minutes before making any decision about a candidate’s ability to do the work. That’s because first impressions — based on emotions, biases, chemistry, personality and stereotyping of all sorts — cause most hiring errors. First impressions are largely about style. Style, or the lack of it, has more impact on hiring than substance. We hire people whose style we like — and are often disappointed. We reject people who don’t seem to have any style — and then never know what we missed out on. The real problem is that once we accept or reject a candidate, the evaluation process shuts down. The quicker this happens, the less new information we seek out and process. We still go through the motions of asking questions, but we either use the answers to support our first impressions or ignore them if they seem to conflict. The key to effective hiring is to move beyond this type of emotional reaction to a candidate and substitute something more important — the job itself — as the dominant selection criterion. Emotions play a powerful role in the interviewing process, but unfortunately it’s largely a negative role. We’re wired to make bad hiring decisions; we need to reprogram ourselves to keep our emotions under control. It’s absolutely essential that you get to know your own interviewing style, so that you can keep it under control. We all have a tendency to seek out aspects of ourselves in the people we choose: not necessarily a bad thing, but it sometimes can lead to a kind of tunnel vision that excludes other possibilities. By taking a hard look at your own interviewing techniques, you open yourself up to a wider range of talents and abilities. There are three basic styles of interviewing: emotional, intuitive and technical. Which one describes you? If you make fast decisions (usually in less than five minutes) based on things like first impressions and personal biases about personality and appearance, then you’re definitely in the emotional group. If it takes you up to 15 minutes to decide, and you base your judgement on your “gut” feeling about a few critical traits, you’re an intuitive interviewer. Technical people take a longer time (over an hour) to come to a positive decision, basing it on a candidate’s strong skills, experiences and methodologies. Think of your internal decision-making mechanism as a three-way switch, with “Yes” at one end, “No” at the other and “Maybe” in the middle. It’s important to keep your switch at the “Maybe” position for as long as possible. Moving to “Yes” too early might make you feel relaxed, but it’s also likely to end in tears — causing you to ignore negative data, globalize strengths, slip into a selling mode and (worst of all) to stop listening. A premature “No” can be equally dangerous: biases about age, physical characteristics, even race can easily override a candidate’s strong points. Try to remember that nobody is really at their best during an interview: even the seasoned professionals get anxious or tense. The good news is that these effects usually wear off after 15 or 20 minutes. Hopefully, your switch will still be in the “Maybe” position when that happens. Here are Ten Quick Tips to get you through that all-important first 30 minutes of an interview:

  1. Fight with yourself to stay objective. Recognize when you feel relaxed or uncomfortable — keep your buying switch in the “Maybe” position.
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  3. Conduct a 20-minute performance-based phone interview BEFORE you sit down. When you talk with someone on the phone first, you automatically minimize the impact of personality and first impressions.
  4. Don’t start the actual interview right away; chat or take a walk together instead. This will help minimize emotions and set up the framework for a good dialogue.
  5. Use a pre-planned, structured interview. Write down a few performance-oriented questions to ask right away, whether you like the candidate or not.
  6. Measure your first impressions again after 30 minutes. Compare with your original feelings and evaluate your reactions.
  7. Change your frame of reference: ask tougher questions if you like a candidate, easier ones if you don’t.
  8. Listen four times more than you talk. The interview isn’t a casual conversation — it’s a fact-finding expedition. Get a page of notes for each of the candidate’s accomplishments.
  9. Treat the candidate as a consultant, someone you’re paying to listen to. We always listen more carefully to those we consider experts.
  10. Talk about real work instead of hypothetical issues. Accuracy will increase if the interview is more like a problem-solving session.
  11. Use a panel interview to minimize emotional response. With less worries about a one-on-one relationship, you can get to the truth faster.

Do these things and together we can stamp out the dreaded Dufus Factor in our lifetime…

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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