Relying on Gut Feel – The Pitfalls

“we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

It is not unusual for an interviewer to make a decision on a candidate in the first 2 minutes of an interview and then spend the rest of the time finding the evidence to prove that snap judgement right. Here is why….

We have one mind but two systems.

  • System 1 thinks first, fast and intuitively but is often flawed in its thinking.
  • System 2, thinks more slowly and rationally, and is capable of cautioning and reasoning with System 1 BUT is inherently lazy.

Our minds look for cognitive ease in new situations, which quite simply means we look for ease when processing something new, and that ease or alternatively (cognitive) distress, can impact how positively or negatively we feel about a new situation or person.

To find cognitive ease in new situations, our System 1 will look for familiarity and associations with past experiences, and already assembled patterns and ideas. Here lies the problem; System 1, without our knowledge discounts any irregularity in a situation, rejecting ambiguity, to allow for association with past and familiar patterns. So in essence an active coherence seeking System 1, will provide suggestions and solutions to an undemanding System 2, normally based on a number of flawed assumptions. A lazy system 2 won’t challenge the assumptions or gut feel of System 1 and instead endorses many of the intuitive beliefs which reflect System 1’s impressions. So when a new situation appears similar to previous situations, the individual may regress back to the state of mind that they have felt or behaved before. This can lead to bias and poor decisions on candidates during selection.

Understanding how our minds work and being aware that our rushed or intuitive decisions could in fact be flawed is key to not allowing ourselves to make poor choices or judge candidates too quickly. Trying to deliberately engage our System 2 by thinking more slowly and rationally is crucial during the interview process. As is recognizing that engaging System 2 may cause us moments of cognitive distress and that’s okay; it’s part and parcel of effective decision making.

Ideas of Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). 

Recruitment and Interview Tips

The importance of interview preparation is critical, especially in today’s world where many candidates move jobs so frequently that they have had several dress rehearsals and have often fine tuned the (interview) performance.

So here is what to do to hire successfully, or at least improve your chances, and it all starts when an employee resigns.

Start by reviewing the role over the past 12 months and be clear on what’s worked, what hasn’t and what you need to see more of (behavior/output) in the replacement. This will help you to determine the ‘must have’ competencies (behavior), attitudes, skills and experience needed. It will also help you pinpoint what you can forsake – there is no such thing as the perfect candidate. Keep in mind skills can often be taught, attitude on the other hand is here to stay, so consider your team dynamics, the culture you are building and what behaviors are non negotiable.

Time to write the job description. My advice is to stay away from the bland, meaningless sort that HR can knock up (by the way, its not their fault – they are rarely briefed properly). Give it the thought it deserves – great candidates want the detail and want to be inspired by what they are joining to do.

Ask yourself three things when writing a job description:

  1. Why are we hiring this person – what is their purpose? No really, what is their purpose – what are we SPECIFICALLY employing them to do?
  2. What do we need this person to accomplish in the first 3, 6 and 12 months?
  3. What qualities and attitudes does this person need to be successful in the role and in my team?

So you have written the job description, you have the resumes. What next…

Don’t hire the resume. As Steven Locke rightly points out in his book on Agile Recruiting (2017),  Nobody ever writes on their CV, ‘in charge of a 5 million project and we lost 6!’

Don’t lower the guard when dealing with referred candidates. If someone is recommended by a great hire or a fabulous agency we have used before, we tend to take their word for it but here’s the thing, only 30% of a ‘great candidate’ transfers and the rest depends on our culture, systems, people and processes. Laboring the point, I know, but selecting for organisational fit is key.

Once you have short listed CVs (and I would recommend at least 3, too often we don’t interview anyone else and have no benchmark) begin your interview question preparation – yes, that’s right, you should prepare your questions in advance of interview. Too many of us don’t because we believe in our gut feel for selecting the right candidate, we are in time pressured jobs, or we are simply over confident in our interviewing ability, but most of us (including myself, I am embarrassed to admit) have been in that awkward situation at interview where we are under prepared, the candidate isn’t giving much away and we are left plucking questions out of thin air, not sure what we are really asking and why. If you haven’t had the experience, I wouldn’t recommend it and if you have, you know the over used cliche, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

So here is how to prepare your questions in advance.

  1. Identify the specific attributes and competencies that you are looking for (homework  already done).
  2. Define them in the context of the role that the candidate would be doing.
  3. Write the question (go for open questions, not yes/no answers).

Example

  1. Identify attribute – confidence
  2. Define in the context of this role – gravitas with senior clients 
  3. Tell me about a time when you were going to fail to meet a deadline and how you handled this with the client? Or describe to me the most difficult client relationship you have and how you manage this? When have you ever had to push back on a client?  

So you have your questions but there is one really important step that will require you to think on your feet in the interview; the follow up or probing questions, where you will unearth the hidden truths. Most of us aren’t naturally very good at the follow up questions as it takes some practice, and we are too focused on maintaining eye contact with the candidate during interview, but in the end it is easy and you don’t need to maintain the eye contact throughout. My advice is to take note of the key phrases during the candidates (sometimes rambling) response to your initial question and then follow up – it will be so much easier to see if an answer is phony and a candidate is just acting a part.

For example:

Question: Tell me about a time when you were going to fail to meet a deadline and how you handled this with the client? 

Response: I was working on a client brief for 2 product launches and the client demanded to have the final creative for one of the launches one week in advance of the agreed deadline. I had to phone the client and tell him that we would not be able to deliver on time and he got very angry and threatened to use another agency. I listened to the client, explained that to pull the deadline forward would impact the quality of the final output. Eventually we agreed a compromise on time frames and he was pleased with the output and our final work, which was a great success for the product launch. 

6 possible follow up questions:

Why did he change the deadline? How did his reaction to your call make you feel? What exactly did you say to him on the call? Tell me more about the project launch you were working on and your involvement? You say the launch was a success, how did you measure this/in what ways?

During all interviews ask the same initial questions (which you have prepared) to all candidates, so that you have a reasonably benchmark to compare candidate responses. I would also recommend that you can get somebody else to do the interview with you; perhaps another key stakeholder in the hire, but word of warning, decide in advance who is leading the interview and who has the secondary role.

In my experience, don’t focus too much on body language as an indicator of how honest a candidate is being. Body language is very hard to read accurately in most interviews because the situation is artificial and the candidate will often be nervous, you also have no benchmark to compare their usual persona to.

One final point about gut feel, listen to it but don’t let it automatically dictate your opinion and watch out for the natural biases that we all have; education, background and so on. I will discuss this in more detail in a later blog post.

Oh and one more thing – background check before you offer the job! You will be far more effective at getting to the truth if you pick up the phone to a previous line manager and ask their opinion and experience of the individual, as opposed to relying on HR to send a reference request through – people tend not to commit negative or disparaging references in writing but will be honest and frank over the phone.

Fact. Great Candidates want to be Inspired.

5 ways to inject inspiration into your recruitment process. 

  • Organisational Purpose

Inspire by telling and selling the organisation’s journey, vision and ambition; not only to prospective employees but recruiters who represent the organisation in the market place. Its key.

  • Role Purpose

Great hires don’t tend to jump jobs without the finer detail; their career decisions are too     important to risk on a whim.

Think long and hard about the real and specific PURPOSE behind the role that you are recruiting for. Give the scope of the role the time and thought it deserves. Generic job descriptions don’t inspire so what you commit to paper must be specific to the role.

Decide on the key KPIs to be delivered in the first 12 months and that will help to shape your job description.

  • The Work

 Be proud, make time (during interview) and show it.

  • The Team

 Introduce great candidates to at least one of your own “A Team” during the interview           process. Why? Great people want to work with other great and inspirational employees and leaders.

  •  Culture

 Be authentic, honest and open about your existing culture but make sure you are                    aspiring to build a culture that is conducive to great work.