Use the Two-question Whole-Brain Interview to Assess Everything

Feb 18, 2011

I’m just a recruiter, not some Ph.D., OD guru, or stat-type, but over the years I’ve developed a theory about interviewing that seems to work 84.27% of time. Using it for the past 25 years, more than 84.27% percent of my candidates have been called back for second round interviews. Ninety percent of these pass whatever “questionnaire” is thrown at them ranging from the Gallup intense and expensive assessment to the Profile’s International all-in-one, and everything in between. Even better, one gets hired for each job.

So based on this, I’m going to continue to rely on an interviewing approach I call the Two-question Performance-based Whole-Brain Interview (2QPbWBI, for short).

Note: I’ve been assigned a back room at the ERE Spring Expo if anyone would like to discuss or challenge these statistics. In fact, I might even interview someone using these techniques in a group session if we can get a volunteer.

Whole Brain Interviewing

Here’s the not-so-scientific (aka wrong and superficial) explanation of the Two-question Performance-based Whole-Brain Interview. It starts by recognizing that the brain consists of four core parts. The left hemisphere is the center of analytical skills and fact-finding. The right hemisphere is the center of creative thinking and intuition. The limbic system at the base of the brain acts as our emotional control valve and controls the friend-vs.-foe response. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) takes inputs from these other three regions and makes some type of decision.

Unfortunately — at least for interviewing accuracy purposes — the prefrontal cortex is typically overridden by the limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response when a candidate arrives in person for an interview. When the response is negative, the interviewer asks hardball questions in a vain attempt to escape the uncomfortable situation. When the initial response is position, the interviewer asks softball questions, leans forward, and goes into sales mode. I estimate that 50% of all hiring errors are due to this subconscious reaction. The 2QPbWBI incorporates an override mechanism to minimize this, but more about this in a moment.

Interviewers are not all influenced to the same degree by this emotional response. Techies are the least affected, and if you look closely you’ll see that their left brains are a bit bigger than most people. As a result they tend to be conservative, less willing to decide without lots of proof, and valuing experience and an exceptional depth of technical skills as essential. They typically hire rock-solid people, but those who might not have as much upside potential.

Those whose heads tilt to the right (physically, not politically), typically managers and executives, emphasize their right brain decision-making, placing more trust in their intuition over facts and evidence. From a hiring standpoint they make their decisions on a too narrow set of traits: usually strong communication skills, presence, and raw intelligence. As a result, they typically hire people who are strong on planning and strategy, but not necessarily on team building, execution, and achieving results.

Then there are others who just go with their gut reaction, in this case whatever their limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response suggests, overvaluing personality and interpersonal skills. Salespeople tend to fall into this category more so than other functions. In this case their hiring results are across the board, with wide and violent swings in either direction. This is typically why sales-type functions have higher turnover than other functions.

The 2QPbWBI is designed to correct all of these brain-based distortions. Here’s how it works:

  1. Insert some built-in overrides to prevent a decision being made before the evidence is collected. This is necessary to rewire the short-circuiting tendency of the limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response. The one I think is most effective is by having the hiring manager conduct a structured phone interview with the candidate before inviting the person in for a personal interview. The phone screen consists largely of steps one and two below.
  2. At the beginning of the interview review the person’s work history in detail with focus on general fit and the Achiever Pattern. Top people tend to get recognized formally for their strong performance. This collective evidence is called the Achiever Pattern. For example, a great engineer might have a bunch of patents and recently spoke at some major convention. A top-notch marketing manager might have been assigned to take over a company’s most important product line after making a presentation to the CEO. Note: there is no correlation whatsoever with this Achiever Pattern and the person’s first impression.
  3. If the person possesses the Achiever Pattern, determine specific job fit by getting detailed examples of accomplishments that best compare to the actual performance requirements of the job. This is the first of the two core performance-based questions I recommend, and is used to maximize the left-brain’s analytical reasoning power. It offers a better way to assess experience and technical competency by focusing on what the candidate has actually accomplished with his or her skills, not their absolute level.
  4. To tap into the right brain reasoning and problem-solving, ask the candidate how he or she would go about solving a real job-related challenge. This is the second of the two core questions, and involves a back-and-forth discussion that’s much more interactive than the accomplishment-based question which is more fact-finding in nature. Over the years I’ve discovered that those with the most upside potential have the ability to visualize and articulate complex issues as part of their planning process. However, not everyone who can visualize this way can also execute effectively. To address this I go back to the first question and ask the person to describe something they’ve actually accomplished most comparable to problem under discussion. I call this the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. This questioning pattern also allows the right-brain dominant intuitive interviewer to reach a more analytical and balanced decision.
  5. To further mitigate the team’s tendency to make biased judgments I suggest the use of a formal approach to sharing evidence when making the hiring decision. One aspect of this is the elimination of anything that smacks of adding up a bunch of yes and no votes. I’ve developed a 10-factor scorecard that is used to both formally assess each candidate and compare multiple candidates against each other. The scorecard consists of 10 basic factors I’ve seen drive on-the-job success with a ranking scale based on specific performance-based evidence. There’s a copy of this form in my book Hire With Your Head. Here’s a link if you’d like to receive a sample copy.

Somehow the human brain doesn’t work properly when making hiring decisions. It works less effectively when multiple brains are combined to make a group decision. The 2QPbWBI was designed to sort through this hodge-podge of emotions, biases, and facts in some logical way to generate a reasonably accurate decision. Based on my own experience it seems to work. However, I still won’t formally recommend a person to be hired without a full background verification, a rigorous reference check, some type of formal assessment process, and about 15% of a positive gut reaction.

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