You’re Trusting Your Gut Too Much in the Hiring Process

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Sep 18, 2019

As people leaders, we take pride in our ability to decide quickly and change our minds slowly. We trust our intuition and reasoning skills — and with good reason: These are the tools that have helped us rise to positions of prominence in our companies. The further up the ladder you go, the more you encounter leaders sure of their decision-making abilities. To a certain extent, this is all fine: Employees and shareholders lose faith in the mission if their leaders are constantly changing their minds with every gust of wind. Strong, decisive leaders with a clear sense of the best way forward are a boon to any organization.

Yet this attitude can be a stumbling block in hiring. When it comes to filling key positions, do you have a persuadable mind about candidates? Or do you tend to make a judgment in the first minute of an interview and stick to it?

I’m not talking about disregarding first impressions; we can’t. We’re biologically wired to size people up the instant we lay eyes on them. It’s an instinct left over from a more dangerous time. We ask ourselves: “Is this person a friend or foe?” (Or, if this person’s actually a saber-toothed tiger: Do I need to run right now?) We immediately make hundreds of little judgments as soon as we see someone: This person is like me or not like me, tall or short, thin or heavy, dressed fashionably or sloppy, etc.

Let’s assume that all your unicorns come into their interviews in work-appropriate attire so we’re not discounting anyone on the basis of unprofessionalism. What we’re talking about here is the interviewer — you — relying too much on your judgment during and after the interview. Consider these questions to see if you are perpetuating this dynamic:

  1. Do you have a tendency to talk more than you listen in an interview?
  2. If it’s a panel interview that you and your colleagues discuss afterward, do you have a system by which these discussions take place? (If you outrank everyone else on the panel, hey’ll defer to your judgment if you speak first — unless you have a system to mitigate this power imbalance.)
  3. Before making hiring decisions, do you gather input from all parties who might have valuable information? I mean everyone. Were you paying attention to how the candidate treated the receptionist — and did you get the receptionist’s opinion? Did you call all references to garner insight from them rather than calling to confirm the decision at which you’d already arrived? What about the candidate’s potential direct manager and teammates?
  4. Do you have an assessment tool designed to prevent bias to analyze the candidate’s competencies, preferences, and potential?
  5. Are you very clear on what you want from the candidate?

The last bullet point seems obvious. But again and again, people leaders get themselves into fixes because they’re not sure what exactly they want. They know they want a “superstar” who’ll raise the level of the organization, but they’re uncertain about what being a “superstar” entails. This is when they fall into the trap of being wowed by items on a resume that turn out to mean very little. “This guy went to Harvard — surely he’s got what it takes!” Or, “She’s an ex-Googler! Maybe she’ll bring some of that magic to our team.”

It doesn’t work that way. On a deeper level, we know better than to be dazzled by an exclusive school or glamorous past employer. But in the presence of impressive credentials, we have a tendency to act like a worshipful fan at the Oscars. We’re blinded by the flashbulbs, if you will — unable to see if the candidate before us can actually fill the role we need her to perform. We especially fall into this trap when we’re not clear on what we want that role to be.

So many hiring missteps can be avoided with some simple awareness. We must be aware of our biases and our areas of insecurity. We must be aware of which situations cause us to distort our view of the actual person sitting in front of us. Gut reaction is important, but it’s far from the only thing that’s important — especially when it comes to crucial decisions like hiring for key roles.

Technology can be your friend when making hiring decisions. If your company has not already implemented a talent filter designed to funnel the best candidates to your organization through assessments that are competence- and preference-based and bias-free, I recommend investing in one, such as Pymetrics and SquarePeg. These tools can help ensure your workplace reflects the broader world rather than your own preferences. The more diversity in your office — of gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, age — the more creatively your company will think and the faster you can move forward.

Remember, what got you here won’t get you there. If you pride yourself on decisiveness and intuition, you must still recognize how those instincts could be crippling your hunt for true unicorns. Be aware of your own unhelpful tendencies and get second opinions. Putting the brakes on and reexamining the way in which you hire could be the most helpful action you take toward attracting and retaining unicorns.


This is an excerpt from Elephants Before Unicorns by Caroline Stokes, ©2019 by Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Entrepreneur Media, Inc.

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