Thinking Outside the Box to Increase Interviewing Accuracy

The courage of the master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender. For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners.

ó George Leonard, from Mastery, 1991

Mastery is a little book that’s worth reading. Actually, it’s a big book ó only it’s short. I started off with a quote from the book to get everyone, including me, to start thinking outside the box. The reason I’m pushing outside-the-box thinking is because of the dismal state of affairs of the hiring process. In my opinion, the box holding the hiring processes at most companies is full of holes. Here are some of the reasons I believe we need to rethink every aspect of the hiring process:

  • We accept the fact that behavioral interviewing, at its best, is only 65% accurate in predicting on-the-job success. For most people the typical interview is not much better than 50% accurate. What would we have to do to get to 90% accuracy?
  • For most companies, it’s just as hard to find top people in good economic times (remember the dot-com era?) as it is in tough economic times (remember now?). How come? Should we be doing different things?
  • Everybody writes boring ads and is disappointed because they don’t get enough good candidates, but they still go on writing boring ads. Why do so many people do this?
  • When a recruiter, the hiring manager, and the hiring team disagree about a candidate, most recruiters just send out more candidates in the hope that one sticks. Why doesn’t someone first figure out why they disagree?

Now that you’re outside the box, let’s put some new thinking on the table. For one, I think this guy Leonard is on to something that could be helpful in improving interviewing accuracy. Leonard is an Aikido master black belt and instructor. In his school, he’s concluded that it’s usually not the most talented people but rather the ones who persevere that achieve the most success. Leonard’s term for this is mastery. Based on observable patterns of learning and development, he’s able to very quickly predict among his new students who will make it and who won’t. Leonard has observed four patterns of human behavior that seem to have direct applicability in the business world, which he has classified as follows:

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  • The master: These are people who endure long plateaus of learning, commitment, and practice, followed by a short growth spurt, followed by another long satisfying plateau of learning. Masters recognize that much growth takes places along a plateau getting ready for the next plateau.
  • The dabbler: These are enthusiastic, fast starters who don’t hang in there too long when the going gets tough. Instead, they’re always on to something new and more exciting, and then on to something new again. Dabblers are not willing to put in the hard work required for personal development and growth.
  • The obsessive: These are the people who are totally committed to success. The problem is they want it now, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. They’re intense. They work hard. They will put in long hours to gain success, as long as it comes right away. If not, they’re obsessively off to another quick fix. They will not stay committed along the plateau to grow, mature and develop as a person. It’s the rise that gets them.
  • The hacker: These are the people who are willing to accept mediocre success. They are willing to stay on a plateau that’s easy to reach, and are comfortable staying there. They are not interested in personal growth or development. They’re just happy where they are. Often they’re smart and capable, but don’t want to fight the status quo or put in the effort to get better.

I think we can all recognize some portion of ourselves and co-workers in these quick descriptions. But I’d also like to suggest that this idea of growth patterns represents an exciting new way to improve the accuracy of the interview. The key is to look for similar patterns of personal development and growth in the candidates you interview. You might even want to use the one-question interview I’ve been recommending, described in a recent article. Using this type of interview, it’s quite easy to accurately observe these four distinct growth patterns. The basis of the one-question interview is to have the candidate describe four to six major team and individual accomplishments. These need to be spread out over a three-to-ten-year period to see the growth patterns. Using this technique, the interviewer needs to take the responsibility to obtain very detailed answers to the “can you please describe your most significant accomplishment?” question. With the interviewer proactively doing the fact-finding, all candidates are put on an equal footing, since true performance is being evaluated, not the candidate’s interviewing ability. By asking the same accomplishment question over and over again in the same level of detail for a variety of different accomplishments, an observable growth pattern soon emerges. From my experience, these patterns are quite similar to those described by Leonard. We all agree that the best people are the masters: those who are willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve long-term success. These are the people you can always count on to hang in there and deliver when the going gets tough. Their performance patterns match the master’s: long periods of learning, constant personal development, and steady growth, coupled with increasing responsibility and impact. The flash-in-the-pan, or dabbler, is a common type of articulate person who gets by largely on personality and presentation. These people sound good in the interview, but their rise-and-fall pattern quickly emerges when you dig deeply into what they’ve really accomplished. The dabbler might not be the best title for this flashy style, but many of us have hired or represented these enthusiastic underperformers, to our regret. The obsessive is another story altogether. These people do deliver the goods, but often create havoc along the way. If their historic rise is too fast, you can expect some trouble later on. To minimize the chance of hiring someone like this, dig deep for team skills. Don’t be swayed only by great bottom-line results and an obvious personal commitment. Understand the process behind the person’s success. Find plateaus, and look for personal development and growth. According to Leonard, mastery is only achieved along the plateau. Looking back, I now realize I have placed too many talented obsessives, whose title and position was far head of their maturity and insight. The hacker is yet another story. Frequently these people have the smarts and skills necessary to achieve success, but not the motivation. They’re willing to get by with the least amount of effort possible. We often hire these hackers. They’re competent, but unmotivated. You can minimize the possibility of hiring hackers by finding out what kind of personal commitment they’ve made to themselves to become better at what they do. Look for it in each accomplishment, and during the down times. You won’t find much with the hacker. They’re satisfied with the way things are. In fact, they work hard to keep them that way. Assessing growth patterns is an idea, a first step, so to speak, but it seems like an exciting way to improve interviewing accuracy. It’s certainly outside the box to relate the martial arts to the interviewing and hiring process. But you never know ó maybe this is what it takes to shake up this important area. I’m not too optimistic, though. I’ve seen lots of exciting changes since I started my management career. These ranges from the introduction of desktop computers, PDAs and cell phones to the buzz generated by ERPs, Six Sigma, and the Internet. Every department and function has been impacted by these changes. But what I find most troubling is that while every other business process has gotten better by implementing these types of changes, HR and recruiting really haven’t. Despite all the new tools and techniques available, recruiting and hiring have pretty much the same problems they always had: not enough good candidates, emotional hiring decisions, hiring managers who don’t know what they want, hiring managers who are bad interviewers, etc. This is why I believe some bold new initiatives are required to improve the hiring process. Too much needs to be done in HR and recruiting to just think outside the box. The box isn’t big enough. We have to step out of it entirely. Let’s try out some crazy, zany ideas. We’ve been too satisfied with safe, conservative, incremental changes for too long. Let’s break some rules. Let’s get out of this box. Let’s stop being hackers. Remember: For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners. Let’s become masters.

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).