How Leaders Can Avoid Self-Deception In Hiring Decisions

by Apr 29, 2021Leadership

This post originally appeared in Forbes.

Successful individuals often believe that they have exceptional skills at “reading people,” but studies show that isn’t true – and their overconfidence can actively harm their companies.  One of the places this plays out with severe consequences is the hiring process, in which executives often start with a ‘gut feeling’ about a candidate and then – without realizing it – let that intuition dominate their decision-making process due to confirmation bias. Hiring the wrong candidate isn’t only an embarrassment or waste of time for the company – it’s also financially damaging. It’s estimated that turnover costs up to 200 percent of an individual’s compensation.

Leaders often take great care in crafting job descriptions and setting up interview protocols – yet they typically pay little attention to their underlying decision processes, which may render all their other preparation moot. Here are five pragmatic strategies that leaders can use to reveal blind spots and make smarter hiring decisions.

First, be candid with yourself about essential job requirements. Leaders typically look at candidates’ experience and industry knowledge, which are indispensable. But all too often, they overlook less apparent traits, such as how someone works, rather than simply what they know. One executive, hired by a client of mine with great enthusiasm, was intelligent, experienced, and a great communicator. Yet, he failed in his new role because he could not work at the pace needed to achieve the organizational objectives. The hiring manager overlooked the essential role that speed played in the organization and this role in particular.

To get at some of the less obvious aspects of the job, you might ask yourself questions including ‘what qualities does the person need to achieve the desired outcomes?’ and ‘what behaviors does the organizational culture demand and what happens to those who violate the cultural norms?’

Second, decide in advance what you’ll be listening for. During the interview, you’ll be taking in a tidal wave of information all at once, from the candidate’s overt answers to their body language to their overall demeanor. To evaluate them effectively, it’s essential to decide what traits or behaviors are most important, so you can look for evidence of them or note the absence of any signs.

One pharmaceutical executive I worked with thought he was screening candidates for their strategic acumen. But, quite unwittingly, he focused his interview questions on their experience and industry knowledge, such as inquiring about track record and knowledge of key players, using these as a proxy for strategic thinking capability. After several hiring errors, he learned to shift his questioning to focus more squarely on their strategic abilities by jointly discussing opportunities and how they should be evaluated. His hiring decisions improved, as did the business results.

Third, don’t ignore contradictory behavior. Ignoring behavior that contradicts what people say is common, especially when a candidate looks like a perfect fit on paper. One senior executive hired by a Fortune 100 client was a disappointment from the first week. Her resume was great, and she was enthusiastic and articulate. But in hindsight, the executive who hired her realized that she was discourteous to the server during a dinner, late to her interviews, and habitually interrupted others. The hiring manager and the human resources executive agreed that they felt uncomfortable with her. They hired her despite misgivings because they couldn’t say precisely what was troubling them and decided their “feelings” were subjective, and they shouldn’t give them much credence.

Fourth, trust – but verify. It can be astounding how little substance people can settle for in an interview. For instance, it’s not uncommon for interviewers to take what candidates say at face value. Kevin, the CEO of a privately held and rapidly growing company, hired an executive to lead a large operation without verifying his academic credentials or checking out his claim that he spoke Spanish and Portuguese fluently. Kevin, the CEO who hired him, was in such a rush, he took the man at his word. Later, Kevin discovered that the man didn’t have the advanced degree he claimed, didn’t speak Portuguese, and was not fluent in Spanish. Kevin was shocked that anyone would lie about matters so easy to verify but profoundly disappointed in himself for lack of diligence.

Fifth, analyze your decision-making process. The funny thing about cognitive biases is that practice alone doesn’t help us sidestep them. What helps is specifically analyzing your mental process. The controller at a large company did just that after her boss criticized her for being indecisive. After carefully reviewing a half dozen decisions, large and small, she realized that she was slowing herself down by approaching every decision as though it were high-risk. Once she included an evaluation of risk, she could better match her tempo to the situation.

Make a list of the hiring decisions you have made or had a significant role in creating. Rate the quality of the decisions from very good to poor, then ask yourself what was different in those that turned out well and where you might have made mistakes. Once you give some thought to your hiring decisions and how they turned out, talk to someone you trust. Beforehand, you might ask yourself, looking back:

·      Was the role clear, including essential outcomes and authority?

·      Were the needed resources available?

·      What credentials were deemed necessary, and were they substantiated?

·      Do your excellent hiring decisions have something in common?

·      Are there any essential characteristics that you tend to evaluate poorly? What are those, and is there a pattern to your mistakes?

Most advice and training about hiring is focused on what is easily observed or confirmed.  Many hiring mistakes are made because even the intelligent, experienced people involved are human and prone to errors, though most are reluctant to admit blind spots. Using the five strategies described here will help reduce those mistakes and make the hiring process more effective.