Why Intuitive Hiring Decisions Still Prevail…to the Benefit of the Savviest (Not the Best) Candidates

When asked about his strategy for hiring a new field manager, Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was concise: “I am going to trust my gut!” There would be no more “listening only to my democratic angels, analyzing and absorbing opinions and information trying to be a good leader.”  Instead, Anthopoulos would follow his instincts.

The comments were widely reported in the press.  Here was the General Manager of a multi-million dollar professional baseball organization,  in turn owned by a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, apparently abandoning human resources protocol in favor of flying by the seat of his pants and in a sport that pioneered evidence driven, highly objective ‘sabermetrics’.  What gives?

The answer, in part, is biology.  An effective hiring process takes knowledge, time and effort to plan, as well as discipline to execute and refine. It is a thoughtful, purposeful and iterative endeavor. For most of us, such tasks are emotionally, intellectually and even physically taxing. In other words, they are hard work. Where possible, we ration if not avoid such effort preferring less burdensome approaches to solving problems and making decisions. Fortunately our subconscious, with its arsenal of impressions, beliefs, gut-feel, biases and other decision-making tools, is always there to lend a helping hand.  It works quickly and effortlessly, scanning and making sense of situations it faces all the while discarding what it considers unimportant to making a quick assessment.  And contrary to our self-images as rational beings, we are generally quite happy to give way and buy into whatever solutions our subconscious offers up.

In this StoneWood Perspective, we explain why gut-feel regularly wins the day over rigorous hiring process and how savvy job-seeking executives use this knowledge to their advantage feeding a cycle of poor decision-making for all concerned. Finally, we prescribe a simple approach to help the decision-making factions work in tandem.

The Law of Least Effort

“Fully half of the companies surveyed relied primarily on the hiring manager’s gut feel, selecting a candidate believed to have ‘what it took’ to be successful in any job”  ….Harvard Business Review, May 2009

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for pioneering the field of behavioral economics. In his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow he argues that “if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action…in the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature”.  Simply put, we are incorrigible short-cutters, always looking to find quick answers to all manner of problems.

Consider the following simple question:  If a bat and a ball cost $1.10 and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?  We all tend to quickly solve such a problem and most come up with the answer of 10 cents. It is unfortunately the incorrect answer (do the math, the answer is 5 cents). The good news is that more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and MIT also get it wrong.  The reason is that the effort for us to work through the answer is subconsciously deemed too onerous for the return (in this case getting through this article) and so we make a quick calculation instead. At the same time we have an inflated faith in our intuition’s ability to ballpark the right answer. In a similar manner, many hiring managers deem the cost of process to be too high for the marginal improvement it promises over their intuitive abilities. They eschew energy-draining formality and trust their guts instead. After all, they have been sizing up people in one way or another since they were kids.

Basic Judgments and Substitution

“I believe that the task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis”. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

We have been shaped by evolution to make quick assessments in order to distinguish friend from foe and to sense imminent danger.  We immediately size-up strangers for dominancy (threat) and trustworthiness.  We scan the shapes of faces, the strength of jaws, the subtleties of smiles, physical height, size and other cues by which to render quick assessments.  Our subconscious attitudes and opinions shape these assessments. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Blink, “the giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all of the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen and so on, and it forms an opinion”.

This type of subconscious gauging enables us to navigate through life’s countless daily encounters and people. Unfortunately, it is highly suspect for some applications.  For example, hiring decisions incorporate multiple variables, the weighing and interaction of which are rarely obvious.  Behavior and achievement are contextually driven, and motivation may or may not change with time. Hiring decisions are further complicated by the sterile settings in which interviews take place, settings that are bereft of the social cues we normally lean upon to make quick judgments.  The subconscious finds itself overmatched to answer the question at hand…is the candidate good for the position in question?  But rather than hand the job over to its rational better half, the subconscious simply substitutes a more addressable question, in this instance, does the person look good for the position in question? It substitutes how we feel about the person for what we think about the person. It substitutes how well the candidate performs in the interview for how well they will likely perform in the job.  And it substitutes candidate confidence, or in some instances hubris, for competence.  The subconscious reaches for whatever proxy it can find for the difficult question and answers it instead.  Having observed a candidate in an interview our subconscious extrapolates to draw conclusions on how well they will do in a job and it has no difficulty saying no or yes based on such weak evidence. Moreover, our rational selves, too lazy to invest the time and effort to validate the assessment, will endorse the assessment with little scrutiny.

The Rule of Associative Coherence

“Yes I moved around a lot, but don’t judge me on that.  I’ve often said this job is not doing anything for me, I’m not learning enough, I’m not making enough, I’m not staying here. So I move.”  Moya Greene, CEO of Royal Mail

Our subconscious gravitates naturally to associations that quicken our ability to make sense of all manner of information. We associate viruses with colds, tattoos with bikers, Harvard with intelligence and the Toronto Maple Leafs with losing. While we believe that our rational selves can easily override such reflexive short-cutting connections, the law of least effort paired with our need to make sense of our surroundings drives us to become incorrigible pattern matchers. We constantly stitch together bits of information into narratives or patterns that make sense to us. Malcolm Gladwell calls this ‘thin-slicing’ and when applied to hiring its simplicity is vastly preferred to the drudgery of sorting through a candidate’s personality, and lifetime of accomplishments, behaviors, and career choices.

Associations are triggered most readily when solid lines can be drawn between feelings, emotions, ideas, or sensations and a person, object, or idea.  Accidental occurrences, randomness or luck confound clear associations and thus are less preferred explanations.  Causality is less complicated to compute than correlation and it is the subconscious mind’s preferred truck stop on the road to explanation.  Thus, the phrases “Fred moved at a high speed” and “car accident” will immediately be linked causally and then rationalized as plausible rather than probable.  Our minds work the same way when hiring.  Consider the following line in a resume, “After five successful years at Freddie’s Garage (now part of General Motors) I left the firm”.  Notwithstanding the sparse information provided, our minds automatically pursue plausible associations. The executive’s departure may have been unrelated to the sale of the company but the mere association becomes causal in our minds. We also associate the individual with the acquisition by a larger more prestigious organization, and judge that positive rather than negative (General Motors may well have acquired its assets as part of a bankruptcy). We then inflate or deflate the candidate based on the associations we have made. To illustrate, it was not long ago that Research in Motion’s (RIM) employees bathed in the glow of its breathtaking success. They were coveted commodities in the labor marketplace, all considered to be architects of the firm’s dramatic success.  More recently, the scores of downsized employees faced a more skeptical market, one that associates them with the firm’s stumble rather than the gravity-defying heights from which they fell. Their market value tumbled with the overall perception of the firm despite the reality that the relationship between one and the other, at an individual employee level, is tenuous at best.

As the associations build, a dominant narrative forms through which all additional data is filtered. As long as there are no breaks or surprises in the coherence of the emerging narrative, our subconscious association of ideas, assumptions about events, circumstances, actions and outcomes will happily guide the candidate assessment.  We will glide over the surface of the neat narrative we have constructed, seeing and hearing that which supports our hypotheses. We become prone to phenomena such as ‘The Moses illusion’. Consider the following question, “How many animals of each kind did Moses take onto the Arc?” The percentage of people who detect the mistake in this sentence is usually very small.  It was Noah who took animals onto the arc, not Moses, but the juxtaposition of a biblical reference and a biblical character has an associative coherence that leads to acceptance. Resumes are scanned for similar resonance and as long as nothing violates our need for surface level congruence we remain blissfully on our merry meaning-making way.

Savvy job-seekers become enthusiastic enablers. They manufacture, shape and sell the narrative by which they want to be defined or to fit the zeitgeist of the person on the other side of the table.  They point confidently to their successes while explaining setbacks through plausible tales of bad luck, corporate divestitures, downsizing, plant closures, and offers to relocate that unfortunately proved unworkable for their families.  And they know better than to ever admit to occasions when they screwed up, were disruptive, or were let go, as these would threaten the narrative. If the stories resonate with the interviewer as plausible they are viewed as true. The facts (which take far too much probing to ascertain) matter less than the elegance of the story’s narrative and arc.

The overall candidate assessment therefore is less a function of how much information we have than the quality of story we are able to construct.  In fact, we construct better stories with less rather than more information, as more invariably muddies the narrative.  Feeding this is a phenomenon called WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) which is our tendency to process associations based only on ‘activated’ ideas. Information not retrieved from memory might as well not exist. This is an extremely important issue in hiring where a great many attributes contribute to the success or failure of a candidate. Important qualities such as adaptability, self-awareness, even resilience require purposeful exploration to gauge and are beyond the scope of intuitive consideration.  Often labeled the ‘hidden virtues’ they are easily overlooked as success factors and left unexplored. As Kahneman says, “We fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical for our judgment is missing because what we see is all there is”.

Halo Effect

“One could imagine he was arriving at a GQ photo shoot, judging by his smooth, strong and confident entrance. As interview suits went, his was the finest. His smile was broad and toothy, his shirt crisp and white, and, well, the whole package was perfection.”  Babiak and Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.

Our initial impressions of individuals invariably extend beyond the information provided in the initial exchange. We build elaborate personalities, assign traits, even work ethic, from little more than 30-second encounters. When someone strikes as attractive or unattractive, they are immediately assumed to possess, or to lack, all manner of social traits including varying degrees of intelligence. This halo effect is very powerful as evidenced by the percentage CEOs or politicians that are tall and good looking, a number that far exceeds the normal distribution of such attributes in a population. Attractive individuals are perceived to be better performers, receive more promotions and earn more in compensation. In fact, according to one study, every inch of height over this 5’9” can be directly translated into compensation increases over the course of a career.

The halo effect is associated with rater bias and thus it is often applied to interviewing. An interviewer reacts warmly when he learns a candidate attended his alma mater, grew up in the same small town, or shares similar hobbies and interests.  Impressions become judgments which shape overall assessments.  Tattoos have evolved into ‘body art’ which transcend socioeconomic class. Yet an executive candidate with a clearly visible tattoo will likely unsettle some interviewers immediately affecting their overall assessment of the candidate.  Age could also be viewed in a similar manner. Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary, hiring managers reflexively dismiss ‘mature’ candidates despite being unable to point to the source of their concerns.

The halo effect contributes to coherence because it inclines us to quickly align our aggregate view of a person to our judgment of one attribute that is particularly significant. While there is clearly no correlation between such surface perceptions and actual competence at work they are stronger determinants than we would ever willingly acknowledge.  The Liberal Party of Canada’s current infatuation with leadership candidate Justin Trudeau is a case in point.  While there is likely a list of requisite attributes by which delegates will compare and evaluate leadership candidates, for the many who have already anointed Mr. Trudeau as the ‘next’ one, his good looks, charisma and royal genes render such an evaluation moot. He is simply perceived to have the royal jelly, to be the whole package, the real deal. And yet, by most measures there is less known about Mr. Trudeau’s leadership portfolio than known. We are biologically predisposed to be attracted to attributes we value and to reject individuals who lack them.  A simple impression becomes the basis by which we assess and even predict behaviors. It is the basis upon which a great many key hiring decisions are made.

While some hiring managers may fight against the visceral reaction to candidates, alert individuals on the other side of the table work to indulge it. Knowing that first impressions matter they stage their friendliness, empathy, dress, and appearance. Impression management has become a cottage industry with scores of consultants and books counselling candidates on how to portray a particular image to a target person.  They warn them about the dangers of discordance of any manner in their overall presentation (for example an email address such as [email protected] in an otherwise corporate resume). They coach candidates on the subtleties of social exchange, the art of uncovering similarities with the interviewer and the use of nonverbal cues, such as nodding and smiling. It is the genre of job search counselling that typically trumpets tips on ‘how to win’.  And while such victories have little bearing on subsequent job success it is undeniably the perfect strategy when faced with decisions of the gut.

Solution and Conclusion

In 1955, armed with only an undergraduate degree in psychology, twenty-one year old Daniel Kahneman was entrusted with devising an interview system for the Israeli army. To that point, every soldier drafted completed a battery of psychometric tests and each man considered for combat was interviewed for an assessment of personality. Military interviewers conducted a fifteen to twenty minute interview covering a wide range of topics from which they “formed a general impression of how well the recruits would do in combat”. Unfortunately follow-up assessments of the selection process had shown the procedure to be almost useless in predicting the future success of the recruits.

Kahneman’s mission was to come up with an interview that would be more useful but take no additional time to administer. After researching the field, Kahneman concluded that statistical summaries of separately evaluated attributes was the way to go, so he devised a list a six characteristics that appeared relevant to performance in a combat unit and then composed, for each trait, a series of factual questions that probed the individual’s life before his enlistment. The idea “was to evaluate, as objectively as possible how well the recruit had done on each dimension”. Determined to avoid the halo effect he told each interviewer to go through the interview protocol in order, scoring each trait on a five point scale before evaluating the next trait.

The interviewers reacted with anger that their intuitive approach was being abandoned in favor of a ‘robotic’ regimen of behavioral-based interview questions.  In an attempt to quell a budding mutiny Kahneman struck a deal with the interviewers; they would ask all of the designated questions and then, at the very end, “close their eyes and try to imagine the recruit as a soldier and assign him an additional score on a scale of 1-5”. In other words, after completing the more rigorous interview they could include their gut feel as well.

The results of the new assessment methodology were positive, moving efficacy from completely useless to moderately useful.  Among the surprises was that the ‘close your eyes’ exercise also did quite well, in fact just as well as the six specific ratings.  In other words, intuition improved, even added value, when added to a formal process.  Kahneman proceeded to give the end-of-interview ‘close your eyes’ assessment the same weight as the sum of the six trait ratings.  He concluded, “do not simply trust intuitive judgment – your own or that of others – but do not dismiss it either”.  He recommends devising a ‘light’, yet valid behavioral-based process that explores a handful of attributes that everyone agrees is critical for job success. Put every candidate through the same rigor and then, and only then, tabulate your gut feel assessment to the final score.

On November 21st, John Gibbons was announced as the new Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Globe and Mail noted that, “The announcement today of the Blue Jays new manager John Gibbons is all about the GM’s gut instincts, the type of decision that determines the future of the person making it”. Let’s hope that when Alex Anthopoulos checked his gut it was after, not instead of, checking the boxes of a more formal assessment process. Otherwise, odds are that the savviest candidate won the day, not the best one.

About The Author

Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading human resources consulting firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Dr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.

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