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Understanding The Psychology Behind Your Hiring Decisions


I refuse to hire people who smoke cigarettes onto our Misura Group team. I’m not even slightly apologetic about it. Rationalized by my cognitive mind, “How can I respect a person’s intellectual problem-solving skills if they choose to fill their lungs with smoke and toxic carcinogenic material?” Science has shown that this habit will shorten a person’s life by an average of 15 years. We might also question how that person can be productive when they are taking smoke breaks 2-3 times a day.

Are these rational, data-driven hiring decisions? Or are we dismissing highly-qualified candidates as a result of unrecognized biases? Hiring decisions are among the most complex and critical decisions leaders make. Understanding your biases and psychological miscues is a major step in making successful hiring decisions.

Illusion of Causality

Fact: Net of several social and demographic variables, there is absolutely no correlation between smoking and the ability to be an effective professional. The amount of unproductive time spent by nonsmokers on social media is likely equal to or greater than that spent on smoking breaks. Any leader with a negative bias towards smokers must embrace how irrational this is. Psychologists call this the Illusion of Causality; the development of a belief that there is a causal relationship between two events (characteristics) that are actually unrelated.

Leaders make poor hiring selections by falling in love with candidates for the wrong reasons, unaware of their halo biases. Equally debilitating, leaders eliminate highly qualified candidates based on their irrational biases.

Here are some more stories:

Duration Neglect

A long-time CEO client would never hire someone who was a golfer; “I hired a golfing salesperson once and it was the worst hire of my career. He spent all of his time golfing.” Are all golfers slackers? This CEO conveniently forgot about all of the top people on his team who golf. Psychologists call this error Duration Neglect; basing future decisions on a distorted or amplified memory of a negative past experience. It’s common human behavior to support our flawed thinking with what psychologists call WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). Our ego conveniently creates plausible stories to support our intuitive surface assessment.

Halo Effect

We make errors in positive associations as well. Charismatic professionals, attractive people or people who look and act the part during the interviewing process, only to fall short when put to the task, are the “empty suit” hires. Psychologists call this the Halo Effect; the tendency to associate only positive qualities with someone who makes a positive first impression, neglecting any “red flags” or warning signs. We are often deceived by someone who looks like us or our ideal image of ourselves. “Face in the Mirror” is a specific type of Halo Effect reflecting self-love. The ego, of course, wants more people just like you on the team because you are perfect.

Private equity company owners have “Face in the Mirror” candidates they are drawn to, those with great financial skills who present well to the board and shareholders. The MBA plaque from a top school guarantees they will be great, right? Unfortunately, the operator fails as they are unable to engage with the blue-collar operational grit of the business or gain the trust of the people and customers.

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation; our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

– Daniel Kahneman

What are the roots of our biases?

Biases come in three forms: conscious, subconscious and unconscious. Embracing that science has proven 95% of the human mental function takes place in the subconscious and unconscious is the first step to understanding the monstrosity of this problem. To be human is to be driven by an emotional mix of self-love (ego) and repressed pain, fear and guilt.

After some unpleasant reflection and psychoanalysis of my own smoking biases, it’s my grandmother who is at the root. In 1976 I was 8 years old. My grandmother lived across the street, and my parents were in a bowling league every Friday night – meaning we had a babysitter every Friday of the 30-week season. Arguing with the babysitter is a competitive sport when you are 8 years old. Suffice it to say that anytime I wanted to rebel, I walked across the street to hang with my grandmother. She was a registered nurse who smoked like a chimney. She lived for Friday Night (scaring/disturbing) CBS movies on TV, these combined with an endless supply of chocolate-covered peanuts were the reward for putting up with her ashtray kisses and smoke-filled family room. Digging deeper into my bias, my Mom suffered from serious PTSD, the result of an abusive childhood. Her father was the abuser, but my grandmother was clearly complicit, failing in a mother’s most crucial role, protecting her children. I still hold my grandmother accountable. To this day, the smell of cigarettes conjures up immediate dark and sinister images. Remember, pulling this out of my subconscious was neither an easy nor pleasant experience. We humans work hard to avoid difficult and unpleasant experiences.

How many hundreds of unknown biases do we harbor deep within our subconscious and unconscious?

5 Rules for making Great Hiring Decisions:

1) Increase your awareness of your personal biases 

Humans are vulnerable to emotion, euphoria and the darkness in our life experiences. This is the place to start searching for the most entrenched irrational biases. People seem to be more entrenched and blind to biases rooted in pain, fear and guilt. Understanding our pain, fear and guilt is the only way to increase our cognitive power.

“The test of learning psychology is whether your understanding of situations you encounter has changed, not whether you have learned a new fact.”– Daniel Kahneman

2) Choose cognitive reasoning over intuition

Your intuition might be effective when it comes to hitting a baseball or taking a jump shot but only after 10,000 focused repetitions. Leave your intuition where it belongs, on the field or on the court. The team deserves a more cognitive approach when selecting talent. Developing proper scorecards is critical to any hiring process, followed by scripted questions that will provide clear insight into the strengths and weakness of any professional. Take time and focus on collecting the facts, not drawing conclusions. If you focus on collecting the facts the conclusions will be obvious.

3) Algorithms

Speak in algorithms, so the language of the team is focused on collecting the facts and completing the math. Math does not lie. Teach professionals that their university and college professors lied to them, they really can be boiled down to a dollar value, and knowing that value is the first step to controlling your career path. The hiring process is about the leader and candidate trying to figure out this problem:

Resources x Strategy x Candidate/ Time = Return On Investment

4) Vetting as a team

It’s a team event and critical to our process. Perspectives become more well-rounded, provided there is not a dominant leader running shotgun over the process. Each person must be rewarded for calling out each other’s biases. The privilege of working with coworkers over a long time is knowing the individual and team patterns. What is the proven history of success? What are the behavioral patterns in their double vetting? Our team fully believes in double vetting.

5) 360° reference checking

Fact: people often lie on reference checks. The cause is some combination of the litigious environment and the need to be liked. This is a tough obstacle for companies and corporate recruiters to overcome as their intentions are not shrouded, making a truly unbiased reference highly rare. One of the most valued aspects of our vast network and now 30-year history in the industry is the ability to call a president and talk about an opportunity he might be interested in, and in the barrage of interview questions asking, “so in your career who are your proudest mentees?” What this is really driving for is a reference on a GM that reported to him 5 years ago. If the president selects this GM, from the over 20 has he led, that is an objective reference – worth its weight in gold. It is tough for hiring companies to feign their intentions and minimize exposure to the candidate when reference checking. In this competitive environment losing candidates to other companies once it’s known they are “on the market” is a significant risk. Not to mention jeopardizing a professional’s current career position and need for confidentiality.

The backbone of our vetting process is found in the pages of Thinking, Fast and Slow, written by Daniel Kahneman. He won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work. The book has become a must-read for any C-level or President we place. The book, both hardcover and cliff notes version, never leaves my desk. It’s riddled with notes and highlighter marks.

Remember – reading is easy, it’s putting the concepts into action consistently while under pressure that is the real separator.

With every breath keep growing – Tony

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