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If You're Not Hiring With Your Whole Brain, You're Doing It Wrong

How to avoid 50 percent of all hiring mistakes by learning to engage the analytical, creative, and emotional centers of your brain when interviewing job candidates

Over the course of 35 years and 5,000-plus interviews as a recruiter, I've developed an interviewing method that identifies superior candidates about 85 percent of the time. I call it the two-question performance-based interview (a.k.a. the Whole Brain Interview). It starts by recognizing that the brain consists of four core parts:

  • The left brain, which is more analytical and process focused
  • The right brain, which is more creative and intuitive
  • The emotional brain--limbic system--which is how we make dumb decisions, like judging someone as friend or foe within seconds of meeting them
  • The decision maker--prefrontal cortex--which takes inputs from these other three regions and makes some type of well-balanced decision, at least in theory

In practice, however, the emotional brain's friend-versus-foe response too often controls our interviewing behavior and hiring decisions. When a first impression is negative, the interviewer asks hardball questions in a vain attempt to escape the uncomfortable situation. When an initial response is positive, the interviewer asks softball questions, leans forward, and goes into sales mode. I estimate that 50 percent of all hiring errors are due to this subconscious reaction.

Interviewers are not all influenced to the same degree by this emotional response. Techies are the least affected; if you look closely, you'll see that their left brains are a bit bigger than those of most people. As a result, they tend to be conservative, they're less willing to make a decision without lots of proof, and they value experience and depth of technical skills over potential. As a result, most of their hires are rock solid, with few superstars.

Those whose heads tilt to the right (physically, not politically)--typically managers and executives--place more trust in their intuition and rely less on facts and evidence when making decisions. From a hiring standpoint, they concentrate on a too-narrow set of traits: strong communication skills, intelligence, and assertiveness. As a result, they typically hire people who excel at planning and strategy but aren't necessarily strong at building teams, executing projects, and achieving results.

Then there are those who just go with their gut reaction. Salespeople tend to fall into this category, and their hiring results are often across the board, with wide and violent swings in either direction. This is typically why sales jobs have higher turnover than most positions. The two-question performance-based interview corrects all of these problems. Here's the process:

1. Suspend Judgment

Wait 30 minutes into the interview before making any judgment about the candidate. Use that time to collect objective information about the person rather than asking biased questions. Screening candidates by phone first will help minimize the impact of first impressions.

2. Conduct a Screening Interview

At the beginning of the screening phone interview, review the candidate's work history in detail, with a focus on general fit and the Achiever Pattern. The Achiever Pattern indicates that a person is in the top 25 percent of his or her peer group. For example, a great engineer might have a bunch of patents and may have recently spoke at some major convention.

If the person possesses the Achiever Pattern, determine specific job fit by getting detailed examples of accomplishments that best compare to the actual performance requirements of the job. This is the Most Significant Accomplishment question I described in an earlier post. This is a left-brain question.

3. Gauge Problem-Solving Skills

To tap into right-brain thinking and problem-solving skills, ask the candidate how he or she would go about solving a real job-related challenge. Get into a discussion focusing on how the candidate would figure out a solution. Then, to ensure the person isn’t just a good talker, ask about a major accomplishment most comparable to the challenge being discussed.

4. Score the Talent

To further mitigate the team's tendency to make biased judgments, I suggest the use of a formal approach to sharing evidence when making the hiring decision. The worst type of evaluation is adding up a bunch of yes/no votes. There’s a talent scorecard in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired that describes how to organize the assessment around 10 core factors we’ve seen best predict on-the-job success. Here's a link if you'd like to receive a sample copy.

Somehow, the human brain doesn't work properly when making hiring decisions. The Whole Brain performance-based interview was designed to sort through this hodgepodge of emotions, biases, and semifacts in some logical way to generate a reasonably accurate decision. According to my own experience, it works. However, I still won't formally recommend a hire without a full background verification, a rigorous reference check, a personality and style assessment, and a positive gut reaction.

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