Picture the scene: You're interviewing someone for a role that's been difficult to fill for a few months. The person you're interviewing looked OK on paper but now that they're in and speaking to you, they're acing it! There's something about them that just clicks with you. Halfway through the interview you decide you want to hire them based on your gut feeling because, hey, you like them and you feel like you can trust them and giving this person a chance might just be the right thing to do. A few months into the role and they're not really what you expected from your initial feeling. What happened!?

Whilst there are plenty of reasons they might not have been right, sometimes the gut feelings we have about people can lead us astray. The same goes in all aspects of business  - gut feel can be good to discern between two close choices but it can sometimes be hazardous if that’s all we have to go on.

Gut Feel is A Subconciuos Culmination Of All Our Learned Experiences

Historically speaking, we evolved and were successful as a species by learning lessons from past experiences and applying them to future situations. If our ancestors were able to remember which berries were food and which were poison the likelihood is they survived longer than those who couldn’t. As the descendants of these people, we have the same ability to notice patterns and use them to our advantage.

The world we live in is more complex and nuanced than that of our prehistoric ancestors. Our brains, being geared to notice patterns, can sometimes pull out patterns that are illogical or over-simplified. These patterns are what we unconsciously use throughout our daily lives - and could just be what led you to make that bad hire.

I've highlight the 3 most common cognitive biases below. The bad news; you probably do all of these. The good news; so does everyone else! The best thing you can do is understand what is going through your head and work out if it’s a good gut feeling, or a bad one:

Doppelgänger effect

Have you ever come across someone who reminds you of a good friend, or possibly someone who reminds you of yourself when you were their age? Often we will meet these people throughout our lives and treat them in the same way we would treat that friend or our younger self; this is called the doppelganger effect.

This might occur because of how someone looks, their accent and mannerisms or possibly because of a career path they have followed. We naturally want to side with people who are doppelgangers of ourselves or our friends and will also assume they hold similar values. The problems is that the similarities you see may only be shallow, without the same experience or values to back them up. Many people have hired a youngster who reminds them of themselves, only to find out they want very different things out of life.

You’ll probably notice this easily - it’s the one that makes you want to throw the rest of the interview questions out of the window because you know this person gets it without having to even ask the rest of the questions. My advice is to keep asking those questions - the likelihood is they will have a different approach to things than you might think at first glance.

Fundamental Attribution Error

If you read the sports section at the back of the paper you’ll probably be familiar with the stories about the latest manager or player getting hauled over the coals for the loss of a game. If you think about it logically there’s probably more to it than just one person’s actions but we like to have a convincing story with a hero or a villain. If the article went into how the players’ relationships were going, the weather on the day or how many fans were cheering them it wouldn’t be as compelling to read about. This oversimplification of a number of complex factors to create a more compelling story is a great example of Fundamental Attribution Error.

At interviews it is easy to get drawn in by a great story about how successful the launch of some initiative was, or what percentage increase in revenue was gained because of someone’s actions. The reality of these situations are more complex than most care to explain. If you think about times when you have taken similar actions, but in different companies, and count the number of times the outcome has been the same you’ll see how a convincing story might not be the whole picture.

A good way to avoid this error taking hold at interview is to look out for people who are the self appointed hero of a story that might be more complex than they are letting on. A bit of insightful questioning at these times can uncover someone who recognises the factors involved and works with them, or someone who is missing a few pages of the story.

Outcome Bias

If you give a thousand monkeys some money to invest on the stock market, by the law of averages (amongst other factors) you could expect to come back in a week and find that half of them had lost their money and half had made more. Come back a few months later and you might find one monkey who is now a millionaire. In the papers, the monkey would be hailed an investment guru. In reality, our millionaire monkey was doing the same as the other monkeys (and is most definitely not an investment guru).

Often we will look at the outcome of someone’s successful actions and assume that the actions that came before are what caused the success. Similar to fundamental attribution error above, people may not see the possibility that something was a success because of a number of factors... maybe even despite the person’s actions! Google is hailed as a great company because of their open and creative culture, but how many companies with an equally open and creative culture have gone bust? We could probably learn as many lessons from those failed companies as we could from a success like Google.

At interview it’s good to hear success stories from our applicants - I wouldn’t be too keen on someone who didn’t have any. That being said, it’s better to assess people’s actions and their thought process to see how they work through situations, rather than assuming that their actions were good purely because of a successful outcome.

So next time your in the interviewer's chair, pay attention close attention to your own bias and make sure you're giving all applicants a fair shot...


Photo Credit: Final Reunion 366:365 by Andreas Nilsson

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