How to Hire for Attitude
Hiring is complex and tedious work, but one of the most rewarding too
I started my career in an early-stage startup. That gave early exposure to a few of the responsibilities which are sometimes bestowed after years of experience.
One of such experiences was to be involved in the hiring process. I took my first interview in 2002. Being an early-stage startup, our focus was to hire engineers who have a good grasp of software engineering concepts so they can be productive soon and have a ‘can do’ attitude. The interview process was designed around these focus areas.
Evaluation for technical skills was easy with some specially designed questions around Core Java and ‘Tree/Stack/List/Recursion’ based algorithms. The interesting part was the behavioral interview. I was very fascinated by “How do we judge attitude”. How do we calculate the expertise in this area?
That was my first exposure to this interesting area. I saw us rejecting candidates based on ‘not culturally fit’ feedback. That was my first lesson about the importance of attitude in hiring and later in team building to achieve organizational goals.
During the interview, the ‘cultural fit or behavioral’ evaluation was based on few questions. These questions were so simple, that no one can imagine rejection based on these. For example, background, how did you reach here in your life journey, struggles you faced so far, what do you want to achieve in the future, and so on.
What I realized gradually, that it was all about finding those pointers in answers, which can point towards behavioral traits matching with our criteria (‘can-do attitude’).
It was never a binary decision as in the area of technical skills, rather it was always a spectrum. Decisions were based upon the number of interviewers finding candidates on the comfortable side of that spectrum. There was no single right or wrong answer, but a potential match with traits that the team is looking for.
No, it was neither science nor math. I don’t think, it can ever be that. It was an art to understand human traits, ‘intuition’ to feel that match.
Now, what is ‘Intuition’? Let us understand that.
What is Intuition
Intuition: is the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.
Instinct: an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals (including human) in response to certain stimuli.
If we connect the above two, intuition is developed based on past experiences. It is the sum collection of patterns that we have experienced so far, and an ability to collect new data and do patterns matching against it based on already collected patterns.
Extensive past ‘data’ is very important for pattern matching, and so the capability to be opened for new experiences. This capability also helps to accumulate new patterns for future decisions.
If data is not sufficient or we are not open to diverse experiences, we risk spoiling the behavioral evaluation by taking decisions based on narrow patterns (biases).
From that first experience until now, I took hundreds of interviews with different organizations and teams. However, the importance of attitude in hiring is intact, and so the need and basics of judging the attitude along with procedures to collect extensive unbiased data.
More and more organizations are recognizing the importance of attitude in hiring and talking about it. I used the ‘talking’ word intentionally, as it is also becoming an over-sold term sometimes without investing sincerely in such interviews. However, there is progress happening in this area and many Organizations are investing deeply in it.
Let us talk about how to invest in hiring for attitude.
Acknowledge Biases - Plan to Contain
Judging attitude could be based on intuition instead of objective marking, however, one aspect is common with skill-based interviews and that is the ‘data’. Both areas need data to make the right decision. Evaluation of attitude needs even more extensive data. The reason is, that it is possible to fake for attitude with good preparation or communication skills. It is also possible to be biased easily in evaluation, if it is based on shallow questions or if data is not sufficient.
Hence, the very important aspect is to accept that biases are common, and hence preparation to contain biases is even more important. Which makes it very important to define an extensive procedure for behavioral interviews. A procedure that can help us to collect sufficient data (for pattern matching, intuition). Without these, we risk judging based on incorrect or insufficient data. Without the right data, decisions could be wrong, driven by emotions or first sight impressions and our biases.
I experienced many such interesting incidences myself (I was the culprit) and with my colleagues, during behavioral evaluation. Few interesting examples:
- I didn’t like the way the candidate asked me questions
- The candidate was asking many questions. He may not be receptive.
- See his hairstyle and dressing sense, the candidate does not seem very sincere.
- The candidate is from the ‘…’ region. Generally, people from that region are very hard working.
- The candidate is from ‘…’ university, same as of me, must be hard working.
- The candidate is so polite, it can not go wrong.
Tools and procedures are very important to avoid such biases based on narrow data. One of such interesting and effective approaches I use for a long time is to let candidate share their life story. A story including anything which candidate is comfortable to share about their journey so far, their achievements, proud moments, failure, struggles, interests, disliking, hobbies, and maybe more based on how the discussion is moving. The motive is to let candidates open up, and share as much possible in a natural flow, in a comfortable setup. Remember, the goal is the data (raw is better).
Pre-defined questions are prone to manipulation with prepared answers. It may not reveal the real data. I saw interviewers falling into this trap many a time, by getting impressed with well-prepared answers. I also saw the opposite trap for interviewers, where they are prepared with a set of questions and expected answers (also). And if answers are not following the expected path, the candidate is rejected. Both are not the right approaches for the right decision.
Define the Goals
As we discussed in the beginning, behavioral interview results are not binary, but a spectrum of outcomes. The motive should be to identify those pointers which can indicate the match with the Organization's need. This brings us to an important point of defining that need well, ‘the Goals’. What do we want to see in our colleagues? Few examples:
- Honesty, Integrity
- Compassion, Empathy
- Teamwork, Collaboration, Tolerance for criticism, Receptive, Adaptability
- Initiative, Perseverance
Few goals are common for most professional environments, however, others could be very specific depending upon job requirements, ex: Risk-taking capabilities, Direct communication, etc.
Whatever it is, define it well. Also define the weightage of goals, especially what is a must-have, and what could be compromised. For example, we can manage if the candidate is not very direct in communication as long if rest all is good.
This definition forms the basis of the whole framework for the next steps.
Collect Data — Collect more Data
Once the need is established clearly, the next goal is to collect as much data as possible. It primarily needs candidates to open up, feel comfortable in sharing their stories from their real-life experiences.
Here, an important aspect is, that you can not get effective data about integrity by asking about integrity. That is very much prone to fake the answers if someone is smart in communication and has prepared well. Rather, the trick is to let candidates speak about their life experiences across diverse topics and areas, even if it appears random sometimes. The trick is to let candidates share as much data as possible in a natural flow.
More data is the goal. It needs some conscious efforts from interviewers to ask thoughtful enquiring questions on the way to keep discussions around defined goals. However, questions are only the navigation posts to keep the discussion on track. Rest whole magic of this interview style is in getting more and more data.
Once interviewers have sufficient data, it helps them to utilize their intuition well to decide if they are getting sufficient indications of desired personality traits. More data also helps to filter out biases by having diverse samples on multiple aspects. It helps to avoid the possibility of biases due to one specific kind of experience (just one pattern match).
Do’s of such interview style
- The most important step is to make candidates comfortable, to bring their natural self into the discussion. Start with casual discussions.
- Ask questions that the candidate would enjoy answering. Try diving in areas that are closer to the candidate's heart, where the candidate is proud of, or where the candidate believes that s/he learned or achieved a lot. Such areas invoke deep memories and encourage candidates to share wholeheartedly.
- If the candidate is getting comfortable with interviewers, encourage the candidate to start the life story from his childhood, as much candidate is comfortable. It is one of the great ways to understand the life journey, learnings, and experiences which define the candidate truly.
- Dive deep in previous experiences. Ask about projects, achievements, proud moments, failures, challenges & lessons (both technical and general). Previous experience gives a real insight into technical skills also. My experience is that it tells about skills more than usual whiteboarding and objective questions many a time. If the candidate managed assignments well in past, it indicates good possibilities for the future too.
- Always close on positive and possibly encouraging note. It does not matter if the candidate is selected or not. Selection depends if the candidate's story and experience are matching with Organization's need or not. However, everyone’s experience is worth respecting. Encouragement also builds long-time repo for Organization.
- Starting the interview with formal questions, without spending time to make the candidate comfortable with interview setup, process and interviewers as well.
- Jumping too soon on negative or uncomfortable experiences, which can close the comfort window prematurely
- Spending too much time on areas which are making candidate uncomfortable, or could be possibly demotivating
- Moving from one experience to another without giving ample time, especially when the candidate is enjoying the discussion. Those are the turning points which will move candidate in sharing real deep experiences, data which will help interviewers a lot.
- Just following the prepared set of interview questions (although it is good to have some pattern), and worst is to expect predefined answers.
- Putting anyone in an interview panel just based on experience. Interviewing is an art. Interview skills can definitely be enriched by the experience, but not every experienced meant to be a good interviewer.
Process the Data — Hire for Attitude
If the above steps are mastered and executed well, we should have very rich data by this step. Rich data is the basic need to find the right matching patterns. You can call that intuition or whatever. But data is the key.
With data in hand, the next critical step is to put effective pattern matching logic (mind and experience) at work. The best pattern matching algorithm could be the one that can cover the most diverse scenarios.
The key here is to have a diverse panel of interviewers. I always try to include people across experiences, functions, and cultural backgrounds from the team. It helps to process collected data from a different perspective. Diversity is important to avoid biases and false positives (or false negatives) and to find a better match.
Hence, it is always important to have multiple interviewers in such a panel, from diverse backgrounds, and experiences. It is also important to have a culturally diverse panel in today’s multi-cultural workplaces. Some cultural aspects could be misleading. Having a diverse panel helps in decoding such signs too.
On the final note, choose the interview panel carefully. Not every experienced team member is meant to be an interviewer. Not every ‘diversity member’ understands the diverse perspective of interview evaluation. Ensure to train people well before putting them on the job to decide someone’s future. This is important for an effective interview and is a professional duty also.
Hire for attitude. Skills are trainable, attitude demands a lot more time and environmental forces. If one has the right attitude, learning skills is mostly possible. However, if one does not have the right attitude, even the best of the skills and training can not help. Rather it can have a bigger cost in terms of losing the capability and capacity of other team members also.
Throughout my career, I hardly faced a challenge due to a lack of skills in people. Rather, I proudly witnessed great products being produced even by colleagues who just started their professional journey or were just graduated. However, I saw many tsunamis due to a lack of the right attitude, which always had bigger costs than anything else.
No matter what they tell you, it is always a people problem — Gerald Weinberg
Hence define organizational goals well before hiring, and invest in defining the interview process which can help to hire for attitude.
‘Attitude’ is the key for building great teams (and products).