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Test Your Gut

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

Since developing Targeted Selection® more than 45 years ago, DDI’s behavioural interviewing in its various forms has been adopted as the most widely used interviewing methodology in organisations globally. Based on the premise that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour, the approach helps overcome natural biases that can often negatively impact decision-making in the recruitment process. Significant research into the methodology continues to reaffirm the effectiveness of this approach.

Test Your GutGiven our relationship with Targeted Selection, one might expect the issue of “gut feel” or intuition in selection to draw a fairly harsh response. Not so! Ask any experienced recruiter, including those that strongly advocate for research-based approaches, such as behavioural interviewing, simulations, and testing—and they will tell you that gut feel should not be ignored.

Discussion about the value of intuition and gut feel is not new. In the Harvard Business Review article “When to Trust Your Gut,” Hayashi explored the role and value of intuition in decision making. He noted that people’s experiences enable them to develop patterns that help their understanding and judgment in both new and familiar situations. More recently, Malcom Gladwell—in his best-selling book, Blink—travelled into the human unconscious to explore how we reach snap decisions, and how these are the right decisions more often than we might realise.

While both writers draw on significant examples to demonstrate the power of intuition, they also recognise the negative impact biases developed over time can have in decision-making. Gladwell in particular notes the negative impact that these sometimes unconscious biases can have when making judgments about people.

So what drives our biases? Our experience leads us to the view that our biases are often influenced by the interplay of four critical factors:

  • What We Have Done: The situations, challenges, or people to which an individual has experienced or been exposed to.
  • What We Know: The industry, organisation and professional knowledge that contributes to an individual’s understanding of situations, people, and outcomes.
  • What We Can Do: An individual’s capabilities and skills, which they can deploy in critical domains such as business skills, leadership, and interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Who We Are: The characteristics of an individual’s personality and the factors that underpin and influence their behaviour.

Based on our interpretation and synthesis of these four factors, people create “mental models.” These models can be simple generalisations or complex theories. They shape how we act and the judgments we make. For example, if we believe people are untrustworthy, we act differently from the way we would if we believed they were trustworthy.

So what does all this mean for selection?

As Gladwell points out, the subconscious interplay and categorisation of our experiences, knowledge, competence, and personal style enable us to make rapid and often sound judgments about people and situations. At the same time, the biases that are sometimes formed also need to be tested and challenged with rigorous assessment processes. This ensures that decisions are made on sound and legally defensible grounds.

Signs and samples

So how can you bring more rigour to your selection process without ignoring the value of gut feel? The key is to test your gut with robust tools and insights.

To make the best possible people decisions, many organisations turn to various forms of assessment. Assessment helps organisations make better decisions about hiring and developing people, and the best assessment techniques align with the business purpose objective.

Specifically, effective assessment:

  • Reduces errors when making decisions between candidates and increases the probability that an individual who is chosen has the skills, motivations, and experiences needed to succeed in a new position.
  • Provides insights that can accelerate an individuals’ development. Once an assessment need is identified, many organisations quickly search for tools to fit the need.

While there are many assessment options available, the contribution of each is best understood by considering whether the tool is a “sign” of how the candidate may behave in the future or a “sample” of expected future performance.

Signs of future success can be derived from the candidates’ answers to screening questions about education, work experience, and specific events in their background. These measures are usually easy to collect, and can be very informative and effective predictors of later success. Other signs of future success can include measures such as tests of abilities, skills, values, and personality. These are all characteristics that can influence individual effectiveness and potential success; however, it is critical that all of these types of measures are implemented carefully—they require technical analyses to show a relationship between what is being measured and what is being predicted. Simply choosing measures because they seem like they fit the purpose can lead to ineffective prediction and even legal difficulty if the assessment process is challenged.

Samples also are used in assessing people. During simulation exercises, individuals perform specific tasks and are assessed using carefully developed standards. Useful samples also can be collected during structured interviews that probe for specific elaborations of past behaviour. Of course, instead of witnessing actions live, interviewers are collecting descriptions of past actions.

Drawing distinctions between signs and samples helps clarify how assessment techniques differ. But one should not view them in terms of having to use one technique or the other. For many purposes, combining different assessment methods—the signs and the samples—reveals important information about candidates.

Collecting data through various assessment techniques may add to the portfolio of information available but the key is turning this data into insight, i.e. what does the data tell us about the candidate and how does it help us understand them in the context of the role and organisation? This is also where we can pressure test with reliable and valid data our intuition and gut feel.

Most studies (including our own) suggest the most common reasons for hiring mistakes all have to do with the decision making process. Things like: Too much reliance on a hiring manager’s evaluation; insufficient data/insight to make a decision; candidates over-promising on their capabilities; and hiring managers ignoring the information that was in front of them. While there is nothing wrong with gut feel, selection decisions must draw on a broader portfolio of data and insights to ensure that decisions avoid common biases and ultimately serve the best interests of the individual and the organisation. As Gladwell points out—prejudice and bias can operate at an unconscious level, even in individuals whose conscious attitudes may be very different.

Learn more about DDI’s approach to leadership selection and assessment.

Mark Busine is Managing Director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 09 Aug, 2016,
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