Crossing the reality gap

The world’s most valuable companies are mainly staffed by knowledge workers.

Screenshot: 21 June 2020

These companies all have complex systems, processes and strategies that enable them to be the leaders at what they do. But these things are irrelevant unless they can deliver on a strategy, iterate a process and maintain a system.

This is execution.

Execution is done by people, so it makes sense to hire the best people possible.

To hire the best people possible, several things need to happen. The most important being assessment. Attraction strategies, Talent pools and employer branding campaigns are all a cash burn unless the best Talent can be identified and assessed effectively.

By the time candidates get to interview, some form of pre-screening has usually occurred. This information, coupled with other disparate data such as resumes, cover letters, portfolios and personal biases creates a first level reality. Or, “What you think you know”, about a candidate.

This is, of course, an illusion.

People are complex. With their own unique set of aspirations, thoughts, emotions, reactions, values, hopes, dreams, desires, needs, abilities, histories and influences.

Understanding all these factors and then being able to determine if someone may complement an existing collection of other complex individuals is the ultimate challenge.

The hour or two of dialogue between candidate and hiring manager (the interview) is a chance to close a reality gap. This is the gap between “What you think you know” and “What you actually know.”

The standard one hour interview is undoubtedly a ridiculously short time in which to fully unearth, understand and assess a thing as complex as a human being. But we often have multiple, competing priorities and can’t be bound by inertia. We need to make decisions.

Interviews are for the most part alien environments. Few of us spend an hour with a complete stranger who is trying to understand who we really are as people.

Candidates often need a job, and their desire to be viewed as a suitable candidate impacts their behaviour in this hour. These two factors alone make interviews challenging.

We know that environments impact behaviour, so creating an environment where candidates are comfortable, relaxed and feel safe in being themselves is a logical way to maximise the effectiveness of an interview.

Whilst physical elements such as decor, comfy chairs, windows and plants are nice to have, the emotional environment is the one that matters. It’s the one where the candidate reveals more about themselves.

These techniques are the most effective in achieving this.

Set expectations.

Take a minute or so to tell people what’s going to happen next. Reducing uncertainty reduces nerves. Try something like, “Hey XXX thanks so much for coming to see us. So we have an hour or so together, and in that time we want to give you as much insight into who we are and what we do as we possibly can. In turn, we’d love to find out more about you, where you do your best work and maybe together we can both figure out if we could be good together? Is that ok with you?”

Find your own way to say it, but be yourself. When candidates see that you are relaxed, in control and genuinely interested in them, chances are they’ll be the same with you.

Sales trainers talk about good sales being a result of a “transfer of enthusiasm”. Using the same thinking, we argue that good interviews are a “transfer of comfort”

Conversations, not interrogations.

Rapid-fire, formulaic questions feel like an interrogation. This causes candidates to focus on merely providing favourable responses. They also generally, only provide surface-level details, and rarely anything of substance.

Shifting your dialogue to a conversational one lets candidates open up and tell stories. It’s these stories that reveal who they are.

Instead of “Do you have experience working in an Agile environment?”, try something like “The platform you managed at XXXXX is complex, how did you prioritise and ship features?”

Instead of “Do you have significant experience managing account teams?”, try something like, “You’ve run several teams in the past, in your experience, how do you make account teams really efficient and able to deliver consistent results?”

The language and choices of words a candidate uses are also very revealing. For example, are they quick to point out team efforts when describing successes or do they claim all the glory?

Do they use the words “we”, “us” and “team”, or “me”, “mine” and “my”? Are they naturally a collaborator who thinks about achieving the end goal, or self-centred, with narcissistic leanings who’s in it for themselves?

Are they putting on a show or being genuine?

Stories will tell you all you need to know. Let people tell them, be prepared to listen. What they don’t say is as important as what they do.

Be kind, not combative.

The days of putting candidates under stress, “to see how they cope” should stay where they belong, in the past.

Interviewing and getting a job can be stressful enough. Adding some kind of pound-shop psycho-analytical nonsense that you learned from a previous manager does you and the candidate no favours.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ask tough questions, far from it. However, the best tough questions get candidates to reveal who they really are, why they make the decisions they do, how they treat other people, how well they communicate, how they approach dealing with unexpected circumstances.

An easy way to do this is to keep asking, why? Why did you make that decision? Why did you feel there were no better options? Why didn’t you consider alternatives?

Whatever answers you get, keep digging. The 5 whys approach to root cause analysis works equally well when interviewing. It’s a simple tool to use and can peel back layers to reveal the real person beneath the veneer.

When this approach is used in a non combative manner, it’s extremely effective. Being kind also just feels good for both parties. Even if a no-hire decision is made on a candidate, you can win a brand advocate simply by being kind.

Talk about more than work​.

People are more than the job they do. The things that happen in our lives outside of work shape who we are as much as the things in the workplace. Maybe more. Because our work lives generally have a very narrow focus.

Finding out about the whole person serves a number of crucial purposes. It allows the interviewer to better understand more about a candidate’s personal values.

If for example, a candidate volunteers at a soup kitchen for the homeless at weekends, this most likely displays a deep empathy for others. A perfect trait for a UX designer. If they coach a kids football team, they most likely have a competitive nature and enjoy getting into details. Perfect traits for a Sales manager.

These kinds of conversations can be far more revealing than we care to admit, but they are incredibly important. They also help hiring teams to make more comfortable decisions by providing more data points.

Hiring is a high stakes necessity. In highly competitive industry sectors and dynamic candidate markets, the margins for error are minimal.

Mature recruiting systems and processes can bring significant efficiencies. Well conceived employer branding initiatives can attract high-quality candidates. Engaging onboarding and competitive benefits can drastically improve staff retention.

But the war for Talent is only ever really won in interview rooms. Or Zoom calls.

Cover image by visuals on Unsplash

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