Consensus Hiring Can Kill a Company
Consensus hiring can kill a company. That sounds a bit dramatic I know, but I mean it. I don’t know exactly when it began, but these days most corporate hiring processes include groups of at least four or five people that interview, assess and weigh in on a candidate before they get hired.
It’s easy to understand how we got to this place. It’s easy to see the potential merits of group interviewing and hiring. But there are some serious pitfalls too. We tell ourselves that having more people vet and validate a candidate means they are more likely to be a positive addition to the culture. I get it. But in my experience, group hiring, if you’re not careful, accomplishes precisely the opposite of what it’s attempting to achieve. When group hiring turns into consensus hiring, a serious problem emerges.
It is always easy to find a reason why one more person should have input into a hiring decision. Some companies, who oversubscribe to dotcom human resources best practices, go to extremes in support of consensus hiring. I often tell the story of a friend of mine who had to interview in front of a 25-person panel to get a check-in job at an airline. This is the epitome of misguided consensus hiring in my opinion. What are the chances 25 people could ever agree on a truly transformative candidate?
In practice large group hiring always favors the most likable candidate or the candidate least likely to create discomfort or change. But is that the candidate who is actually best for the business?
Ask yourself honestly: “When did group consensus ever deliver real greatness?” And let me make an important distinction; I’m speaking about consensus not collaboration – they’re very different animals.
But that doesn’t mean group interviewing is all bad. It has virtues. When applied correctly, it can be extremely effective. I just don’t see this happening a lot.
Today I’m going to share my three tips to get the most out of group interviewing while making sure to avoid the trap of consensus hiring.
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of group hiring thus far. But all is not lost. I do think there are some practical steps you can take to enjoy the benefits that attract us to group hiring without the dangers that come from hiring by consensus. Here are my three tips to do just that:
Control Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is a nasty thing in group hiring. If you google it, you’ll see a definition that looks something like this:
Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
Where this becomes a problem in the group hiring scenario is when the boss or recruiter or one of your peers shares their opinion about a candidate before you evaluate them. It happens all the time. How many times have you gone into an interview where the recruiter had prepped you with something like:
“We’ve got three candidates – I really like Jane, she’s got a ton of depth. Not sure we can afford her though …”
Or worse – your boss meets with a candidate before you do and then asks you to interview them also. It goes something like:
“Hey John, I’ve got a candidate for the new Developer role I really like. Would love you to meet him and let me know your thoughts …”
This is how confirmation bias happens in group hiring scenarios. It’s extremely difficult to maintain any measure of objectivity when you’re prepped in this way. The questions you ask, the way you interpret answers, your demeanor … it will all be affected by this. Whether you realize it or not, everything you see and hear and learn in the interview will be slightly skewed in favor of this candidate.
My recommendation for reducing the impact of confirmation bias is to talk about it openly with your team and recruitment partners. Create policies and procedures to minimize its impact. Even if it’s a little rule like “we don’t talk about a candidate until everyone has interviewed them.” You need to be finding ways to prevent confirmation bias from impacting your hiring decisions.
A slightly more aggressive cousin of confirmation bias is conformity. Conformity is one of the big challenges in group hiring. It can, if you’re not careful, eviscerate all of the merits that may come from having multiple people interview a candidate.
We’ve all seen the Asch research studies where a group of five people is sent into a room. They are presented several line segments – they are obviously different lengths. Prior to entering the room, the moderator tells four of the individuals to lie about which line is longer. When the four confederates shockingly point to the shorter line, the unknowing fifth guy reluctantly agrees. Nearly 35% of candidates tested conformed at least once with an obviously incorrect answer. Groups don’t make good choices. Groups for collaboration – yes, groups for decision making – no.
By the same logic, it stands to reason if five people interview a group of candidates you’re going to see conformity in action. You will get a decision that is the least disruptive to the current team and the most serving to the interests of the voters’ own careers. With consensus hiring you’ll rarely get a candidate who will push the team to the next level or cause healthy conflict. You will rarely get what’s best for the company. All we accomplish through consensus hiring is to multiply the human self-preservation dynamic which ultimately leads to problems for the business.
My recommendation is to build processes into your group hiring methods that are designed to encourage independent thought and discourage conformity. A really easy one is not to gather for a team discussion to review the candidates as a group. Rather, each person interviews the candidate and submits their assessment independently and then the hiring manager can follow up directly to probe for more information or context.
Establish a Common Evaluation Framework
Objectivity, the absence of it actually, is another challenge to group hiring. The more people involved in the hiring process the more difficult it is to maintain objectivity in decision making. What I mean by that is that each person who participates in the hiring process will naturally gravitate to the candidate who they most like on a personal level and who can help further their own objectives. You may feel this is a pretty cynical view of humanity but my experience tells me it’s realistic.
If I’m hiring for a Marketing Director and I have the Sales VP, the Product Management leader and the head of Partners interview a candidate, guess what I’m going to see? The Sales VP will favor the candidate most favorable to Sales objectives, the Product Management leader will favor the candidate who has experience with products and the Partners head will favor the channels-friendly marketer. But what about the business? Which candidate is best for the company as a whole?
My recommendation for building more objectivity into group hiring is to agree on a common evaluation framework all interviewers can use. Many companies have these, but they are frequently too complex to be useful. Often times they are also disconnected from the specific requirements of the role. Here’s an example of a simple evaluation framework I might give to a group of interviewers to help them be more objective in their assessment of candidates.
There are 5 things we should care about when evaluating these sales leader candidates.
Score each on a scale of 1-5.
- Depth of experience selling to enterprises with over 10,000 employees.
- Ability to clearly articulate a model for deconstructing a revenue target into a sales plan.
- Demonstrable experience implementing the Challenger sales methodology across a team.
- Expert level understanding of sales forecasting, pipeline management and deal review.
- Proven track record of achieving annual sales targets and going to President’s club.
This is not fool proof by any means, but it does force interviewers to think in terms of the needs of the business vs. their own needs. It also reduces the impact of personal fit on the assessment.
Just about every company these days uses group hiring methods to one extent or another. There are benefits to this approach to be sure. But there are also major pitfalls if you’re not careful. I hope these three tips will help your team get the most out of group interviews while avoiding the dangers of confirmation bias, consensus and conformity.
Why Lasting Change Is Hard
Before we had any children, my wife and I lived in the heart of Dallas. One day, on our way back to our house, we were driving down Skillman Avenue when we were caught in a sudden torrential downpour.
The rain was coming down incredibly hard, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the storm drains were equipped to handle that much water. Instead, the road itself filled with water faster than we could have anticipated. Quickly, the water rose up the side of our car. Trying not to panic, we realized that we could not continue and would need to turn around and get to higher ground.
Water rising up the side of your car door is the kind of roadblock you might not expect to encounter, but when you do, it’s formidable. We couldn’t drive through it or even around it. We had to deal with it quickly or face serious consequences.
When we’re trying to implement change in our own lives, it’s important to identify and plan for common roadblocks to lasting change.
The first and, in my opinion, most important roadblock to lasting change is not addressing the real issue.
Let’s say you wake up in the middle of the night with a sore throat. You’re annoyed by feeling sick but your throat really hurts, so you get up and spray a little Chloraseptic in your mouth and drift off to sleep. When you wake up the next day, you still have a sore throat, so you pop in a cough drop and go about your day.
The change you’re making – using a numbing agent – might work if you’ve only got a cold, but if it’s strep throat, you’re not addressing the real problem. Only an antibiotic will cure what ails you, even if Chloraseptic will keep the pain at bay for a while.
Just like how more information is needed to diagnose your sore throat than one feeling, problems you encounter in your life or business require diagnostics, too. Figuring out the real problem – not just your most apparent needs – requires some introspection and a little bit of time.
Here are eight questions to ask when you need to discover the root cause, courtesy of MindTools.com:
- What do you see happening?
- What are the specific symptoms?
- What proof do you have that the problem exists?
- How long has the problem existed?
- What is the impact of the problem?
- What sequence of events leads to the problem?
- What conditions allow the problem to occur?
- What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem?
Once you have your answers to these key questions, you can’t stop there. Your vantage point is skewed from your own perspective. You’re going to want to ask someone else to evaluate the problem at hand with the same questions and then compare your answers.
If you and all of the partners at your firm have similar answers, you’ll know you’re on the right track. If you wind up with wildly different ideas, I suggest seeking the advice of someone outside your organization. Fresh eyes can make all the difference in understanding a problem.
I often talk about being ‘too close’ to understand. You’ve probably heard the illustration about a group of people standing by an elephant with blindfolds on, trying to describe what they’re experiencing. Depending on what part of the elephant you’re next to, you’re going to have different observations.
But someone outside of that elephant’s cage can clearly identify the elephant.
The first key to making a lasting change is to make sure you’ve addressed the real problem and are looking for authentic change.
Next time, we’ll address the second major roadblock to creating last change.
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