Conscious incompetence the key to successful selection

Written by
James Martin

18 Nov 2015

18 Nov 2015 • by James Martin

I meet rather more clients these days who ask for support to help their executives assess others with greater sophistication and accuracy.

I enjoy these sessions. They often start with executives asking is there a secret? What are the best interview questions to ask? It’s as if there is a magic circle you can be admitted to and you can learn it all in 20 minutes. Sadly there is no short-cut. Just years of learning, reflection on human nature and the humility to realise that there is a great deal that you will never discover. However, there are three big traps to avoid. 

Doing so will get you a long way on the right path. Watch out for:

- Your conscious biases
- Your unconscious biases
- Being too quick to judge

Conscious bias

“We never recruit from x; they wouldn’t fit in here”, “He was a partner at y; he must be really strategic”, “HR Directors from z are great”. We’ve all heard such assertions. I’ve made a few myself in my time. Whenever you find yourself or a colleague making such a comment, its always worth challenging. Maybe the candidate from company x doesn’t fit in their culture, which is why they are interested in a move. Perhaps the strategy partner is great at influencing and selling but a bit weak on pure strategy, the gap plugged by subordinates. Is the strong reputation of company z due to the stardust generated by a very small number of prominent alumni?

Similarly, are you overlooking someone with outstanding intellect and potential who came from a background that meant their CV looks a bit ropey. Some of the most impressive individuals I have ever met had very difficult childhoods and ended up in their 20s with very limited credentials.

Unconscious biases

This brings us onto our unconscious biases. We all have them. They are an inescapable part of being human. Our brains are constantly looking for shortcuts. It would be unusual indeed not to have mental associations with one or more of: gender, skin colour, weight, height, tone of voice, age, religion, hair style, clothing etc. Some associations are shared collectively and they have a big impact on promotion and selection.

For example, a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs and their height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 1.83m tall, which is approximately 6.4cm taller than the average American man. 30% were 1.88m tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height. Similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 1.70m in height. 90% of CEOs are of above average height. Similarly, deep voices are associated with authority. So if you hear a colleague describe a tall man with a deep voice as a natural leader, you have one hypothesis of why they might think that.

Being too quick to judge

One of the many problems with unconscious biases is that they remain compelling, even when pointed out. Coupled with the tendency to judge quickly, many interviews turn into an exercise of finding reasons to justify a view taken a few seconds after meeting a candidate. Daniel Kahneman, the celebrated psychologist, has written extensively on this phenomenon. Essentially, the less you know, the more certain you are. Try this experiment. Edward is strong and brave. Is he a good leader? Yes? What if I then told you he was corrupt and cruel? Want to change your mind?

So what can we do?

Essentially, the main task is to challenge your own conclusions. You will not easily escape your biases. However, you can try hard to suspend judgment and to base decisions based on evidence. What did you actually hear (not what you thought you heard)? What did you feel about the candidate? What reasons might you have those feelings? Are they a fair reflection on the individual you just met or an echo of a past association? What do you know for sure and what are you guessing? As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, there are always more unknown unknowns when it comes to people than facts. 


Your conscious biases
Your unconscious biases
Being too quick to judge