The Psychology of Hiring Great People


Building a great team is nearly always the key difference between the success or failure of a business. Each person we hire contributes not only to the development of the product but also to the productivity of the team and overall company culture. When we make a bad hiring decision, we affect not only the product but also the team, the company’s culture, and the potential success of the business. This is especially dangerous when hiring mistakes happen at a time when the company is still young, and its culture is loosely defined.

But what is a bad hiring decision?

Most people agree that a bad hire is someone unable to mesh well with the team or one who doesn’t embrace the company’s values and culture – aka someone with underdeveloped soft skills. Whether it’s a lack of technical skill, inability to learn, or a personality incompatibility, these people just don’t work out – and end up costing us a lot of money. Yet more often than not, bad hires aren’t people who lack technical skills. This is because technical skills are relatively simple to test for, and are often the basis of the entire interview for most companies.

Instead of simply hiring for technical skills, industrial/organizational psychologist Steven Jarrett emphasizes the idea of hiring for personality/cultural fit. He talks about the importance of using I/O psychology in the hiring process to identify someone’s aptitude for learning and fitting in with a certain position. He recounts a military example that shows the little weight technical skills hold in hiring the “right fit”:

U.S. military began applying I/O psychology concepts during WWI, providing more early visibility to the field.  During WWI the U.S. government wanted a way to place individuals into the right type of military career or military path.  A group of psychologists worked with the army to develop two tests:  the Army Alpha and the Army Beta.  These tests were used to identify an individual’s aptitude toward specific military roles.  Over time businesses started to understand that the same principles may be applied to help identify and select better employees.

Jarrett echoes the advice of many experienced entrepreneurs and business owners: hire those with stronger soft skills than technical skills. And especially in the world of startups, technical skills become outdated each day, so it’s important to be able to keep up. As an example, if you were a computer science major ten years ago and now build mobile apps, very little of what you learned in your technical classes is directly relevant to your job today.

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In an interview for Forbes, Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude, explains why leaders should hire people with stronger soft skills rather than hard skills:

Virtually every job (from neuro surgeon to engineer to cashier) has tests that can assess technical proficiency. But what those tests don’t assess is attitude; whether a candidate is motivated to learn new skills, think innovatively, cope with failure, assimilate feedback and coaching, collaborate with teammates, and so forth.

Murphy breaks down what psychologists have been trying to get entrepreneurs to see for years, that soft skills are what truly determine a good hire. According to business psychologists, soft skills encompass emotional regulation, nurturing creativity, deep commitment, connections, and an ability/willingness to learn. We must test for those specific qualities through interview questions when hiring. We need to ask questions based on past experiences and dig deep into how the person works, acts, feels, and overcomes challenges- not just how well they code, market, sell or design. This is especially important when you’re building distributed teams.

In addition to seeking out behavioral patterns, it’s also important that we ask about hobbies and interests outside of the workplace, including skills unrelated to their job. This way, we can compare interests to see if they mesh well with those of the rest of the team. Common interests could help foster connections and deeper trust beyond sharing a pen or a Slack chatroom. Additionally, “testing” for interests helps us see if the prospective hires are a well-rounded individual who also cares about something other than their job – which would translate into them caring about the job.

Great hires can exponentially increase the ability of a team to get things done. This is especially important because to succeed, business owners must delegate. Melinda Emerson, a leading small business expert, cautions that giving up control by delegating responsibilities is one of the toughest hurdles for new (and even most experienced) small business owners. Great hires help to overcome this hurdle:

While some owners find asserting control difficult, a tough hurdle for many new small-business owners is relinquishing control. Trying to do everything yourself is usually impractical. The stress alone takes away from the enjoyment, but more importantly, you won’t have time to lead if you try to do all the front line activities.

Great business owners build a strong team of people around them. They learn to delegate effectively and put the right people with the right abilities in the right positions. Build a competent and capable team to enable yourself to focus on strategy and management.

Paradoxically, someone who seems perfect in their technically correct model answers might not be the best hire. The quirks, differences, and similarities we find in people lead us to good hires. While a bad hire is one that makes our stomachs churn the next day, a good hire is someone we can’t believe we didn’t already have. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we make mistakes. One bad hire won’t completely wreck our teams or companies – just be sure not to deliberate for months when you find that someone isn’t working out. Give them an opportunity to prove your intuitions wrong, but if they fail to do so in a timely manner, don’t delay letting them go. A bad hire can be a cancer on the rest of the team.

Image credit: Philippe Put

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