Balancing data and gut instincts in hiring decisions

When it comes to making decisions on a new talent, many experts will say that gut instinct should be left out of recruitment. But Christine Khor explains that balancing that innate instinct with cold, hard facts has many benefits

Balancing data and gut instincts in hiring decisions

Business Strategy


Gut instinct, or intuition, is thought of as dangerous ground as it can – and often has – lead to a discriminatory selection process. Using intuition by itself may lead to situations where we only hire people who we know or like, people who we don’t feel threatened by, who remind us of ourselves, who are exactly the same as the other people on our team, etc. In other words, your gut instinct, if not combined with more scientific data, is likely to result in hiring the person you can see yourself having a drink with or inviting to a barbecue – not necessarily the person who is the best for the job.
Though these experts are correct, it is important to note that the role of gut instinct and intuition should not be completely ignored. Instinct plays a vital role in how we make decisions and prevents us from falling into the dangerous territory of groupthink and overanalysis.
The role of the gut
Instinct is a biological function that helps us to determine danger. It is a natural subconscious response. Think of a time when you’ve met someone you just didn’t feel comfortable around, and then you later found out that person had a shady past. Your intuition was confirmed by evidence. Think of a time when you felt a little off in someone’s house, only to find out later that your host had just had a heated argument with their partner before you arrived.
This is your brain taking the temperature of a room, feeling the underlying tension and responding to it by eliciting your fight or flight instinct. When it comes to business decisions, it is usually our expertise, experience and knowledge that allow us to read a situation and respond to it instinctually.
So, why are we ignoring our instincts in business today?
Analysis paralysis
When it comes to business decisions, the fear-of-failure mindset has permeated organizations at all levels and in all industries as a not-so-surprising side effect of having gone through a global financial crisis. It makes sense that after a period of economic instability, businesses will be cautious in their strategy, and business leaders will be apprehensive when making decisions.
However, we all know that this kind of fear based thinking is the major obstacle to innovation and can have a big impact on the hiring decisions of a business. Because of this fear, businesses are relying heavily on groupthink and committees. Management will call meetings, send group emails, request more research and stall for more time, rather than taking the perceived risk of making a decision. Many executives don’t want to be the one to make the final call in case things go pear-shaped. We like to call this ‘analysis paralysis,’ and it has become rampant in hiring decisions.
Increasingly, recruitment within businesses is being stalled by elongated processes that include numerous rounds of interviews, background checks, psychometric assessments, case studies, an increasing amount of reference checks and then a long waiting game where all the data is analysed but a final decision is still not made. While this is happening, the talented prospects who went through this arduous process have gone on to find other opportunities.
While it is absolutely necessary to gather evidence-based data on the skills, experience and cultural fit of a prospective employee, this process has to be as streamlined as possible and not become excessive. Three references are the standard to get a general consensus on how well a person did their prior jobs; however, we’ve been asked at times to do six. While it is often necessary to do a second round interview or have the person meet additional people within the team, a process of four interviews is excessive. If a manager cannot make a decision based on two rounds of interviews, three reference checks and perhaps one psychometric test, then it is usually their gut instinct telling them that the candidate is not the right person for the job. If instinct were listened to at this point, then a lot of time and money would be saved.
Searching for a unicorn
The heavy reliance on group consensus and box-ticking not only takes the humanity out of the hiring process, but it also supports the fallacy that there is a perfect person for the job in question – someone who has all the experience, all the skills, does not require training, has a high intellect but won’t get bored easily, will work for a salary lower than market rate, and will be satisfied doing a job they have already done before –basically, a unicorn.
Of course, unicorns don’t exist. But people with the potential to grow and learn do. Your best candidate may not tick all the boxes – and in fact, they shouldn’t. If they did, they would have nothing to learn or gain from working at your company and would therefore be a flight risk.
In other words, decision is risk, but in some stage of the recruitment process, a decision has to be made.
The balancing act
The key to making a good hire is to combine data-based evidence with instinctual responses. What it comes down to is that gut instinct should never trump evidence in the making of a decision, but it shouldn’t be ignored if it is sounding alarm bells. My advice is to pay attention to your instinct when it is telling you not to hire someone, but disregard your instinct if it is telling you to hire someone in spite of the evidence gleaned from interviews and reference checks. It is most likely personal preference at work here.
Second, make sure you qualify your gut instinct with objective reasoning. Are you an expert in the area in question? Have you had a similar experience before, and was your instinct correct at that time? Do other people agree with your instinct? Are you sure that you are not engaging in any form of bias or discrimination?
By removing the fear of risk mentality that may have taken residence in your management team, you give them permission to use their expertise, experience and wealth of knowledge to navigate decision-making. Provided data-based evidence is not ignored, the instincts of your management team can be a valuable asset to your organization.
Christine Khor is the managing director of Chorus Executive, a talent management and personal branding of executives. Her book, Hire Love: How to Hire Passionate People to Make Greater Profit, is now available through Amazon.

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