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Symmetry Authors

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Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.

Hiring for Attitude

Recent studies find that nearly half of newly hired employees fail within their first 18 months at a job. Contrary to what you might expect, technical skills are not the main reason new hires fail; instead, poor interpersonal skills dominate the list. These are weaknesses that many of their managers admit were missed during the interview process.

Research has found that about a quarter of new hires fail because they cannot accept feedback, about a quarter because they are unable to understand and manage emotions, and about a third of new hires, because they aren’t motivated to excel or because they have the wrong temperament for the job. Just over 10 percent lack the necessary technical skills to succeed.

The failure rate for new hires is distressing, but it should not be a surprise. The vast majority of managers reported that in hindsight, they picked up subtle clues during their interview process that these employees might be headed for trouble. During the interviews, managers didn’t heed the warning signs. They were too focused on other issues, too pressed for time, or lacked confidence in their interviewing abilities.

The typical interview process concentrates on ensuring that new hires are technically competent. But do technical skills really matter if the employee isn’t willing to improve, alienates their coworkers, lacks drive, and/or has the wrong personality for the job?


Why Typical Interviews Don’t Reveal Attitude

Highly perceptive and psychologically savvy interviewers can assess employees’ interpersonal skills—especially in the key areas of coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation, and temperament. But many managers lack both the training to accurately read and assess candidates, and the confidence to act even when their assessments are correct.

Hiring failures can be prevented if managers would focus less on technical competence and more on interpersonal skills during the interview process. Technical competence remains the dominant interview subject because it’s easy to assess. Still technical prowess is a bad predictor of whether a newly hired employee will succeed or fail.

The financial cost of hiring failures, added to the opportunity cost of not hiring high performers, can be millions of dollars, even for small companies. And the human cost can be even higher. If a hospital hires a nurse who won’t accept feedback and alienates pharmacists and physicians, the result could be a medical error. This one bad hiring decision could cost a patient her life.


Two Quick Tests to Discover the Attitudes You Want

Hiring for attitude doesn’t mean looking for every possible great attitude. The goal is to determine the key attitudes that matter most to your customers and that bring the greatest benefit to your organization. The following two tests can help you identify the attitudes you need.

It’s worth remembering there is no such thing as the perfect candidate—just as there are no perfect attitudes. There are attitudes and candidates that are right for your organization. The more honest you are in your responses, the closer you’ll get to finding the new hires you want. For accurate results, you must take both tests.


Identifying Your High-Performer Attitudes

The best place to go for this is to your current high performers. Consider the people it’s an absolute pleasure to be with and who make your job more enjoyable and easier to do. These are the employees you would clone if you could because they bring so much to the organization. Thinking about them, ask yourself: What are the distinctive attitudes that make these people such a joy to work with?

Some examples that may match your choice team:

  • They take ownership of problems
  • They are highly collaborative
  • They aren’t afraid to make mistake
  • They meet commitments
  • They are empathetic towards customers’ and colleagues’ needs

Your list of attitudes will be unique to your organization and should not exceed ten items.


Finding Your Low-Performer Attitudes

The only way to ensure you’ve found a true high performer is to make sure the candidate doesn’t possess the low performer traits that impede success. Low performers and their negative attitudes suck the energy and enthusiasm out of everyone with whom they interact.

Internally, they drag down valuable employees and make co-workers so frustrated and miserable they quit. And on the service side, customers and clients who come in contact with low performers tend to think twice before they bring their business back.

With your low-performing folks in mind, ask yourself: What are the attitudes these folks have that bring everyone down?

Examples of your responses might include:

  • They always find the negative
  •  They gossip
  • They respond to feedback with an argument
  •  They only do the bare minimum expected of them
  • They get overwhelmed by multiple demands and priorities
  • They always find someone else to blame for their mistakes
  • They’re unwilling to leave their comfort zone

As with the high-performer attitudes, your responses will be unique to your organization and should not exceed 10 items.

Once you’ve assembled your two lists, conduct a quick assessment to make sure every point is on target. This can be done by asking yourself the following about each attitude you’ve listed:

1. How does this attitude add value or competitive advantage to this organization?

(If the attitude brings no benefit to the organization, it doesn’t belong on the list).

2. Who cares about this attitude? (If the attitude doesn’t bring benefit to your customers, it doesn’t belong on the list)

Now you’re ready to use key attitudinal traits to start developing your interview questions.

You’ve assembled your lists of traits to seek and traits to avoid; now you can use those to create effective interview questions.


Interview Questions to Avoid

Before we talk about the questions you should be asking, let’s eliminate some questions you should avoid.

Here are some of the biggies—and many will sound familiar because you’ve probably used them. For instance: Tell me about yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Etc. These are not necessarily inherently bad questions, but they are common and clichéd. When you ask questions candidates are expecting, you’re guaranteed to get canned, rehearsed answers that waste everyone’s time.

You can find a number of useful reference books such as 101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions. Every hiring manager should have a book like this on hand. If you find yourself asking questions that appear in this book, you probably want to rethink them, because you can bet your candidates have read the book, too.

Another bad question is the hypothetical question. (E.g. If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?) Now, if you knew, for example, that every high performer in your organization said cheetah and every low performer said elephant this might be a valid question. But until you know that, these are just quirky, nonsensical questions that are useless to your hiring process and take up time.

Finally, one of the most common bad question types we see is the leading question: “So listen, Mark, we have a team-friendly, family-oriented type of culture here. You are going to fit well into this culture, right?” A candidate would have to be idiotic not to know and provide the correct answer. When you hint the answer, the effectiveness of your question is lost.


How to Ask Questions that Elicit Honest Responses

What are a few questions you can ask? Before you start formulating rote questions to replace the clichés, it’s important to consider your answers to High Performers Attitudes and Low Performers Attitudes.  These reveal the most important attitudinal characteristics for success in your organization as well as the characteristics your organization should avoid.

With your list in hand, you’re ready to start building your questions. And here are two questioning techniques we recommend:

The first is the tried-and-true behavioral interviewing technique. (e.g. “Tell me about a time when …”) This well-known question construction is designed to elicit a past situation and how your candidate reacted to it.

The second is what we call the hanging question technique. We find that hanging questions – while absolutely critical to your hiring process – are used less frequently because they often go against your natural instincts. Here’s an example: Let’s say you know that low performers in your organization tend to have negative attitudes, so you want to test if a candidate displays that same negativity. To test, you will want to pinpoint a real-life scenario your candidate might encounter on the job. Common scenarios include when an employee is given an assignment they don’t agree with, or when specifications for a project are changed at the last minute, or when someone is given an assignment outside of their job role. Finding a challenging situation common to your organization is the key to developing an effective hanging question.

Let’s go with the first scenario to demonstrate: Tell me about a time when you were given an assignment you didn’t agree with.

Examine the construction of this question carefully. You will see that it illustrates two key parts. First, you begin with the behavioral part, “Tell me about a time when …” Then, you finish with the hanging part, “… you were given an assignment you didn’t agree with.”

Now, this might not seem all that challenging, but believe me it is. And here’s why: When most interviews ask these kinds of questions, they instinctively want to add six little words that torpedo their effectiveness. They say, “Tell me about a time when you were given an assignment you didn’t agree with and how did you solve it?” Or “… how did you react to it?”

Or “… what did you tell your boss?” As soon as you add the extra words, your beautifully crafted hanging question turns into a leading question and instantly loses effectiveness. Even it if makes you uncomfortable, never hint at the correct answer. Instead, always leave the question hanging out there.


The Perfect 4-Step Interview Question

The number one reason why new hires fail is that they are not coachable.

A high performance workplace is dependent upon employees who accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and other key players. There is no point in investing time and energy in people who do not respond positively to feedback.

But discovering coachability during the interview process is not easy. So we developed and tested a four-step question technique that will allow you to easily identify which candidates are coachable.


Step 1: Make Them Believe You’re Going to Talk with Their Previous Boss.

Begin by asking applicants for the full name of their present or most recent boss. Once you’ve got the name (e.g. Kate Johnson), confirm the spelling of the name; “Did she go by Kate or Katherine? And how do you spell Johnson?” In doing this, you create a situation where the applicant believes you’re actually going to call their boss. And if they believe that, they’re much more likely to be truthful in their responses to the hiring questions you ask.  (Please note: This whole process will not work if you don’t confirm the spelling of their name. This little psychological twist is what makes this whole process so revealing.)


Step 2: Ask Them to Describe Their Boss.

A simple way to do this is to ask, “Tell me about what Kate was like as a boss.” The answer the applicant provides will give you some hints about what they’re looking for in a boss. If they answer, “Kate was very hands-on and wanted regular updates,” and they say this with a snarl, you can infer that this applicant doesn’t like that style of management. Whether their response is positive or negative, they usually won’t give you a complete response. So follow up with questions like, “Tell me about a specific example,” or, “What was that like?” If they indicate (whether implicitly or explicitly) that they don’t respond well to micromanagers, and you’re a bit of a micromanager, ask yourself whether you could successfully manage them. If their last boss sounds like you, and they loved working for him or her, that’s a great sign.


Step 3: Ask Them What Their Boss Considered Their Strengths

This is easily done by asking, “When I talk to Kate, what will she tell me are your biggest strengths?” This question has two purposes. First, before you start asking about their weaknesses, it’s nice to start with a more pleasant question. Asking about their strengths gets the candidate talking and keeps them comfortable with you.

Second, it gives you an honest look at the qualities that they like best about themselves.

If they talk about being process-oriented and very detailed, and you’re looking for an innovative, big-picture thinker, you just learned something very valuable. Sometimes people ask whether this is the same as asking the candidate to describe their strengths (one of the questions we suggest you never ask). The answer is no. If you ask them to describe their strengths, you’re going to get a canned answer that reflects what they think you want to hear, not what they actually believe.


Step 4: Ask Them What Their Boss Considered Their Weaknesses.

This can be accomplished with a question as simple as, “Now everyone has some weaknesses, so when I talk to Kate, what will she tell me yours are?” This is the most critical question, but it only works if you’ve completed the previous three steps. In fact, if you do the first three steps successfully (especially confirming the spelling of the boss’ name in Step 1), you might be shocked at the level of honesty you elicit with this last question. You want to listen to their answer on two levels. First, you’re going to assess whether the weakness is something you can live with. If they say they were criticized for lying, or being too political, or not completing assignments on time, then you may have uncovered that they share characteristics with your low performers.

Second, if they say they can’t think of any weaknesses or “they don’t know what Kate thought about them,” then you’ve hit upon the biggest warning sign that someone is not coachable. If they didn’t (or couldn’t) hear the constructive feedback offered by their previous boss, what are the chances that you’ll be successful giving them feedback? If someone can’t hear and assimilate constructive criticism, they’re not coachable. And if they can’t put themselves in their boss’ shoes and anticipate their assessment, they’re not coachable. And if they’re not coachable, they’re going to be a nightmare to manage.


Putting It All Together

And that question is, “So where do technical skills fit into the hiring process? Do you totally ignore them?”

Technical skills are a critical element of any employee’s job performance, and they absolutely must be a part of your hiring process. But skills are very easy to test. Because most organizations concentrate more on skills than they do attitude, we typically find that the organizations we work with are already sufficiently assessing technical skill levels.

You absolutely must use skills assessments. If you can, incorporate these assessments in the process before you meet face-to-face. That way, the candidates use their time and not yours. By the time you meet in person, you will have already gotten the skills assessment out of the way and edited out any candidates who do not possess the necessary skills. What’s left is to assess whether they also have the right levels of coachability, emotional intelligence, temperament and motivation to fit your organization’s unique culture.

If you follow all of these tips and techniques carefully, you will have a greatly improved chance of hiring someone who will make valuable contributions to your organization