Use the Two-question Whole-Brain Interview to Assess Everything

I’m just a recruiter, not some Ph.D., OD guru, or stat-type, but over the years I’ve developed a theory about interviewing that seems to work 84.27% of time. Using it for the past 25 years, more than 84.27% percent of my candidates have been called back for second round interviews. Ninety percent of these pass whatever “questionnaire” is thrown at them ranging from the Gallup intense and expensive assessment to the Profile’s International all-in-one, and everything in between. Even better, one gets hired for each job.

So based on this, I’m going to continue to rely on an interviewing approach I call the Two-question Performance-based Whole-Brain Interview (2QPbWBI, for short).

Note: I’ve been assigned a back room at the ERE Spring Expo if anyone would like to discuss or challenge these statistics. In fact, I might even interview someone using these techniques in a group session if we can get a volunteer.

Whole Brain Interviewing

Here’s the not-so-scientific (aka wrong and superficial) explanation of the Two-question Performance-based Whole-Brain Interview. It starts by recognizing that the brain consists of four core parts. The left hemisphere is the center of analytical skills and fact-finding. The right hemisphere is the center of creative thinking and intuition. The limbic system at the base of the brain acts as our emotional control valve and controls the friend-vs.-foe response. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) takes inputs from these other three regions and makes some type of decision.

Unfortunately — at least for interviewing accuracy purposes — the prefrontal cortex is typically overridden by the limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response when a candidate arrives in person for an interview. When the response is negative, the interviewer asks hardball questions in a vain attempt to escape the uncomfortable situation. When the initial response is position, the interviewer asks softball questions, leans forward, and goes into sales mode. I estimate that 50% of all hiring errors are due to this subconscious reaction. The 2QPbWBI incorporates an override mechanism to minimize this, but more about this in a moment.

Interviewers are not all influenced to the same degree by this emotional response. Techies are the least affected, and if you look closely you’ll see that their left brains are a bit bigger than most people. As a result they tend to be conservative, less willing to decide without lots of proof, and valuing experience and an exceptional depth of technical skills as essential. They typically hire rock-solid people, but those who might not have as much upside potential.

Those whose heads tilt to the right (physically, not politically), typically managers and executives, emphasize their right brain decision-making, placing more trust in their intuition over facts and evidence. From a hiring standpoint they make their decisions on a too narrow set of traits: usually strong communication skills, presence, and raw intelligence. As a result, they typically hire people who are strong on planning and strategy, but not necessarily on team building, execution, and achieving results.

Then there are others who just go with their gut reaction, in this case whatever their limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response suggests, overvaluing personality and interpersonal skills. Salespeople tend to fall into this category more so than other functions. In this case their hiring results are across the board, with wide and violent swings in either direction. This is typically why sales-type functions have higher turnover than other functions.

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The 2QPbWBI is designed to correct all of these brain-based distortions. Here’s how it works:

  1. Insert some built-in overrides to prevent a decision being made before the evidence is collected. This is necessary to rewire the short-circuiting tendency of the limbic system’s friend-vs.-foe response. The one I think is most effective is by having the hiring manager conduct a structured phone interview with the candidate before inviting the person in for a personal interview. The phone screen consists largely of steps one and two below.
  2. At the beginning of the interview review the person’s work history in detail with focus on general fit and the Achiever Pattern. Top people tend to get recognized formally for their strong performance. This collective evidence is called the Achiever Pattern. For example, a great engineer might have a bunch of patents and recently spoke at some major convention. A top-notch marketing manager might have been assigned to take over a company’s most important product line after making a presentation to the CEO. Note: there is no correlation whatsoever with this Achiever Pattern and the person’s first impression.
  3. If the person possesses the Achiever Pattern, determine specific job fit by getting detailed examples of accomplishments that best compare to the actual performance requirements of the job. This is the first of the two core performance-based questions I recommend, and is used to maximize the left-brain’s analytical reasoning power. It offers a better way to assess experience and technical competency by focusing on what the candidate has actually accomplished with his or her skills, not their absolute level.
  4. To tap into the right brain reasoning and problem-solving, ask the candidate how he or she would go about solving a real job-related challenge. This is the second of the two core questions, and involves a back-and-forth discussion that’s much more interactive than the accomplishment-based question which is more fact-finding in nature. Over the years I’ve discovered that those with the most upside potential have the ability to visualize and articulate complex issues as part of their planning process. However, not everyone who can visualize this way can also execute effectively. To address this I go back to the first question and ask the person to describe something they’ve actually accomplished most comparable to problem under discussion. I call this the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. This questioning pattern also allows the right-brain dominant intuitive interviewer to reach a more analytical and balanced decision.
  5. To further mitigate the team’s tendency to make biased judgments I suggest the use of a formal approach to sharing evidence when making the hiring decision. One aspect of this is the elimination of anything that smacks of adding up a bunch of yes and no votes. I’ve developed a 10-factor scorecard that is used to both formally assess each candidate and compare multiple candidates against each other. The scorecard consists of 10 basic factors I’ve seen drive on-the-job success with a ranking scale based on specific performance-based evidence. There’s a copy of this form in my book Hire With Your Head. Here’s a link if you’d like to receive a sample copy.

Somehow the human brain doesn’t work properly when making hiring decisions. It works less effectively when multiple brains are combined to make a group decision. The 2QPbWBI was designed to sort through this hodge-podge of emotions, biases, and facts in some logical way to generate a reasonably accurate decision. Based on my own experience it seems to work. However, I still won’t formally recommend a person to be hired without a full background verification, a rigorous reference check, some type of formal assessment process, and about 15% of a positive gut reaction.

About the Author

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

  • http://www.wintheview.com Ken Diamond

    Hi Lou, as a fellow recruiter, I agree with your techniques to avoid “falling in love” with a candidate due to personality traits or other commonalities. You may remember about 3 years ago when I showed you a beta version of our interview tool http://www.wintheview.com This tool is both a great qualification tool for recruiters and a powerful prep and presentation tool for the job seeker. I essentially forces the job candidate to correlate accomplishments and skills in direct correlation with the key hiring requirements. We developed this tool initially to help job candidates prepare, but quickly noticed how the tool helps us determine how strong a candidate we have. Best regards, Ken Diamond

  • Keith Halperin

    Hi Lou,

    Right on target! You’ve hit on one of the main principles of Behavioral Recruiting (the application of Behavioral Economics to Recruiting) which states that we have inherent cognitive biases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_biases), prejudices, and tendencies and instead of trying to ignore them, we become aware of them and use them to be be more effective in our recruiting.

    Thanks, Lou

    Keith

  • Dr. Tom Janz

    Highly Practical: Not Statistical. Lou, you may not be a Ph D, but you are an MBA in finance and economics and a graduate Engineer as per your LinkedIN profile. The ol’ country lawyer line is wearing a bit thin as an excuse to cite PFA statistics and make unsupportable assertions.

    That said, your piece is once again supremely practical. As the author of the pointy-headed academic book (and articles, book chapters) on behavioral interviewing, my experience and research supports what you recommend people DO in interviews, without referencing the anatomy of the brain. Good stuff.

    You would be better off refraining from referencing assessments you apparently know little about. Neither assessment company you mention has a strong record of success in predicting job performance, but both have highly effective marketing departments, to put things as politely as possible.

    If looking for effective and expensive assessment solutions, Saville Consulting Group, SHL-Previsor, Kenexa, and DDI are top tier. If looking for cost-effective solutions that are just as powerful, but charge the same or less to assess all eligible candidates for the same cost as the others charge to assess just the short list (wtop 4-6), check out PeopleAssessments.com and HireLabs.com. In addition to the most thoroughly validated test constructs on the planet (over 240 studies), PeopleAssessments.com adds an online behavioral interview (BIO) that gets performance interviewing started online, with auto-confirmation by credible witnesses.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Lou: A followup question- I have maintained that an interviewer needs to positively establish only two criteria-
    1) Can the candidate do what we need them to do? (Competence)
    2) Can we work comfortably with the candidate for an extended period of time? (Likeability)
    ISTM that your questions address the former rather than the latter, and are designed to make sure that the latter doesn’t overwhelm the former. Is that correct?

    Also, I wonder about the need or ability to try and guess someone’s long-run potential. Unless your organization is either exceptionally fast-moving or exceptionally stable, either you or they will probably be gone before that’s a concern, and as JM Keynes said: “In the long run, we are all dead.”

    Thanks,

    Keith “Not Dead Yet” Halperin

  • Lou Adler

    Keith – your question re: team. One way to ask the accomplishment-based question is to get multiple examples of team accomplishments. Each one could 10-15 minutes. As part of this we have the candidate prepare 360 degree work charts to describe the team relationships and dynamics involved for each of the these team-centered accomplishments. We then look at the growth of these teams over time and the influence the candidate has had on the different team members. There’s more to the assessment than this, but the idea is to look for people who have been recognized for their team-based accomplishments and then we compare the types of people the person has worked with in the past to those involved in the open position.

  • Lou Adler

    Keith – part 2. I believe that motivation to do the work is as important as the team component. We spend a lot of time finding out where the candidate has gone the extra mile. We look for patterns here and then compare this to the performance profile. The performance profile describes what the candidate needs to do to be successful and highlights where extra motivation and drive are essential.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Lou. Part I- I didn’t think I asked a team-related question, but this additional info was informative.
    Part II- I know you can measure motivation, and remember rading David McClelland’s work (http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=david+mcclelland+achievement+motivation&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart)on it. What I don’t know is if studies have shown what component motivation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Need_for_achievement)has on actual performance when weighed against other factors. e.g.
    if two equally qualified people are asked to perform, it’s likely the more motivated person will perform better. At the same time, what about someoneone who is basically qualified and very motivated vs. someone who is really qualified and basically motivated? If motivation is adominant factor, you could hire the most motivated of the basically competent, as opposed to hiring the most accomplished.

    Thanks Again,

    KH

  • http://www.tempworks.com gregg dourgarian

    Keith/Lou…good stuff all around although I have to confess to not understanding all of it. I’m wondering though…outside the hollowed halls of professional recruitment I’m wondering if the process doesn’t look more like this? fyi is my blogpost on an upcoming recruitment humor book:

    http://staffingtalk.com/2011/02/go-buy-this-recruitment-booktoday/

  • Julie Devoti

    Love it! I have recently had the need to defend my reasoning as to why I only wanted to do phone interviews for the first interview. I just knew it worked, but didn’t have insight as to why. Your article supports my experience.

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  • Justin Walker

    Thanks Lou – very interesting approach that I plan to test out with my next few candidates. I have been doing a lot of research on the whole brain field of study and it is bringing insights for me into how to create a harmonious culture within an organization. Two things I have been mulling on: 1 – A recent study (http://bit.ly/gO2gYP) that came out showing that brain structure may dictate your political orientation. You can surmise that politics may not only be the only predisposed trait our physical brains are hard-wiring for us. 2- I just read James Olson’s book “The Whole-Brain Path to Peace” (http://thewholebrainpath.com/) and he discusses how the dominance of either the right or left brain in individuals is responsible for much of the conflict we experience in our daily and global lives. This is due to the fact that each individual perceives the world very differently depending on their hemisphere dominance. Given that so much of ourselves are determined by biology,I have been wondering how do take this into account in corporate environment? Should we be creating a new standardized test (similar to Myers-Briggs) to make employees aware of their brain biases? I am curious as to what others think on this topic.

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