The Slippery Slope of Selection

Thoughts for Educational Leaders About Hiring the Right Person Each Time

04/06/2015  |  By Peter Pillsbury Sr.

We would all likely agree with Jim Collins in his popular book, “Good to Great,” that selecting and hiring the right people is key to the success of a school district. The most important decision district leaders make is whom to hire — schools and/or school districts don’t achieve greatness without great people; it is that simple! Yet, often, we find selection of talent a slippery slope.


An All Too Common Story

The story is all too familiar and goes something like this: Bob was hired as a teacher six months ago after a rigorous application process including two interviews. In the interviews he appeared friendly and convincing about how his talents would add value to the classroom. The members of both interview teams had a good feeling about Bob and liked his confidence and ability to express his beliefs, beliefs that were consistent with those of the district. The teams’ consensus was a feeling that Bob would be a significant asset to the organization. Everyone involved in the selection process was excited and confident to recommend Bob above all other applicants.


Bob was offered the job, and a week later he started working in his new teaching position. The initial response from his supervisor and co-workers confirmed the sentiment of the selection team — Bob appeared to be an asset to the school. However, it was not long before some of Bob’s co-workers began complaining about his arrogant and uncooperative behavior. Soon the principal was agreeing with Bob’s co-workers; she also found him arrogant and hard to get along with. By now nearly everyone in the school, including some parents, had grown to dislike Bob and wondered how he could have been hired in the first place. When those who had been on the hiring committee that selected Bob heard about what was going on, they were in disbelief. But, ultimately, it could not be denied; Bob was not an asset to the school and the students but, rather, a liability.


“What happened?” the hiring team members wondered, “to that articulate, likeable and talented guy that interviewed and had all of us believing that he was the one? How could the person everyone saw, or felt they saw, in the interview be upsetting so many people?”  “How could the person we hired be the same person we are now hearing, described in negative, frustrated terms?”


The Subjective Nature of Traditional Interviewing

This or similar stories unfold in every organization and schools are no exception. Hiring is indeed a slippery slope. Often people who appear to shine in an interview turn out to be the worst nightmare as employees or, at best, they just muddle along as mediocre employees. What many school leaders don’t know is that this happens because the organization does not utilize objective processes when it comes to hiring. Rather, the organization relies on the subjective and biased intuitive feelings of the interviewers involved in the selection process.  They make a hiring decision based on their perceptions of an applicant with little or no concrete evidence of how the applicant will perform once on the job. In the words of Daniel Goldman, the hiring team has engaged in “thin slicing,” making a critical decision based on little objective evidence. They have listened to the applicant with their eyes rather than with their ears. (“Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell) Their rational, thoughtful, objective brains have been hijacked by the emotional, feeling center of the brain and, therefore, they often make emotionally biased, poor hiring decisions.


What most school leaders don’t know, yet should know, is what happens in the traditional hiring process — a process like the one that hired Bob. The traditional hiring process is, at best, a crapshoot — leading to the right decision to hire a person who will significantly add value to the organization less than 50 percent of the time. The problem lies in our human nature and in the way our brains work. The process begins to unravel at the start. The interviewee walks through the door and the interviewer(s) stand and greet him/her with a handshake and look into the eyes. At this point, most objective reasoning about this applicant on the part of the interviewer(s) is over. The limbic brain, the emotional center of the interviewer’s brain, has taken over and the interviewer has created emotional filters in his/her brain through which physical and verbal information from the applicant will be processed. The interviewer’s emotional part of the brain has just hijacked his/her objective part (neo cortex).


Another way to understand how our emotions can get the best of us in interviewing is by considering how influenced we are by an interviewee’s dominant personality traits. Susan Cain in her best selling book, “Quiet,” reveals how in the early 20th century our society moved from a focus on an individual’s character to a fascination with personality — placing an over-emphasis on traits of extroversion. Organizations began seeing extroverted employees as more valuable than introverts. Today, the extroverted personality is seen as one of the main attributes of a successful employee. Stephen Covey in his blockbuster book, “The Seven Habits of the Most Highly Effective People,” drives home the point that we have moved from measuring a person by his/her character to measuring people by their personality traits.

This personality focus has had a major influence on traditional subjective-based interviewing. It is the interviewee who comes across as an extrovert who ignites the positive emotions of the interview panel — allowing the emotional side of the brain to take over. Whereas, an introverted interviewee leaves the interview panel feeling empty and not emotionally excited. There is no question that an extrovert has the advantage over the quiet, thoughtful, and perhaps shy, introvert. However, is this focus on personality the best way to hire people?

Susan Cain clearly spells out the strengths and limitations of extroverts and introverts and how both have potential to perform at high levels. Talent is not dependent on personality traits.

Often the thoughtful, quiet introvert has more basic talent than the high-energy extrovert who makes us feel good in an interview. Our subjective conditioning, and bias, to most value extrovert traits often blinds us to seeing the talents of the more introverted interviewee. There is no doubt that a bias for extroversion blinds us in interviewing a person for a job and that this bias comes from a “culture of extroversion.”

This hijacking of our thinking brain is at the heart of many of our hiring decisions that turn out to yield, at best, mediocre performance, and, all too often, as in the case of Bob, disaster. These are costly decisions. A few years into my school leadership career and having too many “Bob like” experiences, I set out to discover why so many hiring decisions that seemed so good during the interview process went awry. I wanted to know how we could consistently hire the best and most talented people who would make a sustained, positive contribution to our organization. Soon, after starting my investigation, I discovered the behavior based structured interview. The structured interview has been around for a long time and has been used effectively by organizations to hire great people with great talent. The structured interview, because of its objective structure, enables the interviewer to overcome bias and interviewing from the emotional side of his/her brain and listen objectively and measurably to the interviewee, and in the end accurately predict the behavior of the applicant on the job.


The Power of a Structured Interview

A structured interview contains a set of job related, open ended questions. Questions are presented as they are written and in the same order each time. The questions are built around attributes found in high performing people in a particular job. Each question has a set of fixed answers (listen for’s) that are based on one of the attributes. These fixed answers are determined by field-testing the questions through interviews with people at various levels of job performance in a specific job. Ultimately, responses to the questions emerge that are the most typical beliefs and behaviors of high, middle and low performing people in a given job. 

Another name for structured interview is predictive interview. The information gathered through the interview allows the trained user to predict the future success of a particular candidate. The ability of a properly structured interview to predict an applicant’s behavior on the job has been proven through its application in many fields. A predictive interview has an average accuracy rate of about 90 percent. In other words, the information gathered through the structured interview is quite high in predicting how a candidate might behave once on the job. For instance, the teacher structured interview allows for a high level of predictability of which candidate will most likely create an environment where each student, each day, has a positive learning experience.

Another common aspect of well-formulated structured interviews is a high volume of two part questions — questions that focus on both belief and concept as well as on behavior. For instance, a question might look something like this: Is it important for a teacher to be flexible in the grading of student work? (If yes,) How do you do this? Positive concepts or beliefs do not necessarily lead to behaviors consistent with positive performance. The structured interview identifies, for the interviewer, specific behaviors that are predictive of high performance in a particular job. Without the research foundation of the structured interview, an interviewer has little objective judgment to determine whether or not a behavioral response is predictive of positive behavior on the job. Keep in mind the biased intuition and the influence of the emotional filters.

An interviewer should beware of those candidates who respond primarily with concepts, and who do not emphasize behaviors that match those concepts. Here’s why: Concepts can be extremely positive, but they don’t predict success in a specific job. Stanley is in his mid-forties.  He’s overweight, sits at a desk all day, does not exercise and over indulges in fast foods. His doctor has just informed him that he has hypertension. Stanley is in full agreement with the doctor’s advice — get off the fast foods, eat less meat and more vegetables, exercise daily and follow a relaxation program such as meditation. Stanley leaves the doctor’s office with a clear conceptualization of what he needs to do in order to become healthy. In other words, Stanley understands the idea of a life built on healthy behaviors. But what will he do? Will he behave any differently than he did before the doctor’s diagnosis and advice? Will his behaviors match with the concepts about healthy living he so enthusiastically embraced in the doctor’s office? 

Going home from the doctor visit Stanley stops by a fast food restaurant, gets a bag of burgers and fries, goes home, and plops down in front of the TV with his wife to dine on the tasty but unhealthy food from the grease stained bag. About 11:00 p.m. Stanley is awakened as his wife turns off the TV and is ready to go to bed. Next morning, Stanley, as he always does, grabs a quick breakfast at McDonalds that he will eat at his desk and where he will sit until lunch and then return to sitting until time to leave and pick up dinner at a fast food restaurant. And so, the cycle continues even though Stanley has a clear conceptualization of what he ought to be doing to be healthy.

Stanley is able to conceptualize healthy behavior, but he is not yet able to behave in a way consistent with this conceptualization. He sees it in his mind but does not do it! We all suffer varying degrees of Stanley’s problem in that we don’t always act consistently with our conceptualizations. The structured interview, with its research-based listen for behaviors, helps the interviewer move beyond the concepts expressed by the interviewee and sort out the behavioral responses that predict on the job behavior consistent with high performance.

Since the structured interview is based on a set of researched attributes and each question has a specific response to listen for, training is required to learn to use it competently. The training is not difficult and is done online. It involves becoming aware of interview techniques and practice on a series of interviews under the guidance of an experienced interviewer/coach. The training is necessary to achieve high inter-rater reliability with the interview.

Structured interviews are widely used and thought to be the most effective form of interviewing.  In his book, “What the Dog Saw,” Malcolm Gladwell dedicates an entire chapter to the structured interview. In this chapter he makes a strong case for their use: “In studies done by industrial psychologists it [the structured interview] has been shown to be the only kind of interviewing that has any success at all in predicting worker performance in the workplace.” In summary, a structured interview provides an interviewer with a set of predictive questions and specific concepts and behaviors to listen for. When used properly, the structured interview overcomes the brain hijacking by the limbic sector and allows the reasoning brain to do its critical work. Thus, in the end you get an objective understanding, rather than a biased, intuitive feeling of the applicant and how he/she will perform on the job.

For over 20 years I have used structured interviews, learned about how they are created, trained hundreds of school leaders in their use, and developed a series of state-of-the-art structured interviews for nearly all positions, certificated as well as classified, in education. The positive feedback I receive from users spurs me on in my mission to bring these important tools to all educators who understand that building great learning environments is about hiring talented people. My hope is that you will look closely at the structured interview as a solid deterrent to experiencing the slippery slope of selection.

Pete Pillsbury is a former school superintendent who has spent the last fifteen years examining what separates great teachers and school leaders from the not so great He is founder and CEO of TargetSuccess, Inc, a company committed to helping educators ensure that each student, each day, in every classroom has a positive learning experience. A nationally recognized expert on screening, interviewing and developing high performing teachers and school leaders, he can be reached at [email protected] or visit
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