It’s hard to find the best person for the job through an interview. New research uncovers part of the problem: judging a candidate’s calibre becomes trickier when we’re also trying to sell them the benefits of joining the organisation.
In an initial study, participants were asked to interview a person (another participant) who was acting as an applicant for a fictional position. Half the interviewers were told their priority was to get a good sense of the applicant, while the rest had to prioritise attracting the candidate to the vacant position. Following the interview, the interviewer participants then had to judge the applicant’s character by rating their Core Self Evaluation (CSE), a measure of their self-esteem and belief in their own competence, which is reliably predictive of job performance. Which set of interviewers ought to do a better job?
Researchers Jennifer Marr and Dan Cable tackled this topic because two fields of psychology make competing claims. Research on automatic processing suggests that when we apply explicit, rational processes to judgments that rely on quick intuition, we only muddy the water, or worse, become so self-conscious that we choke under pressure. We already know that some elements of applicant evaluation are fast – see this piece, so maybe we make our best judgments when we’re less concerned about making them? On the other hand, the theory of motivated cognition argues that when insufficiently focused we become vulnerable to biases or even blind to the obvious, as shown in the now-classic inattentional blindness experiments where focus on one task (counting basketball passes) makes it hard to spot salient events like the appearance of someone in an ape suit.
The new findings back the motivated cognition account – participants asked to entice the applicant were poorer judges of character than those explicitly asked to evaluate them. A follow-up field study found similar effects in genuine interviews within two samples: applicants to an MBA program and teachers applying for school assignments. In both samples, interviewees rated as having high CSE were more likely to go onto success – job offers for MBAs or “above and beyond” citizenship behaviours by the teachers – but only when the ratings came from interviewers who reported having a strong focus on evaluation. Those who reported giving more attention to selling the role produced CSE estimates that didn’t predict future success.
The authors note in their conclusion that “interviewers who focused only on evaluating applicants actually believed they were less able to select the best applicants than those who adopted a selling focus.” In fact the reverse was true, and the risk goes the other way: when we focus too much on soliciting applicants, we can miss the gorilla in the room: that they simply aren’t up to snuff.
Marr, J., & Cable, D. (2013). Do Interviewers Sell Themselves Short? The Effects of Selling Orientation on Interviewers’ Judgments Academy of Management Journal, 57 (3), 624-651 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0504