Kirk or Spock: intuition and data in the hiring process

When it comes to hiring, do you trust your hunch or the data? Why not both? To identify great candidates, balance intuition and data in the hiring process.

Spock v Kirk – intuition and data in the hiring process

Bold, maverick intuition or cold, calculating reason? Kirk or a Spock?

Why must you choose between intuition and data in the hiring process?

‘Data-based analysis can reduce the risk of mistakes and help to eliminate bias, by making us better at seeing the world as it is,’ says Ian Leslie, in Intelligent Life. ‘But there remains a place for those who can see in a flash what it might become.’

Using high quality data to inform your hiring process is a good idea, but it shouldn’t totally eclipse your own judgement.

After all, data can tell you a great deal about what a particular candidate has done, but is not necessarily an indicator of what they can and will be.

Cognitive bias

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about overcoming our ‘biases – negative bias, cardinal bias, anchoring, loss aversion, etc – but is it all talk and no trousers?

You can certainly recognise your biases, and maybe try to curb a few, but you’ll never silence them. Many of them have evolved because they’re useful for survival. It’s rational in many circumstances, for example, to prefer avoiding loss over seeking gain. They’re part of what makes us us.

Confirmation bias – a tendency to favour individuals and views that accord with our outlook – is another good example.

It can certainly lead you astray – you don’t want to fill your business with people who all think the same as you – but, equally, you do want people who share your company’s values and culture.

And even if you do defer to data – whether internal or external, like that collected by LinkedIn – to make your hiring decisions, you’re still relying on human judgement and your biases to select the data that are meaningful to you.

So biases and hunches are here to stay.

But rather than rail against them, recognise that you have them and interrogate them.

If you’re more mindful about your intuition, it can be a powerful hiring tool – especially in this new era of talent spotting.

The four eras of hiring


Talent doyen Claudio Fernández-Aráoz identifies four periods of talent spotting:

  • The first era. This lasted for millennia. If we wanted something done, we’d look for the fittest, strongest, healthiest people around, because such attributes were conspicuous and easy to assess.
  • The second era. Throughout most of the 20th century, intelligence (in terms of IQ), experience and past performance were the order of the day.
  • The third era. From around the 1980s talent spotters were after ‘competencies’ and skills, rather than intelligence – and we’re still there today.
  • The fourth era. This is what Fernández-Aráoz sees as the new era; one that asks not whether you have the right skills, but whether you have the potential to learn new ones.

This new era calls for a careful balance of fact and feeling.

The power of potential

Of course potential is a damn sight harder to spot than competence and experience.

Looking at a candidate’s track record is a must – grades, test scores, past performance, large deals, etc – but, as with investment, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Rather you want to know how good they’ll be at adapting to change.

As Ian Leslie puts it: ‘Used intelligently, data can give us an objective view of someone’s past performance and ability. But in our volatile world, the past is an increasingly erratic guide to the future.’

This is particularly important for micro- and small businesses, where roles can be more fluid than in their larger competitors.

Measuring potential

There are, thankfully, five indicators of potential, according to Fernández-Aráoz:

  • Motivation. A commitment to pursue unselfish goals.
  • Curiosity. A desire to learn and try new things and a willingness to receive frank feedback.
  • Insight. An ability to gather, distil and make sense of information and data.
  • Engagement. The capacity to connect with and persuade people.
  • Determination. The ability to just get on with it, even in the face of adversity.

But how exactly do you measure these?

It’s a mixture of asking the right questions (and a little bit of nous).

Both Fernández-Aráoz and Google’s HR guru Lazlo Bock suggest that structured behavioural interviews are the way forward.

Rather than the usual hypotheticals of situational interviews – ‘What would you do if…?’ – behavioural interviews look for concrete past examples to gauge the candidate’s behaviour, asking questions like: ‘Tell me about a time someone challenged you. How did you react?’

Yes, says Bock, these sorts of questions are generic, boring even, but they give you a more consistent way to compare candidates.

How to hire right: balancing intuition and data in the hiring process


And therein lies the heart of good hiring: consistency.

You need to be clear about what you’re looking for and everyone involved in the hiring process needs to be on the same page.

Then you need to establish a concise rubric for your process – what tests will you use, what questions will you ask at interview, who will run the interviews, how will you score/rate candidates, etc.

And, while a candidate’s track record and references are important, you need to flesh this out with a pick-and-mix of behavioural tests, behavioural interviews and work samples (which is the single best predictor of how someone will perform in a job, according to Google) to assess their potential.

It’s about creating an objective framework that allows for and guides the ultimately subjective decision of who you actually hire – balancing your Spock and your Kirk.

Hat tips, in order of appearance, to JD Hancock, Gerlos, and Joe The Goat Farmer for the photos.

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