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Hiring for Attitude

A Conversation with Mark Murphy

By: Florence Stone
Last updated 2/15/2012

About 46% of the people about to be hired will fail within the first 18 months on the job. And they won’t fail for lack of skills but rather for lack of attitude. So a study by Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, has discovered in research on 20,000 new hires over a three-year period.

The study demonstrates the radical change in the world of hiring. As Murphy said, “Companies aren’t just looking for people with the right skills; they want people with the right attitude. After all, what good is a technically gifted engineer if they don’t fit the company’s culture?” Based on his research, Murphy contends that choosing high performers with fantastic attitudes can reap significant results.

Murphy was asked a number of questions based on writing his book Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting Star Performers with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude.   

Why should companies focus on hiring for attitude instead of skills? 

When new hires fail, and 46% of them will, 89% of the time it’s because of attitude and only 11% of the time because of skill. It’s not that skills aren’t important, but when the top predictor of a new hire’s success or failure is dependent on attitude, then attitude is clearly what we need to be hiring for. And that requires defining the specific attitudes (both good and bad) that make a specific organization different from all the rest, and then turning the hiring and interview process focus onto those attitudes. 

Are companies really hiring these days? And if so, where are the jobs?

While the macro unemployment rate is high, companies are absolutely hiring. But they’re not hiring in the usual places. They’re hiring in, what we call, the Underground Job Market. According to new research outlined in the book, companies are finding their best people through employee referrals and networking. They have started to realize that the high performers they already have fit the attitude they want and that these are the people they should be asking to help find more people just like them. 

What do you mean when you say “skills have become commoditized”? 

Between the labor pool from China and India and the fact that there are so many quality workers sitting out there unemployed, we can find the skills we need. Plus it is fairly easy to test for skills. There is no shortage of skills, and this makes technical proficiency, once a guarantee of lifetime employment, a commodity in today’s job market. Attitude is what today’s most successful companies are hiring for. 

What’s the kind of low performer that hiring managers often mistake for a high performer? 

They’re called Talented Terrors. They have copious amounts of skill, which is what makes them so appealing, but they absolutely lack the right attitude. They are like emotional vampires; dealing with them will suck the life out of you.

Without the skills to hire for attitude, Talented Terrors can be really tough to identify in an interview. They are smart so they lull hiring managers into thinking “Nobody this skilled could possibly be a low performer.” Plus, they’re not all bad, but the attitudinal things about them that are bad will drive you nuts if you hire them. You really need to be on the mark with the attitudes you are hiring for, ask the right hiring questions, and know how to score the answers you get in order to effectively root out the Talented Terrors. 

Is it true that you can tell if someone has a good or bad attitude just by the verbs and pronouns they use? 

Absolutely. We’re engaged in some pretty cutting-edge textual analysis research to assess the differences in language usage between high and low performers. For instance; when you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience, they’re 40% more likely than low performers to answer using past tense verbs. That’s because high performers actually have the experience to recount and they’re not afraid to reveal their attitude to you. This is also why you’ll hear high performers using a lot of first person pronouns (“I did…”). On the other hand, a person who has nothing to share or who wants to hide something (like a bad attitude) will use absolutes and speak in a fluffy way using lots of adverbs and lots of future tense verbs and far more second and third person pronouns. You’re going to hear a lot more “he/she did” than you will “I did…” from low performers.

Textual analysis is a gold mine when it comes to assessing attitude and hiring managers are really starting to catch on to how valuable it is. 

You say that you should never ask candidates “tell me about yourself” and “what are your weaknesses"? Why? 

Most of the commonly asked interview questions, such as these two, are useless for assessing attitude, and some of them even put companies at risk. One of the most fundamental tests of the effectiveness of an interview question is the extent to which it differentiates high and low performers. Yet, when asked “what are your weaknesses” virtually every candidate will say he or she “works too hard” or “cares too much” or “have a perfectionist streak.” You’re not going to discover someone’s real attitude by asking questions to which everyone has a canned or prepared answer.

What’s so wrong with behavioral interview questions? 

Behavioral questions usual contain an obvious “tip off” on how to give the “correct” answer; they’re leading questions. Let’s take the question: “Tell me about a conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it.” This question goes wrong with the phrase “how you resolved it.” With this question, we’ve just signaled that we don’t want to hear about any times that the person did NOT resolve the conflict with a coworker. But from a hiring perspective, that’s the really important information. What if he resolved a conflict one time, and failed to resolve the conflict 500 times? By asking this leading question, we’ve lost all the data on the 500 episodes where the interviewee couldn’t resolve a conflict. Asking about past performance is fine, but the wording of most behavioral interview questions undercuts their effectiveness.

About the Author(s)

Mark Murphy

is author of Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting Star Performers with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude. This is an interview with Mark Murphy.