Hiring for attitude

I have previously written about my frustration with always requiring experience when hiring. Now, I’m not saying that requiring experience doesn’t have its place – it certainly does. What I am saying is that listing it as a requirement should be justified by the needs for what the successful candidate will be expected to deliver, and that employers need to think long and hard about what they must have from their new employee, and what they can take the time to teach.

This brings me to a point I mentioned in passing in my previous post: hiring for attitude. The general idea is that while skills can be taught, attitude has to be built and gained over time. While skillsets are important, if the candidate has an understanding of the basics, the rest can be learned. Not necessarily so when it comes to attitude. How do you control for this in an interview setting? That’s where loci of control comes in. I originally came across the concept in the second episode of Open for Business:

Well, one way to get at someone’s innate attitude towards work is to screen for what Adam calls an internal or external locus of control. So that’s a technical way of saying that if something goes wrong, does the candidate, (A) Have the self awareness to claim their own responsibility in what happened, or (B) Do they look to blame others.

John Henry, Open for Business

Like so many other measures of personality traits, locus of control is not an either/or; it exists on a spectrum from completely internal to completely external, where most people will fall somewhere in the middle. Since the inception of the idea, a significant body of academic work has been added to it, with Weiner challenging the idea of uni-dimensionality, and Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale introducing the concept of the explanatory style.

Though a lot of forms and questionnaires exist that test for locus of control, using these can often be cost-prohibitive (at least for lower-level positions). Without going that far, however, having a list of questions that you ask each candidate (Adam Robinson suggests ten or so) at least lets you compare the candidates’ responses to each other fairly.

Two of these questions, which directly look at locus of control, are “tell me about a time you set a goal and failed to meet it”, and then asking the candidate to explain why they failed (assuming they don’t do so of their own volition). If they own the failure (i.e. saying “I set unrealistic goals”, or “I didn’t work hard enough”), they will usually tend towards an internal locus of control, while if they blame external factors, they will usually tend towards an external locus of control.

Clearly, this has just been a high-level overview of the concept. The key take-away for me is to a) have a repeatable hiring process in place, and b) allow the candidate as much rope as they want to either rope themselves a second interview (or the job), or hang themselves.

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