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Book review: Hiring for Attitude

Hiring For Attitude

By Mark Murphy

McGraw Hill


Beware the Talented Terrors.

On paper and at first blush, these low performers look like all-stars. They have smarts, great skills and loads of talent. 

But they also have horrible attitudes. They’re relentlessly negative. Quick to blame anyone and everyone. Resistant to change. And forever in need of constant praise and recognition.

These folks are the emotional vampires of the workplace, sucking the life out of managers and coworkers.

Chances are you’re already cursed with a coven of Talented Terrors. You definitely don’t need more. So why do you keep hiring them?

Lots of us are quick to hire candidates who can do the job and have the right skills, experience and credentials. They’ve held plum jobs, won awards and graduated from A-list schools.

But when it comes to making their mark or making you crazy, the top predictor of new hire success is attitude and not skills.

“Even the best skills don’t really matter if an employee isn’t open to improving or consistently alienates coworkers, lacks drive, or simply lacks the right personality to succeed in that culture,” says author and CEO of Leadership IQ Mark Murphy.

“Your organization’s culture, and the attitudes required to succeed in that culture, are unique. The right attitudes that define a high performer will vary from culture to culture.”

 Murphy’s company tracked 20,000 new hires over three years. Within the first 18 months, 46 per cent of those hires were fired, received poor performance reviews or were written up. Coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation and temperament accounted for 89 per cent of the failures. Just 11 per cent was attributed to technical incompetence.

“Overwhelmingly, the characteristics that define mishires are attitudinal,” says Murphy. The attitudes of the new hire and the culture of the organization didn’t mesh.

To bring fewer mishires and more high performers on board, ask better questions during job interviews.

 “Most interview questions are useless for assessing attitude and some can even put your company at legal risk,” says Murphy.

Ask a candidate to “tell us about yourself” and “identify your top strengths and weaknesses” and you get nothing but well-rehearsed and canned answers that reveal nothing about attitude.

Even worse are leading questions. You telegraph the answer you’re looking for when you ask a candidate “tell us about a conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it.”

Talented Terrors don’t play well with others and blame everyone but themselves for strained and broken relations. But your leading question prompts them to talk about the one time they kissed and made up with a coworker and sidestep the 499 other unresolved conflicts that have forced them to pursue other opportunities.

Here’s another popular leading question. Tell us about a time when something went wrong and what did you do to help fix the problem?

With their above average smarts, the prompted Talented Terror won’t fall into the trap of dissing her boss and coworkers and saying that messes are for other people to clean up. 

“Leading questions rob you of your chance to find out if someone is a problem bringer or a problem solver,” says Murphy.

Ask high performers about problems they’ve faced and they instinctively talk about how they rolled up their sleeves, stuck with it and came up with a solution. Low performers don’t share that instinct, opting instead to point fingers, duck responsibility and walk away.

The always popular hypothetical question doesn’t reveal what candidates have done in real life and generates only idealized answers. “There’s a big difference between knowing the path and walking the path,” says Murphy.

Low performers love to talk in generalities and abstractions, with a lot of “one should do this” and “one should do that”. High performers will speak in specifics, drawing from personal experience, saying “here’s what I did in a very similar situation.”

And then there are the utterly useless questions that don’t assess attitudes or differentiate high from low performers.

Inane questions like tell us what you do for fun. How are M&Ms made? Why are manhole covers round and how many are there in downtown Hamilton? Which of the seven dwarfs would you be? What kind of animal or tree would you be? What’s the last book you read or movie you watched?

These pseudo-psychological questions aren’t just timewasters.

They throw open the door to potential legal problems, warns Murphy. What if a candidate says the last book she read was Practicing Your Faith as a Litigious Bisexual Wiccan Cancer Patient?  

Murphy recommends a different approach for filtering out your Talented Terrors. Rewrite your interview questions. Start by defining the specific attitudes that define your culture and matter most to your organization. What are the attitudes of your high and low performers, your problem solvers and problem givers?  

Now create real world situations built around the attitudes that predict success and failure in your organization.  Five or six questions are all you’ll need. And make sure you ask only hanging questions.

“The ultimate test of a great interview question is the extent to which it differentiates between high and low performers.

So here’s a question that works if your organization values initiative, risk taking, entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving.

Could you tell me about a time you tried to fix or improve something but your solution just didn’t work?

High performers will tell you about why the solution didn’t work, accept personality responsibility and then recap how they searched for and ultimately found a better solution.

Low performers won’t get past the finger-pointing and casting themselves as victims.

And here’s an actual response from a low performer. “I was going to fix it my way, but then my boss had some supposedly brilliant idea for fixing it. Of course, it failed, just like I knew it would. Although it probably doesn’t really matter, because even if he had used my idea, God knows I wouldn’t have gotten credit for it anyway.”

This is not the sort of person you’d ever want to hire and spend eight hours a day with. But if you don’t ask the right questions, you run the real risk of continuing to hire and getting stuck with the wrong people who have the wrong attitudes.

“Whether you’re hiring your next hourly employee, your next CEO or something in between, attitude will likely be the issue that determines success or failure.”


Book review: Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail by Rom Brafman

This review was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.

Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail: The Six Principles of High Achievement

By Rom Brafman

Crown Archetype


One of the most resilient people I know just happens to be my kid sister.

Ellie was only 11 years old when our dad suddenly died. They’d been inseparable. My dad had summers off so most of every July and August was spent at the beach. He was proud of his daughter and no doubt grateful and relieved that she had the smarts and focus that appeared to be missing in his two older yet somewhat less mature sons.

A few years after losing her husband, our mom decided to start over. So Ellie said goodbye to her hometown friends and moved from a big city to a very small town with an even smaller high school. 

Now, my sister could have opted to become a sullen, miserable and rebellious teenager. Had she strayed from the straight and narrow, hid from the world and made some stupid choices, we would have understood and given her a free pass.

Instead, Ellie met the nicest boy from that very small town. Her grades were so good in high school that I wondered if there’d been a mix up in the maternity ward and she’d accidentally wound up with our family. Ellie graduated from high school with top marks and went on to university. She earned scholarships and research grants, served as a student leader and reluctantly became one of the poster children for the university’s nationwide marketing and recruitment campaign.

And when Ellie completes her PhD in a few months time, I’ll get to call my kid sister Dr. Robb.

Author Rom Brafman would also call my sister a tunneler. “Working as a psychologist, I have had the privilege of interacting with a number of clients who are tunnelers. When they relate the difficulties in their lives, which are often filled with unimaginable hardships, I’m constantly intrigued by their ability to fight through their difficulties and surmount the challenges that would keep most people back. What allows them to go on to lead extremely successful lives – to graduate from college, form loving relationships and lead successful careers?

“When I bring this to their attention and ask them how or why they think it is that they were able to overcome their disadvantages, they are puzzled. They don’t realize they are tunnelling or doing anything out of the ordinary. But as we spend more time together, it becomes increasingly evident that they lead their lives differently from most of us.”

And how they lead their lives reveals what Brafman calls the six enduring principles of high achievement. The good news is you’d don’t need to graduate from the school of hard knocks to adopt these principles.

“I believe that by embracing these principles, all of us can learn how to better face and overcome adversity in our lives. Instead of giving in to events – no matter how challenging or difficult they may be – we can find ways to work through that adversity and appreciate life and its endless potential to the fullest.”

High achievers point the limelight at themselves rather than the world around them. “They take full responsibility for the events that unfold in their lives, viewing themselves as central participants,” says Brafman. They don’t point fingers, blame others when things go sideways or cast themselves as helpless victims to forces beyond their control.

High achievers have a desire for generating meaning in all aspects of their lives. “An essential aspect of the drive to persevere and overcome the odds involves the extraction of meaning.” They put a premium on engaging in activities that they find fulfilling.

High achievers have an unwavering commitment to persevere and stay the course.  They’re blessed with an even-tempered disposition and don’t get easily worked up or stressed out. They use humour to counteract adversity.

And they have what Brafman calls a satellite. It’s not all inner drive with high achievers. They have someone in their corner who offers what psychologists call unconditional positive regard.

“Think back to any significant challenge you had to overcome in your life. Chances are you can point to a specific individual who was there to support you, whether a mentor, a good friend or a trusted family member. He or she acts as a satellite – someone who is consistently available when needed, who’s there as a point of strength. Knowing that we have someone on our side, someone to whom we can turn whenever we need help, makes enduring life’s burdens a lot easier.”  

Which brings me back to the resilient and high achieving soon-to-be Dr. Robb.  My mom moved to that small town to live a few streets over from her brother and sister-in-law. My aunt and uncle took my kid sister under their wing. They included my sister and mom in winter vacations, family get-togethers and holidays. They went to every graduation ceremony and celebrated every birthday. And when Ellie married the nicest boy from that very small town, it was my uncle who proudly walked my kid sister down the aisle.

Book review: Quiet — the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

This review first ran in Feb. 28th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

By Susan Cain

Crown Publishers ($28)

Here are five things I know for certain.

I will never be the life of the party.

I will never solve the mystery that is making small talk with strangers.

I will never be accused of talking too much in a meeting.

I will never lose my intense dislike for ice breakers and team building exercises.

And I would never survive more than a week at the Harvard Business School.

Like an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of the population, I’m an introvert. Our ranks include Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. And you could make a case for including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama in the club.

While extroverts thrive on constant stimulation and crave the company of others, introverts need time alone to decompress and recharge. No one temperament is better than the other and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

But at work and school, we’ve bought into a value system that author and introvert Susan Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal. It’s an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.  If you’re not an extrovert and want to get ahead, the message is clear. Fake it.

“The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt,” says Cain. “He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.

“We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”

The Extrovert Ideal explains our continuing love affair with old school brainstorming, cross-functional teams and open concept offices. It’s why we believe innovation is social. Creativity is collaborative. And that none of us is as smart as all of us. Groupthink is how author and introvert Susan Cain describes this contemporary phenomenon.

Groupthink can cause your organization no end of grief. “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day,” says Cain. “This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones are squashed.”  If you’ve found yourself trapped in a meeting with a room full of extroverts then you already know what the research shows. There is zero correlation between a gift for gab and an ability to come up with great ideas.

And if you want breakthrough innovations, assembling cross-functional dream teams and forcing extroverts and introverts  to spend every working hour together won’t go well, no matter how funky your open concept workspace.  Here’s the advice Stephen Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, offered in his memoir. “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So stop trying to convert your introverts. Don’t tell them to spend less time in their heads. Don’t ding them on performance reviews because they’re not as outgoing as their extroverted colleagues. Along with open spaces for collaboration, give them places where they can close the door, shut out the world and dream up the next big idea for your organization.

Cain recommends organizations should seek out “symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships”, with leadership and divide other tasks according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. “The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.”

If you’re blessed with proactive employees who take initiative, research shows an introverted leader will get you better results.  Management theorist Jim Collins has found that the highest performing companies have leaders who are consistently described as quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing and understated.

“Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”

Along with recapping a whole lot of research, Cain explores the Extrovert Ideal in all its unnerving glory at a Tony Robbins seminar, the 22,000 congregation strong Saddleback Church and Harvard Business School where students are told to “speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 per cent, say it as if you believe it is a 100 per cent.  Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in. If you’re preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Like I said, I wouldn’t last a week.