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.”


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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