Are you selectable?

Most of us have attended at least one selection interview in our time, and we may well have been selected. As well as getting the job we benignly approve the good judgment of the selectors. And there is good reason to learn how this judgment works. It has been valuable to me because in recent years I have needed to coach several of my grandchildren for their own interviews. Secondly, because selection interviews have been studied by many psychologists, we can learn a good deal about the influences at work on human judgment.

The first lesson to grasp is that personnel selection through the ordinary interview is, from the employer’s aspect, a hopeless exercise. Its value is negative. The late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology at Susses University) wrote that interviewers, by continuing to have faith in their erroneous judgments, displayed “one of the more curious acts of irrationality in the Western world”. But what is bad news for the employer is good news for others: by understanding the irrationality it is the skilled candidate who controls the interview and not the employer.

We are back with our old friend: first impressions. This is a deep universal evolutionary instinct, developed from our need to recognise danger instantly and to act swiftly – without delaying for further analysis. One military interviewer boasted that he could make his selection in two or three minutes. It was not an idle boast because what happens at the beginning of the interview influences the whole episode, and becomes the lens through which later information is judged. For example, studies have shown that negative information which becomes clear later in the interview is often disregarded or excused, when it is inconsistent with the early impression.

The key is to present oneself as a likeable person. That sounds cynical, but do we not sometimes almost unconsciously choose to act in a way which is pleasing to others? Confidence and a pleasant smile is a good start. That’s easier said than done on such an occasion: it may need practice. The handshake is important too – firm enough to show confidence without being intrusive. Spectacles elevate the perceived IQ by 12 points. Two or three inches of extra height help for a leadership post. Before a word has been spoken the interviewer has a picture of the candidate which will be difficult to dislodge.

Having started well there is a need to reinforce the comfort of the interviewer. It is useful to have met some members of the organisation beforehand. The candidate will have learnt about the dress code which he follows in a slightly smarter form, suggesting how important he holds the interview to be. He will have learnt about the issues and the values beforehand, distinguishing carefully between the stated aims and the real day to day values – which are often very different. For example good customer service may only be a theoretical value which is ignored in practice. It is of course the stated aims which you laud in the interview.

He will be asked at some stage if he has any general questions. Having learnt about some of the good features for employees, he will be able to focus on these. For example, if the pension scheme is rated highly his question may be about the pension arrangements. If the interviewer is invited to explain the benefits, he may actually purr, while giving out brownie points.

The CV will record the necessary qualifications, which will of course have been researched. This will include planning answers to possible questions. But for our purpose it is the questions about outside interests which matter. They matter to the interviewer too because asking the candidate to expand on these allows him to think he is conducting a searching interview. The answers, which have been carefully prepared but sound extempore, confirm that he is just the sort of person which the company likes. “I play golf” has secured many a worthwhile position in one company and “I play rugby” in another. (The candidate, of course, has checked this beforehand.) We all value *people like us”.

The selection interview is of course a special case: there is an understood format providing a framework for preparation. But the psychology involved is universal. If you speak in public your audience will have decided within less than thirty seconds whether you are worth listening to. A schoolteacher may never recover from the first lesson he takes. If you meet a new person socially the same pattern is at work: the first few seconds will unduly influence the relationship. And the opposite is also true. We are all susceptible to the power of first impressions. So we all need to learn from what is literally a prejudice: we must listen longer and think more carefully before we allow our instincts to fool us.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Are you selectable?

  1. Horace says:

    Some years ago I (a registrar) applied for a post as Senior Registrar. I then discovered that another applicant was one Roger Bannister!
    Unsurprisingly he was selected. I afterward applied for the next available post as Senior Registrar and was duly promoted,

    • galerimo says:

      Well Horace that sounds very unfair to me.

      Was it part of the selection criteria that a registrar had to run a mile in less than four minutes?

      Who knows what opportunities were denied you just because of your lack of any track record at the 1952 Olympics!

  2. G.D says:

    Are you selectable? …. No definitely not. No paper qualifications; and i don’t ‘play’ at promoting myself.

    I COULD play along and ‘flirt’ with most people’s instincts (‘wishes’ and assumptions) sensitive soul that i am; with drama training to boot. Especially when other’s ‘want’ me to fulfil them. But i absolutely refuse to do so. It would be conscious manipulation for my own ends.

    Unless it was ‘meant to happen’ and flowed naturally and spontaneously, there is no chance of me ‘passing’ any situation with ‘selection criteria’; including ‘first impressions’ expectancy. The opposite in fact.

    Only those people that adhere to (as in act in accordance with ) your last sentence find out what a ‘wonderful asset’ my ‘life’s experiences’ might prove to be. (Some of us do do that on first impressions too).
    ‘It takes two to tango’ as they say.

    • galerimo says:

      G.D. you amaze me with your honesty and your straightforward approach – but even if you don’t get selected yourself how would you take part in the selection of others?

      I imagine your discernment would be just what any selection panel would need.

      I would love to know what you would you look for – especially in any church leadership role?

      • G.D says:

        Thanks for the compliment, galerimo, but my ‘discernment’ (such as it is) would not serve a selection panel very well. Plenty of first impressions, but the process of sorting them out would take to long.
        After a ‘three months probationary period’ however i would have some trusted ideas about the candidate, not always positive no matter how ‘charming’ or proficient in the role they may have been.

        My ‘discerning’ is more a ‘sense’ of ‘feeling evaluations’ rather than a logical process. (All very nebulous at first, i’m sorry to say). Being in relationship with the other and sorting which ‘feelings’ (positive or negative) are my own preferences/assumptions and which truly are traits of the other is needed for me to make conclusions. Then rarely definitive.

        I realised at a relatively early age (in a very volatile home & environment, Quentin) that the initial ‘goodness’ or ‘threat’ could not be trusted on face value. (Mainly ‘my likes/ their good’ had selfish agendas attached, and ‘my dislikes/ their threats’ could be defences against insecurity). Spent many years frustratedly evaluating by ‘thinking through’ consciously, but could never get satisfactory ‘answers’, just more frustration!

        Having said that there are those people whom i have always ‘clicked’ with strongly on first meeting, and just ‘feel’ and ‘know’ on ‘first impressions’. Suspect it’s because they have little or no ‘hidden agenda’. All to far and few between unfortunately. And there are those where my initial ‘dislike’ grows!

        Now i have come to trust other criteria – ‘i look/sense for’ an acceptance of my expression (‘me’), not necessarily agreement with; the presentation of a level playing field; and the freedom for me to present the same.
        Where that isn’t evident, there is a long hard ‘feeling’ slog towards that goal. For a few months at least, before i let it go. What is it, in me and the other, that hampers that mutual ‘respect’?
        Of course i still use logical analysis too, but it’s only a secondary, or even tertiary, tool, my main function(s) are intuitive feeling.

        So far mostly proves a satisfactory way of ‘discerning’. The few instances where it hasn’t didn’t last long. The ‘tango’ is soon disjointed, and out of time, or falls into harmony.

        Then a real relationship can commence. Fail miserably mostly, as i find most people aren’t able to suspend ‘want’s’ for the other to ‘fulfil’ their agendas; or they want an agenda imposed on themselves. Often unconsciously, but sometimes out of sheer bloody mindedness. And, of course, i have my many blind spots too … back to the slog!

      • galerimo says:

        Thanks for that reply G.D. – I go for that sense of “feeling evaluation”, very much. It does not work very well and has not worked very well for me in selection processes. But in all honesty I don’t think the standard “selection” process of application, interview and appointment works much at all.

        Every organisation changes its whole dynamic with the arrival of each new member. I think the process should be tried in reverse. All staff need to retrain as soon as soon as a new appointment takes effect – and that would be after probation.

        I like your point about how the “tango” of mutual acceptance easily falls out of harmony where mutual acceptance fails. You can only dance a tango with deep, deep passion for each other. That can take a long time when your are partnered with an organisation!!!

    • Quentin says:

      GD, perhaps we should note that how we ‘instinctively’ handle other people is largely formed by the age of three or four. Those who did not have good relationships with their parents may have to work harder and more consciously. I do not think their merit is less. Incidentally ‘manipulation’ and ‘handling’ are really the same word — both coming from ‘manus’ — the hand. We use the first when we disapprove and the second when we approve. Ironically this choice is a form of manipulation in itself.

  3. tim says:

    Yes. Very pertinent. But what to do instead?
    I passed the link on to a colleague, interested in this, – particularly in equity in recruitment and promotion – and have permission to quote her comments:

    “.”..it’s hard to disagree with the thesis, because we’ve all seen it happen, if not in interviews then in “networking” situations where someone’s value as a new contact can be ruthlessly assessed over a single canape.

    One would like to think that the initial “first impressions” in a professional selection process come from the CV and covering text – but of course they too, if carefully crafted, can distort the lens through which a subsequent interview is viewed.  The problem is that if interviews are banned, what else do you use?  Purely objective criteria are also hard to apply if the candidate has control over the data input.  And sometimes the brain, in jumping to an initial “instinctive” decision, has actually been taking account of all manner of peripheral clues that, for a skilled interviewer, might well lead to a more holistic conclusion than the objective spotlight would allow (a sense that the interviewee is being disingenuous, for example).

    What [is needed], I think, is to continue to bang the drum about unconscious bias.  We’re trying to make people aware that “biases” are not necessarily malevolent decisions to discriminate, but more subtle artefacts of the ways that our brains process information, which result in unjustified extrapolations, incorrect but persistent first impressions, a desire to go along with the crowd, confirmation bias and the rest.  These are the things we’re trying to educate people about, so that when they make decisions – for example around selection and promotion – they challenge their instincts a little more thoroughly.”

  4. Nektarios says:

    This a thorny issue for some people.
    Unemployment is kept as high as possible so any businessman or business has as large a pool to draw from.
    The whole point of going through the interview process is simply, one has need of employment, or to gain a higher salary.

    I have noticed for example interviewing for ministry- the same may apply to the Catholic Church in priest selection,I don’t know, they are not interested so much whether one has the making of a good minister or priest, but whether or not one will not rock the boat or not.

    The Church in their selection these days as with business, select a person on the basis they want to use such a person in what ever role.
    Companies demand loyalty. That means there is a relationship of sorts. However, the company only wants to use one, and where there is using, there is no relationship, only using.

    When it comes to Football managers and CEOs of large companies the selection process is somewhat different. I am sure you have noticed.
    Most know each other, and it will not be on the basis not what the Personnel dept think, but the shareholders. The salaries they can command is staggering. I have listened to quite a few of them talking on the radio.
    They are asked if they would like the post, they don’t have to go looking for a job like Joe Bloggs.
    Their history and track record would be known, and on that the company would make their approach.

    • galerimo says:

      I like the idea of Catholics involved with selecting their own Clergy – but Nektarios it doesn’t happen.

      Wouldn’t it be great. To have a panel of 4 plain folk in the process of selection for leaders at every level of the Catholic church. Three women and one man – to try and counter our terminal patriarchy.

      One lady would hold the portfolio for faith. Her role would be to determine whether the candidate actually believed in God. And it would be a profoundly challenging one especially for any papacy, episcopacy or canonized role. Piety would exclude a candidate automatically – any scoundrel can easily outstrip the genuine article in this area. A key question would be “Have you had recourse to quoting anything in Latin over the past two years” – certain to expose any intellectual thug – would be so helpful to exclude them where leadership is concerned – could still keep them in mind as liturgists or sacristans.

      A second lady would hold the portfolio for occupational health and safety and obviously would be charged with discerning criminal complicity and cultural bias against the human rights of women and children. A key question here would be “Where do you stand on the Church possessing property?” The female interviewer would be trained to closely observe any excessive blinking, sweating or undue swiveling around by the candidate in their chair.

      The third lady would be have to come from a manual laboring background, cleaner, child care, driving, health care, food preparation/service or and ideally all of the above (a mother). Her portfolio would be around equity and diversity – basic stuff like equal employment opportunity, inclusion of dissent and different views. A key question here would be “how far would your tolerance go before resorting to persecution?” or alternatively “Do you read the Times?.

      The male person would be charged with bringing in the candidates one by one and escorting them to the door afterwards – he would be under constant observation by the others in case of assuming airs of superiority or interrupting during the process – and even more importantly for signs of recognition with candidates who speak about golf, football or the wilderness society.

      Can you imagine the leaders we could have in our churches if that happened?

  5. galerimo says:

    Thanks for the topic Quentin but sadly I think it is out of date. Things like selection interviews have long lost any credibility and are more likely now to be replaced with internet searches on Facebook or Twitter and the like.

    So in answer to your question I don’t think anyone is selectable any more and thank God for that.

  6. John Nolan says:

    In the old days, promotion to higher ranks in the police force was unlikely if the candidate was not a Mason. This is no longer an advantage, whereas (other things being equal) being a woman or a member of an ethnic minority most decidedly would be.

    In the teaching profession, no man over 40 is likely to be promoted. The assumption is that he will simply sit out his career and retire at 60, whereas a younger candidate will not see it as his last promotion and will be keen to shine so that he can go on to something bigger. Women are given more leeway as it is assumed that they will have taken time out to have children.

    Promotion in the army is automatic up to the rank of major, but after that is by selection board. Someone who despite (or because of) his ability has incurred a ‘black mark’ as a subaltern is unlikely to succeed. I have encountered passed-over majors who I’m sure would have made outstanding generals. Senior officers in peacetime owe their promotion to their conformity – in wartime different criteria apply.

    The way a candidate comes over at interview is important, but by no means decisive. It was always said ‘never wear a brown suit, as you will be thought of as the sort of chap who wears a brown suit.’

    I enjoyed Galerimo’s humorous dystopian scenario, especially the idea that piety only signifies hypocrisy, and that a knowledge of Latin disqualifies a candidate from the priesthood! Pope Francis has gone so far as to say that ambition and intellectual ability should disqualify a man from the episcopate. In part this may be down to his own undistinguished academic record, but no-one has ever reached the top without ambition, himself included.

    Perhaps he wants mediocre yes-men as bishops … no, perish the thought!

  7. ignatius says:

    It might calm your fears to know that part of the selection process involves a three day in depth scrutiny at a training centre. This scrutiny involves long questionaires, psychological testing,programmes, intellect tests, psycho-social and spirituality interviews. The interviews are conducted by psychologists, clergy and lay people who are trained in their fields. A report is then duly produced and forms part of the selection process. Persons selected are only selected to BEGIN the formation for holy orders in seminary and the next four or five years of life are basically a period of continual assessment.

    As Deacons we didn’t know until the 4th year whether we were to be ordained or not. In my case the three day panel reccommended my training be delayed for two years partly because I was a relatively new Catholic and partly because they thought (probably rightly) that I was a bit neurotic! The selection team overall agreed with much of the report but not with the reccommendations. I guess the other personal and work references coupled with their own evaluation must have swung the day as l was taken on for formation immediately but no doubt scrutinised quite closely during formation over my time at seminary…
    Anyway, all went well and it turns out I make a fairly tolerable prison chaplain, in my view the quirkiness of my character enhances my suitability for the particular post I occupy.
    Of course it cannot be ‘got right’ and of course I have met clergy who were behind bars not on a voluntary basis. I know clergy who have packed it in because it did’t suit them and clergy who to me appear as almost saints…but overall the message would be to walk a mile in our shoes before getting too picky!!

    • G.D says:

      I went through a similar ‘election’ for the priesthood some years ago. I showed the psychological evaluation to my spiritual director of several years. An intelligent aware priest, who knew me well, as an active parishoner as well as ‘penitient’. His first comment after reading it was ‘I don’t recognise this as you’. He was right!

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