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Avoiding GroupThink in the Hiring Process

Posted by Bob Corlett on October 14, 2017

It's common to include a large number of people in a hiring decision. When handled properly, you can reduce your risk of making a hiring mistake by getting valuable input from a variety of perspectives. But when your hiring process is not organized properly, you will only be wasting everyone's time by including more people.

One of the most common dangers in the hiring process is "groupthink" -- where the opinion of one vocal (often powerful) interviewer dominates the narrative about a candidate. When the vocal participant expresses an opinion, everyone with a less firmly-held opinion usually agrees. (The research on groupthink is quite compelling: check out How Certainty Transforms Persuasion in the Harvard Business Review.) 

David Brooks was even more succinct in his column in the New York Times:

“A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, 'the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.' And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, 'we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,' and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.”

Ouch. Letting your office politics devolve into a caricature of "Mean Girls" is never healthy, or remotely helpful in making a hiring decision. 

So how can you structure the hiring process to avoid the shallow thinking that characterizes groupthink? What process will help you get thoughtful perspective and meaningful benefit from your colleagues?

The problem with groupthink often stems from not properly leveraging the expertise of others. Hiring managers often ask for input that requires people to think far beyond their area of expertise. Instead, structure your conversations to gather more factual input and fewer opinions.   

I would recommend the following:

  1. Do an Environmental Scan: Before you write the job description or begin to think about your ideal candidate profile, first conduct an environmental scan, asking key people questions about the work environment and potential challenges the new hire will face. The key stakeholders to consult will typically include all of the "consumers" of this person's "work product." They might include people outside the organization, internal colleagues, and subordinates (a primary consumer of an executive's work product is the very people who report to that executive.) 

    Ask each stakeholder, "What kinds of issues and challenges will this new hire be facing?" (Prompt the stakeholders to think broadly, and beyond internal issues. Consider using the PESTLE strategic framework, looking for external issues in the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, or Environmental realms.)
  2. Develop Your Key Comptencies (Success Factors): Once you have the stakeholder input on the internal and external elements of the work environment, consider your own performance expectations. What must be achieved, and what are the most important competencies that will drive that success? What knowlege or skill gaps currently exist in the team? These competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) should become your yardstick for deciding who to interview, and for comparing candidates who may come from different backgrounds.  

  3. Discuss your Desired Candidate Attributes Only After You Define the Context:  When you start the hiring process by discussing attributes before you define what you want the new hire to accomplish, you are throwing around words that everyone thinks they understand, but are meaningless without a common frame of reference. Everyone thinks they understand what "personable" or "strategic" means, but everyone has a different way to evaluate it. The discussions are a waste of time until you first define the context of the work. Does the new hire need to be personable and strategic in order to find new markets and win over new strategic partners?  Or must the new hire be personable and strategic in order to prioritize their work with internal colleagues? (Two very different performance expectations.) Knowing the context of the performance expectations brings clarity to the discussion with your colleagues, and helps you all to evaluate candiates with the proper context. 

  4. Don't Presume you Can Evaluate Cultural Fit from a Resume. When you and your colleagues are deciding who to bring in for an interview, be sure to interview people who demonstrate the key competencies, even if their backgrounds are unfamiliar to you. (Unless you are clairvoyant, you cannot accurately determine cultural fit factors and attributes from a resume, you can only learn it in the interview.)

  5. Engineer the Post-Interview Debriefing Carefully: When you are gathering interview feedback from participants, be very careful to allow introverts enough time to think before you ask the extroverts their opinion. (I suggest 5 minutes of silent reflection before discussion.) Also be sure to allow less powerful people to speak before the more powerful people, or everyone will tend to echo the boss's comments. (Research shows that more powerful people are more certain of their opinions, so letting them speak first squelches dissenting perspectives.) 

  6. Ask Smarter Questions of Your Colleagues: In debriefing after an interview, do not start with big questions like, "Who should we hire?" That's far too complex and with too many variables for most people to give an appropriate answer. Also avoid vague questions like, "What did you think of that candidate?" These kinds of questions invite a sea of opinions, often bringing noise rather than clarity to your hiring decision. And some people feel obligated to defend their ill-informed opinions, wasting everyone's time. 

    Instead ask your colleagues smaller, more factual and tangible questions that would provide you with useful information and perspective. I suggest asking two questions, "What do you think the candidate's strengths were?" and "What support would we need to provide this candidate to help them be successful here?" This respectful inquiry will surface precisely the kind of feedback you need to make a good decision. 

    The danger in a group setting is condescension toward "outsiders." In seconds, one person with a negative opinion can set loose an avalanche of unfair criticism before the more thoughtful people even have an opportunity to speak. And because of the group dynamics, after 3 or 4 colleagues pile on with snarky comments, it's quite difficult for most people to offer a dissenting view. As the article from David Brooks noted, an insider group of employees will often share  condescending views of "outsiders" simply to reinforce their own insider status, and not to help your organization make better hiring decisions. 

When you are the hiring manager with an important position to be filled, you must be vigilant to ensure that group dynamics do not interfere with your ability to hire the most qualified candidates. 


If this information was helpful, but you prefer your research and information to be more attractively formatted and easier to share, just download our Employer Guide to Interviewing. 

Employer Guide to Interviewing | Staffing Advisors


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One final disclaimer: This advice is primarily for professional hiring in a large metropolitan area. Our perspective is shaped by our work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, but not all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.

Topics: Interviewing Executives