Caption: Business professional holding stomach (HansMartinPaul/Pixabay)
Let’s say you’re interviewing a new applicant for a job and you feel something is off. She says all the right things, her resume is great, she’d be a perfect hire for this job — except your gut tells you otherwise.
Should you go with your gut?
In such situations, your default reaction should be to be suspicious of your gut. Research shows that job candidate interviews are actually poor indicators of future job performance.
Unfortunately, most employers tend to trust their guts over their heads and give jobs to people they like and perceive as part of their in-group, rather than simply the most qualified applicant.
The reactions of our gut are rooted in the more primitive, emotional and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. Tribal loyalty and immediate recognition of friend or foe were especially useful for thriving in that environment.
In modern society, however, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make workplace and other decisions.
For example, is the job candidate mentioned above similar to you in race, gender, socioeconomic background? Even seemingly minor things like clothing choices, speaking style and gesturing can make a big difference in determining how you evaluate another person.
According to research on nonverbal communication, we like people who mimic our tone, body movements and word choices. Our guts automatically identify those people as belonging to our tribe and being friendly to us, raising their status in our eyes. The research is clear that our intuitions don’t always serve us well in making the best decisions (and, for a business person, bringing in the most profit).
Despite the numerous studies showing that structured interventions are needed to overcome bias in hiring, unfortunately business leaders and HR personnel tend to over-rely on unstructured interviews and other intuitive decision-making practices. A good fix is to override your tribal sensibilities to make a more rational, less biased choice that will more likely result in the best hire. You could note ways in which the applicant is different from you — and give them “positive points” for it — or create structured interviews with a set of standardized questions asked in the same order to every applicant.
Let’s take a different situation. Say you’ve known someone in your work for many years, collaborated with her on a wide variety of projects and have an established relationship. You already have certain stable feelings about that person, so you have a good baseline.
Imagine yourself having a conversation with her about a potential collaboration. For some reason, you feel less comfortable than usual. What’s going on?
Most likely, your intuitions are picking up subtle cues about something being off. Our guts are good at picking up such signals, as they are fine-tuned to pick up signs of being excluded from the tribe. Overall, this is a good time to take your gut reaction into account and be more suspicious than usual.