Why Attitude Beats Aptitude When Hiring Credit: Dreamstime.com

Mark Murphy, the chief executive officer of Leadership IQ, a leadership training and management consulting firm, has some sobering news for small businesses and startup companies that are getting ready to bring new hires on board in 2012: Nearly half of them are going to fail before hitting their second anniversary and most of the time it isn't because they don't have the right skills — it's because they don't have the right attitude.

In his new book "Hiring for Attitude" (McGraw-Hill, 2011), based on three years of research on 20,000 new employees, Murphy details a new approach for choosing high performers with the right attitude to thrive in your company's culture. He recently shared some of his key concepts with BusinessNewsDaily.

BusinessNewsDaily: What's wrong with the way most companies hire people?

Mark Murphy: When most managers talk about hiring the "right people," they mean ‘"highly skilled people" who can do the tasks of the job. But when our research tracked 20,000 new hires, 46 percent of them failed within 18 months, and 89 percent of the time it was for attitudinal reasons and not skills.   It’s not that skills aren’t important, but when the top predictor of a new hire’s success or failure is dependent on attitude, then attitude is clearly what we need to be hiring for.   By fail, we mean these folks got fired, received poor performance reviews, or were written up.  The attitudinal deficits that doomed these failed hires included a lack of coachability, low levels of emotional intelligence, motivation and temperament.

BND: Why is having the right attitude so important?

MM:The “right” attitude is as unique as the organization to which it belongs.  For example, Southwest Airlines and the Ritz-Carlton are both great companies, but the attitudes driving their respective success are as different as night and day.  And it goes without saying that someone who is competitive and individualistic may be the perfect fit for a solo-hunter commission-driven sales force. But put that same personality to work in a collaborative, fun-loving team culture, and that individualistic superstar is doomed to fail.

BND:Cana job candidate effectively fake attitude? What are the signs you should look for?

MM: Absolutely, and this is why it is so important to identify the exact attitudes you are looking for, create dependable interview questions that reveal the truth about attitude, and have reliable answer guidelines by which to evaluate candidate responses to interview questions

Leadership IQ is engaged in some pretty cutting-edge textual analysis research that assesses the differences in language usage between high and low performers that can signal when someone is faking attitude.   For instance, when you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience, they’re 40 percent more likely than low performers to answer using past tense verbs.  That’s because high performers actually have the experience to recount and they’re not afraid to reveal their attitude to you. 

BND: Why is hiring the right person so critical for small businesses and startups?

MM: Two reasons: First, the teams and work groups are smaller, so the damage that someone with a bad attitude can do is magnified.  Here’s an important exercise: Ask every one of your high performers if they would rather work short-staffed or work with someone with a bad attitude.  Every time we do this, people always say "short-staffed."

Second, there’s tremendous opportunity cost.  How many good opportunities for new sales or new products, etc., get missed while the wrong person is taking up a seat that could or should be occupied by a real high performer?

BN: Tell me about "Brown Shorts."

MM: Brown Shorts arethe specific attitudes that make your organization different from everybody else.   The name "Brown Shorts" pays homage to Southwest Airlines and their unique culture of fun and draws from a story I heard from a former Southwest executive about a round of hiring for new pilots (typically serious folks dressed formally in black suits, etc.).   The Southwest interviewer invited this serious bunch to get comfortable in brown Bermuda shorts that were part of the Southwest summer uniform, but it was an invitation that seemed too ridiculous for many of the pilots who immediately declined the shorts.  And that told Southwest that these folks may be great pilots, but they just weren’t going to fit a fun-loving culture. 

BN: What are the questions you should ask and how should you phrase them?

MM: Once you’ve discovered your Brown Shorts attitudes, you just turn them into Brown Shorts questions.  For example, imagine you discover that at your organization, when you ask employees to do something they don’t know how to do, high performers proactively acquire new skills while low performers throw up their hands and complain. From there it’s simply a matter of phrasing it into a question: "Could you tell me about a time you were given an assignment and didn’t know what to do?" 

We start with "Could you" instead of "Tell me" because it makes it feel more like a conversation than an interview. In response, candidates are less guarded and share more.  And we eliminate all tip-offs, such as ending the question with "and what did you do?" Leaving the question hanging can be a scary prospect for interviewers, and it may provide some uncomfortable silences.  But it’s the key to differentiating between the high and low performers.

BN: What are the questions to avoid like the plague?

MM: Surprisingly, some of the most common interview questions are also the least effective; including "Tell me about yourself"and"What are your weaknesses?" One of the most fundamental tests of the effectiveness of an interview question is the extent to which it differentiates high and low performers.  Yet, when asked, "what are your weaknesses?" virtually every candidate will say they "work too hard" or "care too much" or "have a perfectionist streak."  You’re not going to discover someone’s real attitude by asking questions to which everyone has a canned or prepared answer.

BN: How long should the vetting and interviewing process take? 

MM: Most companies spend too little time interviewing candidates; right now 60 minutes is about the median time.  If you can double or triple that, it’s always a good idea.  But that said, within the typical 60-minute interview, most interviewers report they only need five or six Brown Shorts questions to conduct a successful interview. 

BN: How can you tell you've found the right person?

MM: Easy. They are happy and confident to wear your Brown Shorts.  And they quickly join the ranks of your high performers.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.