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Updated Jan 19, 2024

Why Attitude Beats Aptitude When Hiring

Research shows that employees whom you hire for cultural fit may last longer at your business. Here’s how — and why — to act on this information.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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You’ve finally done it: On paper, you’ve found the perfect candidate for that job you’ve had open for ages. This applicant has each and every one of the skills you were looking for. Yet when you hire this candidate, you realize your employees just don’t like them, and neither do you. This new hire isn’t cooperative or willing to learn your operations and systems. They have a bad attitude, and it’s bringing everyone down.

Eventually, you’ll probably get fed up with this new hire and want to replace them with someone else. But what if you had hired for attitude, not aptitude, in the first place and avoided this whole fiasco? Below, learn why that’s the better way to go.

Why attitude beats aptitude when hiring

According to Mark Murphy, chairman and CEO of Leadership IQ, focusing on skills over dedication or cultural fit can lead to a lousy hiring decision for several reasons.

“When most managers talk about hiring the ‘right people,’ they mean highly skilled people,” Murphy said. “But [in my research], 46 percent of [those hired] 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 attitude, then attitude is clearly what we need to be hiring for.” 

This suggestion rings true across industries — even those that might not traditionally come to mind when you think of offices or teams. A Surgical Endoscopy study found that psychological variables may impact a surgeon’s performance just as much as their cognitive and physical skills do. The study also noted that psychological traits can help newer surgeons overcome training obstacles. It’s safe to assume that, in other fields, too, a good attitude can lead to better employee development.

Hiring for attitude is about more than your company’s current work quality and productivity. Murphy said that attitude-driven hires directly shape your work environment going forward in ways your entire team can feel.

“Ask every one of your high performers if they would rather work short-staffed or work with someone with a bad attitude,” Murphy suggested. “Every time we do this, people always say ‘short-staffed.’”

Most workers prioritize a positive company culture. A straightforward way to achieve this culture is to hire employees with positive attitudes.

How to spot a bad attitude in a potential hire

Murphy cited a lack of emotional intelligence, an unwillingness to learn and a bad temperament as signs of a poor attitude fit. He also emphasized that the “right” attitude looks different for every organization. 

“Someone who is competitive and individualistic may be the perfect fit for a solo-hunter commission-driven sales force,” he said. “But put that same personality to work in a collaborative, fun-loving team culture, and that individualistic superstar is doomed to fail.” [Read related article: How to Develop a Positive Attitude in the Workplace]

How to find job candidates with the right attitude

Below are some tips for hiring job candidates with attitudes that fit your workplace.

Write down what you’re looking for.

Maybe you have a general idea of the attitude you’re looking for — positive, friendly and upbeat. That’s a start, but these qualities might not be directly tied to your team’s tasks or workflows. Instead, come up with more detailed descriptions, such as “is willing to pause what they’re doing to help a co-worker.” You can often determine whether new hires meet these criteria within their first few days on the job or, ideally, during the interview process.

Prioritize talent sourcing, not just talent recruitment.

Whereas talent recruitment covers incoming job applications, interviews and background checks, talent sourcing involves finding candidates before they find you. This isn’t limited to contacting people currently looking for work. You can also reach out to people working elsewhere who seem like attitude fits and ask whether they’d like to have a casual conversation. If that person is an attitude fit and they express interest in your company, you can then schedule a formal interview.

Ask attitude-related interview questions.

During job interviews, ask candidates about hypothetical situations where their attitude could come into play. For example, asking, “How do you approach challenging tasks?” could reveal the candidate’s attitude toward teamwork, difficult assignments and professional development. Questions like these will help you get a sense of the candidate’s attitude before you hire them.

“When you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience,” Murphy said, “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.”

Murphy also said that employers should avoid asking certain questions.

“Some of the most common interview questions are also the least effective, including ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘What are your weaknesses?’” Murphy said. “You’re not going to discover someone’s real attitude by asking questions to which everyone has a canned or prepared answer.”

Did You Know?Did you know
Under the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Act, there are some interview questions you can never ask. Asking job candidates these questions is a violation of federal law.

Look at how job applicants treat people.

Let’s say you’re looking for employees who don’t hesitate to reach out to other people. The right candidates might approach team members who aren’t involved in recruitment — such as front-office staff or potential future teammates — without pause. That fearlessness will extend beyond interactions with your hiring team — it’s real, it’s consistent and it’s a hireable quality.

Add shadowing to your hiring process.

What if you could test out a potential employee before they officially join your team? Try shadowing, an arrangement where candidates spend a paid day on the job working alongside their possible future co-workers. 

On the candidate’s shadow day — for which you should pay the same rate you would a full hire — observe their demeanor and interactions. Do the phrases you’d use to describe their attitude and behavior match what you see in your existing staff? If so, you’ve found a fit.

Don’t entirely neglect skills.

Hiring for attitudinal fit shouldn’t mean hiring someone just because you like them. You should hire people who can contribute to a good work atmosphere and back their positive demeanor with enough skills to do satisfactory work. This person’s positive attitude can carry them through all manner of training and learning opportunities. Before long, they’ll have enough skills to do truly top-notch work.

Worried you’ll focus on attitude so much you’ll overlook aptitude? Read about the skills employers want to know what you should look for in job candidates.

Attitude vs. aptitude in the workplace

Would you prefer working with someone who does brilliant work but knocks your workplace environment off balance? Or would you rather work with someone whose skills are still growing but who matches your company culture to a tee? Probably the latter. And that’s the value of hiring for attitude over aptitude. 

Fortunately, with all the advice above, doing exactly that can be a breeze. Once you staff your office with culture fits, you’ll notice a difference in how your team operates — and how your workplace feels — in no time.

Ned Smith contributed to this article. Source interview was conducted for a previous version of this article. 

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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