The first ten seconds of a job interview – The Caveman Brain

Intro

In my previous blog post Do’s and Don’ts of a Job Interview I described the importance of the first ten seconds of a job interview from the interviewee’s standpoint. In this post I will dive into the importance, limitations and traps of the first ten seconds, but focus instead on the interviewer’s standpoint.

The Caveman Brain

Have you ever noticed that when you talk with people you have never met on the phone, you always try to picture what they look like? You try to imagine what their face looks like, if they are tall or short, slim or heavy, if they have dark or light hair, all based on their voice. Of course, when we actually meet the person we usually realize we were completely wrong. What happened was your brain tried to classify the voice into a collection of labels, such as: height: tall, skin color: fair, hair color: brown, weight: somewhat heavy, background: maybe from New York, and so on.

Your brain is doing this because in our early evolutionary stages, for the last tens of thousands of years up until the last few centuries, we needed the ability to make quick decisions based on very little information. You literally had to take one look at someone and decide if he or she was a friend or a foe. Can you trust him or her in a deal? And by “a deal” I mean trading a sheep or a goat. It is much easier for our brain to make decisions based on small number of factors, so we learned to classify anything and everything, and we continue to do so to this very day.

We look at people and make snap decisions about them. We decide that they are fat or thin, black or white, American or foreign, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, etc. Our brain quickly classifies people all the time, whether we want it to or not. We’re often not even aware of it. I call this part of us the Caveman Brain.

What this has to do with me?

You are probably thinking that this has nothing to do with you. When you’re interviewing someone for a position at your company, you are a professional and experienced interviewer, with a list of questions, tests, and clear criteria for an ideal candidate. So what does this have to do with you?

The reality is it has everything to do with you, because we are people not machines. How many times in the past when you interviewed someone did you get a “bad gut feeling” about him or her? How many times did you “sense something is wrong”? How many times could you “not put your finger on it, but…”? This is our Caveman Brain hinting us towards what it concludes is the best assessment of this person.

Remember that it has nothing to do with intelligence or experience, it is a deeper and more instinctual reaction, like fear, that you can’t control unless you are aware of it. With that in mind, let’s talk about how the Caveman Brain affects the interview process.

The First 10 Seconds of the Job Interview

Our Caveman Brain quickly categorizes anything it sees into small sets of classifications and informs us of its decision, and this happens within the first seconds of seeing our interviewee. Of course for some it takes longer than ten seconds and for others it takes less (they call themselves “intuitive”). The point is that very quickly, before the intelligent part of the brain has had any time to collect substantive information, our Caveman Brain already made a decision and told us about it. Before you asked a single question, some part of you already classified the person, already put them into a neat little box and labeled them.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying we’re all bigots that make snap decisions about people based on their appearance and other shallow factors. I’m just emphasizing the fact that the instinctive safety mechanism nature embedded in us many, many generations ago is still there, and we need to be aware of it when meeting new people.

The goal of a successful interviewer is to reverse the order of things: let the intelligent brain think and collect information, so it can make an informed decision and then let the Caveman Brain add some “gut feeling” to the mix.

Put on a Blindfold

Think of yourself as a judge on “The Voice” TV show, where candidates are judged on their talent before their appearance is even known. I don’t suggest literally covering your eyes, although that would be interesting (should probably try it one day) but rather mentally blocking yourself from focusing on the exterior. Be mindful of the fact that some part of you will want to immediately analyze and categorize the person in front of you, and blindfold it. It’s not simple, but with practice you can do it.

Discuss Anything but the Interview

Take the first few minutes and discuss anything but the interview, talk about the weather, traffic, a movie, etc. It will put the interviewee at ease which should put your Caveman Brain at ease as well. I, for example, go to the waiting area and walk with the candidate, offer the interviewee a drink, chit-chat about something for the first two minutes.

Start with the Intelligent Brain

Some people do just the opposite; they move directly into the interview. They will wait in their office, briefly welcome the candidate and jump right into business. This approach, although it sounds cold and impersonal, has a great advantage: you put your intelligent brain in the driver’s seat from the get-go. It’s harder for the other person, but as the interviewer it’s much easier since you don’t need to shift gears/brains. Again, because this is much less personal make sure to be extra nice.

Post-Interview

Think about the candidate and the interview for a few minutes after the interview is over. Once the person is not in front of you, the Caveman Brain is no longer in charge and the Intelligent Brain is in the driver’s seat. Think, analyze, process and write your thoughts down. Talk with others who interviewed the candidate about their thoughts, and evaluate other perspectives.

Final Thoughts

Doing this is hard, I know, but it’s much harder to find really good people. Now that you know about the Caveman Brain you’ll be more aware of it and hopefully take its suggestions with a grain of salt. There’s nothing wrong with your gut feeling, after all it helped your ancestors survive for generations, just don’t let it drive your business while the Intelligent Brain sits in the passenger’s seat.

 

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