Employer Branding

How to Make Your Gut and Brain Hire Together

A few years ago, when I was running my own startup, I had to make a really important hire. It was for one of our first salaried positions, and I wanted to get it right. We interviewed several very qualified people, and winnowed them down to two finalists. We went back and forth over these final two, and finally went with the one who was the most objectively qualified.

Ultimately that candidate didn’t work out the way we’d hoped – at least not in that original position. In hindsight, I felt that my intuition had told me to pick the other candidate. The other candidate was less qualified, but everyone who interviewed this candidate said they got a “good feeling.” I did too, but I didn’t think following this feeling was the best way to make a good hire.

When the first hire didn’t work out, I couldn’t help but second guess my choice. Had I ignored a “gut feeling” and missed what my intuition was telling me about this hire? Over the 6 years that I worked with my startup I got the same feeling several times, often when it came to hiring decisions. Part of me felt that this was a trick, an illusion.

My brain gets critical about intuition

As the saying goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.” The intellectual side of me says there are two things wrong with believing my intuition would have led me to better choices.

First of all, I had no way of knowing the results of the other option in these circumstances. In hindsight, it’s easy to imagine that the other candidate was the better choice, but there’s no way to know. Maybe the other candidate would have been much worse. Second, it could just be a trick of the mind. Small details about a hiring decision, or other decisions we make, loom large in our memory as we search for clues as to how the mistake could have been avoided.

We think back on that one comment they made and say, “I should have known!” When it really was just an unimportant detail, and we’re assigning meaning to it now that we know the outcome. This is known as hindsight bias. Of course not all intuition is hindsight, but there are still reasons to be skeptical. Intuition is not always right, it can lead us into making connections where none exist, and falls prey to stereotypes and biases.

Studies show that our gut plays a big role in our hiring decisions already. We often spend just 6 seconds scanning resumes. When it comes to interviews, we get a quick first impression of a candidate then spend the rest of the time trying to justify that first impression. Is this our gut talking? If so, it seems prone to making biased decisions that have nothing to do with a candidate’s actual ability to do a job.

The argument intuition can’t make for itself

Despite my skepticism, I’m not totally on board with the logical argument my brain makes against my gut. For one, some of the best minds in recruiting advise us to listen to our intuition. On top of that, several psychological studies seem to say there is something to our “gut feeling.” One of the most interesting ones involves a game with two decks of cards.

Participants can choose cards from either deck and are rewarded or penalized with play money depending on what cards they pull. One of the decks is better than the other. After 50 cards, participants can tell you which card is better, but they can’t tell you why. It takes another 30 cards for them to figure it out. But here’s the fascinating part.

It takes just 10 cards before participants start subconsciously favoring the better deck, and their body reacts physically to picking cards from the wrong deck by releasing more sweat every time they reach for it. Turns out our neocortex, the newest part of our brain, is responsible for figuring out why one deck is better. It’s slower than the limbic system, the prehistoric, subconscious part of our brain that causes us to have “gut feelings.” There have been several other studies that show similar phenomena. So, it would appear at the very least there is such thing as intuition, and it sometimes knows the right decision before our neocortex has had time to build a logical case.

Between the neocortex and your gut

So is there a happy medium? Some place between blindly following either your brain or gut, your intellect or your intuition? I think that clearly, yes, there is. These days when I think I’ve got some sort of gut feeling about a decision, I don’t just go with it. Instead, I do more research, get more opinions, ask follow-up questions and generally dig deeper.

Basically, I try to help my neocortex catch up with what my gut’s saying. If I find a basis for the gut feeling, great, I’ll go with it. If not, I ignore it. I take the gut feeling as “maybe you should dig deeper” rather than “maybe this is the right/wrong decision.” In that first example I gave of hiring, I think we did, ultimately, figure out what it was about the other candidate that our intuition favored. Both of the candidates were already part of our company, so we got to watch them develop over time.

The candidate we didn’t choose was a better cultural fit, and that turned out to be a really important part of the position we were filling. Ultimately, as the card game experiment showed, time is what our brain needs to figure out if, and why, a gut feeling is correct. So, when it comes to making better hires, listen to your gut, but give your brain a chance to have a say in it too.

About the author: Paul Peters is content marketer and job ad writer with Betterteam. Before that he spent 6 years building an education startup, where he was was involved with many aspects of the business, including hiring and marketing. He lives in Whitefish, Montana.

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