Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Imagine that you’re interviewing a new applicant for a job, and you feel something is off. She says all the right things, and her resume is perfect for the 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.
This is the kind of challenge I encounter when I consult with companies on how to better handle workplace relationships. Research that I and others have conducted on decision-making offer some clues on when we should — and shouldn’t — listen to our guts.
Should you trust your gut or your head?
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.
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 decisions.
For example, is the job candidate you’re interviewing 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. Our guts automatically identify those people as belonging to our tribe and being friendly to us, raising their status in our eyes.
This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors that scholars refer to as cognitive biases.
The other thinking system, known as the intentional system, is deliberate and reflective. It takes effort to turn on, but it can catch and override the thinking errors committed by our autopilots. This way, we can address the systematic mistakes made by our brains in our workplace relationships and other areas of life.
In regard to tribal loyalty, our brains tend to fall for the thinking error known as the “halo effect.” This causes some characteristics we like and identify with to cast a positive “halo” on the rest of the person.
Its opposite is the “horns effect,” in which one or two negative traits change how we view the whole. Psychologists call this “anchoring,” meaning we judge this person through the anchor of our initial impressions.
I have to struggle with this every day
When a company asks me to help motivate employees to change through deploying social intelligence strategies, my autopilot system often experiences negative emotions toward seemingly stubborn employees who refuse to align with the company’s goals. It takes constant effort to avoid letting my first impressions anchor me.
Fortunately, knowing about these intuitions helps me override my gut feelings and figure out what causes employees to avoid changing. The answer is almost always in their autopilot system — fear, anxiety, desire for safety, and so on.
Being able to empathize with them is key to helping me overcome my intuitions and use my intentional system to provide companies with an effective plan for motivating employees.
Here’s how to override your gut
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).
Scholars call intuition a troublesome decision tool that requires adjustments to function properly. Such reliance on intuition can also be especially harmful to workplace diversity and paves the path to bias in hiring, including in terms of race, disability, gender, and sex.
Numerous studies show that structured interventions are needed to overcome bias in hiring. But unfortunately, business leaders and HR personnel tend to over-rely on unstructured interviews and other intuitive decision-making practices.
Leaders fall prey to the autopilot system’s overconfidence bias, a tendency to evaluate our decision-making abilities as better than they are. They often go with their guts on hires and other business decisions rather than use analytical decision-making tools that have demonstrably better outcomes.
A good fix is to use your intentional system 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, as well as give “negative points” for those ways they are similar to you. You can also create structured interviews with a set of standardized questions asked in the same order to every applicant.
Your goal should be to avoid emotional reasoning, a mental process in which you conclude that what you feel is true, regardless of the actual reality.
Ignoring your gut will help you make the best decisions in workplace relationships — and hire the best people for the job.