The “interview illusion,” according to psychologist Richard Nisbett, is our certainty that we’re learning more about someone in an interview than we really are. It’s our preposterous confidence that having a brief, formal conversation with someone allows us to take the measure of them. (Chip and I wrote a piece a while back urging companies to abandon the interview.)
Below is an epic example of the interview illusion — it’s an excerpt from a conversation with Arkadi Kuhlmann, the president of ING Direct USA. Kuhlmann sizes people up using, among other techniques, a thought experiment involving rabbits and lions. Cue the absurdist dialogue:
Q. So let’s say you’re interviewing me. How do you find out if I’m an outlier?
A. Well, one clear sign is if you’re difficult. Outliers are, by definition, always difficult. They’re difficult to manage, difficult to get along with. The other thing is, you’ve got to start by looking outside the industry. I’m looking for people with new ideas, a new set of eyes who look at things differently.
But in the interview, I have to look and say, “Well, what really makes him tick that would make him different?” So I’d be probing to see if you have a hobby. What do you do in the evenings? I’m trying to find data points, some clues to figure out what you are all about.
Q. Give me an example of how you do that.
A. Here’s one. There are five animals — a lion, a cow, a horse, a monkey and a rabbit. If you were asked to leave one behind, which one would you leave behind?
Q. Leave behind? In what sense?
A. Make up your own scenario.
Q. I’d leave the rabbit behind.
A. What was the story you had in mind?
Q. If I’m going on a journey, the rabbit isn’t a lot of use to me.
A. “Isn’t a lot of use. …” O.K., so a utilitarian approach.
A. Well, I would leave the cow behind because I thought I could ride the horse; the monkey would be on my back; the little rabbit, I would just stick in my jacket. But the one thing that was going to hold me up is the cow, which is slow. And the lion can forage out there. So now you know what I picked and I know what you picked.
So the lion represents pride, the horse represents work, the cow represents family, the monkey represents friends, and the rabbit represents love. In a stress situation that you and I’d be working in, I know the one thing that you would sacrifice would be love, and your story would be something like this: that you could sacrifice love with people because you could make it up to them later.
So if you have to get something done on the weekend, you’d work all weekend. When push came to shove, you’d sacrifice love. So that teaches me quite a bit about you. If you picked the horse, the conversation would end. I wouldn’t hire you because we’re never leaving work behind. Those types of examples teach me quite a bit about you.
Q. But this psychology test of the five animals …
A. It’s actually a Japanese personality test. I just happened to pick that up.
(Kudos to interviewer Adam Bryant for pushing for examples.)