Is Everything You know About Hiring Wrong?

Technology has outpaced education in fields like graphic design, software engineering, and web, game and 3D development. This leaves the real work of training up to employers. So, the question is: should one focus on competence or on attitude and mindset when recruiting?

The gap between technology and education not only calls for serious adjustments in recruitment, it has also been impacted by a pandemic hailed as the most disruptive global event since World War II. While the crisis has created a large degree of volatility, uncertainty and unemployment in many sectors, it has also led to huge leaps in profits for (some) tech and online service sectors, thus creating employment in those sectors amidst a general surplus in labor. In other words, could now be the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate recruitment and hiring practices and answer the question: competence OR attitude and mindset? Or, should and how can companies find a balance?

Before any discussion on which approach is most strategic, it is essential to define the differences between competency and attitude. Competency in general is defined as a combination of attributes, skills, knowledge and attitudes that are necessary to perform a task to a given standard. A college degree and other qualifications are simply starting points for competency, a base level for people to demonstrate their aptitude. There are also standardized tests for companies to assess competency.

Attitude, on the other hand, is far more subjective. From a textbook definition in psychology, an attitude refers to one’s emotions, beliefs and behaviors toward a particular object, thing or event. One can also argue that one’s attitude is also inextricably linked to one’s competency. 

In Daniel Goleman’s seminal 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ 1, he argues that self-awareness, self-discipline and empathy are essential attributes for success. Twenty-five years later, the business platitude ‘Hire for attitude, train for skill’ intuitively follows Goleman’s rationale. 

This sentiment of favoring attitude is further supported by evidence-based research. Carol Dweck at Stanford University observes that people’s core attitude falls into two categories, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that they are who they are and cannot change. This inflexibility can create problems when confronted with challenges, leading people to feel overwhelmed easily. People with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of improving and change; they consistently outperform those with a fixed mindset, adapting and adjusting easily to overcome challenges 2. Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, business intuitively would do better with employees who can adapt to a constant flux.

But here’s the problem: For all the discussion about finding the right balance between hiring for competence and attitude, there isn’t a gold standard on how this can consistently be accomplished. An entire industry has sprouted to accommodate the recruitment of employees with a cacophony of books, articles and opinion pieces.

Even The Economist recognizes this endemic business reality. Their article, ‘Why companies are so bad at hiring’, highlights the astonishing results of a recent study where 70% of companies fail to implement any form of rigorous assessment of recruiting and hiring practices 3. A sentiment that has been echoed in Harvard’s Business Review article, ‘Your Approach to Hiring is All Wrong’ 4.

Ole van der Straaten, a former Unilever executive with over 45 years of experience in the corporate business world, mentors entrepreneurs in a wide range of fields. He is often involved in coaching business owners, many among them being an active participant in the hiring process. What advice does van der Straaten give when it comes to hiring the right people? 

‘Whether you focus on competence or attitude largely depends on what type of position you are hiring for. It is a different story when you are hiring a junior-level person as compared to a mid-level manager,’ van der Straaten tells The Habtic Standard. ‘You have to bear in mind that when you look at the attitude, what you are really searching for is the person’s intrinsic motivation. What drives them to succeed? What type of discipline does this person have? Did they finish what they started? Are they adaptable? It’s through asking these questions and analyzing their responses you can discover what kind of attitude they have.’

van der Straaten continues, ‘Keep in mind that business culture is a combination of two things: structure and diversity. It’s crucial to have a diverse population in your business. The CVs all radiate the person’s intelligence, but it’s their attitude that makes all the difference in whether or not they can be successfully trained at the company level.’

As companies continue to hire new employees during this crisis, it’s crucial to bear in mind how much a potential hire’s attitude can make all the difference. Hiring for competency is a starting point, but narrowing down candidates should come down to the attitude that’s the best fit. For those looking at new opportunities for employment, it may help to spend some time looking at one’s own attitude, particularly their openness to learning, growing and adapting. Experience from past crises suggests companies who are able to adapt and transform are the most successful.

Picture of Rina Mae Acosta

Rina Mae Acosta

Rina Mae Acosta is an American author and freelance writer currently living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and three children. She is the co-author of “The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Kids the Dutch Way,” which has been translated in over fifteen languages.


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