Say you’re the casting director for a movie. But rather than auditioning actors, you ask them to describe their acting abilities. You’d end up hiring the actors that are best at selling their skills… not necessarily the best actors for each role. Why? The skills required to describe talent vs. showing it are totally different.
Of course, no casting director would do their job this way. But when it comes to corporate recruiting, that’s exactly what happens.
You’ve heard of the “show, don’t tell” rule: to really help people grasp something, you need to demonstrate, not describe. (That’s why Ikea includes pictures with its assembly instructions.) But when it comes to finding the best candidates for a role, that rule is often forgotten. For decades now, the hiring process has been driven by the candidate telling you things—from their resume to the phone screening to the interview. And you’re left trying to figure out what a candidate can do based on little more than words and wishful thinking.
The problem with talking about skills
Hiring is one of the most important decision processes a company has—and the damage caused by even a single bad hire can be catastrophic. But since the hiring process doesn’t leave much room for showing, it’s often unclear how well a candidate will actually perform in the role until it’s too late.
Even if you’ve honed your interviewing and resume-reading skills to a fine art, the process is designed to hold you back. That’s because every step of it is dominated by telling. Some candidates are a whole lot better at telling stories than others—but how many times is strong storytelling an indicator of success on the job?
Let’s start, as you probably do, by looking at resumes. A resume boils down to a list of abilities and accomplishments that you match to the skills you need. The trouble is, anyone can write that they have a required skill—and the way they measure their skill level may be different from the way you measure it. Let’s say a candidate tells you they’re a talented figure skater. Without any way to objectively measure their skill level from their resume alone, you might later discover that they’re only talented for an amateur, when what you really need is someone a step above that.
To combat this, you’re left to interpret
if the candidate is qualified based on things like their experience, education, and work history. But what you’re really looking for is skills and traits—and the only skill a resume demonstrates is how well the candidate can write resumes.
Then there are interviews, where a candidate tells you they’re right for the job and you decide if they’re right. Just think about the questions you typically ask. Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge, and how you overcame it. And: How did you lead your last team to accomplish a task? What you’re asking is for the candidate to describe how they approach situations.
The biggest problem with this method is that the system can be rigged. For one thing, no candidate is going to tell you that they have zero problem-solving skills and that they’re not a hard-working go-getter. But even if that’s true, rehearsal can go a long way with interviews, meaning candidates who aren’t well-suited can still come prepared with all the right answers.
And some people are just better in interviews than others. For a role that requires great communication skills, that might tell you a lot. But if you’re looking for someone who’ll work largely independently, it doesn’t really matter if they can speak wonderfully about themselves. You just need to know they’ve got the skills and traits to get the job done.
So what can you do differently? It’s time to embrace that forgotten “show, don’t tell” rule and start seeing for yourself what candidates can do.
Show me what you’ve got
Skills are best demonstrated, not talked about. So why not incorporate a skills-based challenge into your interview process, preferably in the earliest stages? This is something that some of the most prestigious institutions do—like Juilliard’s live auditions and the NFL’s Scouting Combine—and you can do one too! It’ll tell you more than a resume ever can.
Focus on tasks that are central to the job, and create your tests around them. Let’s say you need a talented salesperson—ask them to sell you something. Hiring for a customer facing role? Put them in front of a disgruntled customer (it could be you or a colleague having an Oscar-worthy moment). This gives you the opportunity to see with your own eyes how the candidate approaches the task, the style they use, and which skill-muscles they flex. And for more basic skills, you can also incorporate skill assessments into the application process itself.
As for the interview, your questions can be tailored to make a candidate show you something. Asking a candidate “what would you do if…” can often be better than asking “what did you do when…” The latter presupposes that past experience equals future performance—but as we already discussed, a candidate can easily come prepared with cookie-cutter answers. Creating a hypothetical scenario requires the candidate to think on their feet, meaning you can get a better feel for how they would approach the scenario in real life. And if the job’s fast-paced, spring some complications on them and see if they’re quick to adapt their approach.
These kinds of questions can bring out the best in people, and the worst. You might spot their passion and joy for their work. You might find they’re easily flustered and quick to agitate. Both kinds of response can tell you a lot, making these questions even more valuable.
You know that personality is important. Hiring people at odds with your company’s culture and values can cause morale to plummet and people to leave. So explore a candidate’s personality, don’t ask about it. Remember, no one will tell you they have bad attitude.
Personality assessments can help you get to the bottom of a candidate’s traits, but make sure you pick a good one. Some of your interview questions can also reveal a lot, if you’re listening closely.
Take this question: “What accomplishment are you most proud of?” A good leader and team player might talk about the team effort that went into it achieving it. Someone committed to the customer may focus on the benefit to a customer. Meanwhile, a braggart will do what they do best—brag. Pretty telling, huh? (And we’ll be sharing more tips for improving your interview questions in our next post!)
Let us show you a better way
When a candidate tells you something about themselves, you can take their word for it or don’t. But when they show you, you can gather deeper insights into their skills, traits, and competencies, making for smarter hiring decisions and candidates who really love their jobs.
, we’re big believers in the “show, don’t tell” approach. We want to help you to make this shift and make your job easier as a result. We’re revolutionizing the hiring process to create a “show, don’t tell” environment for qualifying candidates, allowing you to focus on what matters most and see how they’ll perform on the job.