The Truth About Hiring for Attitude

November 9, 2015

I wrote the book Hiring for Attitude. And, if I had a dollar for every time someone came up to me and said they wanted to hire someone with the perfect attitude, I could probably afford to stop writing books.

One of the most important discoveries I’ve made in years of helping companies hire for attitude is that there is no universally perfect attitude. There’s the right attitude for your organization and culture, but that same great attitude could be a miserable failure at a different company.

For example, an employee who is competitive and individualistic may be the perfect fit for a solo-hunter, commission-driven sales force or Wall Street financial firm. But put that same personality to work in a collaborative, team-loving startup culture with a bunch of programmers all coding around one big communal desk, and that individualistic superstar is doomed to fail.

The "right" attitude is as unique as the organization to which it belongs. Just like we learned on Sesame Street all those years ago: We're all different, and we're all special. Google and Apple are both great companies, but they have very different attitudes. Southwest Airlines and The Ritz-Carlton both deliver great customer service, but the attitudes they use to deliver that service are as different as night and day.

Identify the right attitude for your company to make great hires

The only way to successfully hire for attitude is to first dig into your culture and assess which attitudes actually predict success and failure. If you skip that exercise, you’ll likely end up hiring for the wrong attitudes.

Let me share a story to make this point: Jim, the VP of Nursing for a small community hospital, told me about a hiring error he made before he assessed the attitudes that make his culture unique.

When a resume from a top nurse (I'll call her Sue) looking to relocate from a well-known East Coast teaching hospital landed on Jim's desk, he eagerly scheduled an interview. Upon meeting, Jim's initial impression of Sue was that she was highly professional. (It was only later that he admitted he was also thinking things like: "stiff, "formal" and "not like the rest of our nurses.")

During the interview, Sue spoke at length of her love of analytical thinking and her eagerness to learn the latest cutting-edge techniques. "Technical perfection, " she said, "is always my first priority. " When Jim asked Sue to name her most admirable strength, she said, "My ability to stay tough; even when engaged in heated and complex debates with world-class clinicians."

Sue had been a top performer at her last job in every way possible, Jim told me, so he figured there was no way he could go wrong. Excited (and he now admits somewhat wowed) by Sue's level of skill and experience, Jim hired her. And he did so without considering how Sue's analytical and hard-as-nails attitude might fit in with the warm, friendly, and eager to serve culture at his small community hospital.

Not long after Sue came on board, Jim noticed that things with his staff and the patients weren't going as well as usual. And most of the 'upsets' were Sue related. Some of her peers saw Sue's love of 'heated and complex debates' as unreasonable arguing or even arrogance, and they started coming up with excuses to avoid working with her. Others felt attacked by Sue's seemingly sharp words and responded with anger, defensiveness and blame.

Jim watched as the loyal sense of team that was one of the hospital's greatest strengths began to be replaced by avoidance, taking sides, and even outright conflict. And that negativity began to register in patient complaints and surveys.

Sue had the right technical skills for the job, but she was lacking in the right attitude, something that's far more difficult to identify than skills. But Jim had been unable to predict that when he interviewed Sue because he hadn’t taken the time to thoroughly assess the unique attitudes that distinguished his organization. And while he did figure it out after Sue came on board, Jim couldn't make things better, no matter how hard he tried. Because even when people are willing to change (which is not the norm), it's not easy to 'fix' attitude. Sue was used to being seen as a superstar, not a problem employee. So she saw no reason, and felt no incentive, to change her attitude as Jim was coaching her to do.

Jim hired someone else's superstar without stopping to consider if her attitude would make her a superstar in his organization's culture. "I couldn't believe how just one person with the wrong attitude could cause this much trouble," Jim told me.

Of course, this entire situation could easily have been avoided. All Jim needed to do was to identify the right attitude for his organization and then use that deeper understanding of attitude as his primary measure for hiring the right talent.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

*Image from Death to the Stock Photo

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