Hiring for Conscientiousness [Osman]

Source: Hollaway.com

A pretty neat piece by Ozzie Osman that’s been sitting in my backlog for a few months now: 

Hiring for Conscientiousness

The gist is pretty straightforward, Osman defines conscientiousness: 

Conscientious people have a desire to do good work, and are self-motivated to perform well regardless of whether someone is watching over them. They are action-oriented, dutiful, and careful.

And makes a compelling case for why conscientiousness should be an attribute to look for in our hiring process. He then offers a sample set of questions that can help evaluate it. 

Osman starts building off on Andy Grove’s framework for “effectiveness”, decomposing it into two main drivers: “skill” and “will”. Skill is decomposed further to a stable and general component — “intelligence”, and a dynamic and specific one — “experience”. The latter can grow over time, with more opportunities to perform the specific task. Similarly, Will can be decomposed further, to a general component — “conscientiousness”, and a specific component — “engagement”. Conscientiousness affects a person’s base level of motivation and how much they care about work, whereas engagement is more context-specific and can vary by the task at hand, relationship with their manager, current level of morale, etc. Osman posits that conscientious people may experience times of lower or higher engagement, but as a general rule of thumb, they always care about their work and perform it to the best of their ability.

Finally, and sadly, as somewhat of a disjointed afterthought, Osman highlights the importance of “values alignment”, which he distinguishes from the superficial/erroneous “culture fit”, as an additional hiring criterion but he doesn’t integrate it fully into the framework.

With the full 5-attribute criteria in mind: intelligence, experience, conscientiousness, engagement and values alignment; Osman observes that most strong recruiting processes do a good job evaluating for 4 out of the 5 attributes, but usually do not address conscientiousness. He offers the following questions as jumping-off points for assessing a candidate’s level of conscientiousness: 

  1. Ask them to walk you through a past failure — conscientious candidates will often define their failures by their impact on their commitments and will move mountains to avoid (or fix) such failures.
  2. Ask them about a time they weren’t able to meet their commitments — a more specific version of the above question aimed at getting a more nuanced understanding of the way they view their obligations to others. 
  3. What motivates them to work, and what does success mean? — Conscientious candidates will have a more outward-facing view on success (impact on others/the company) and can often balance long-term and short-term success, avoiding short-term optimization. 
  4. Have them tell you about a time they worked on something they didn’t enjoy — Willingness to do unpleasant work if it’s important to their team or company is a positive sign of conscientiousness.
  5. Look for evidence of side-projects or things that go above and beyond 
  6. What triggered them to leave past (or current) jobs, and how did they go about leaving?thoughtfulness about what they work on and deliberate regard for transition plans are additional positive signs of conscientiousness.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of out-of-context “tell me about a time when…” questions (#1, 2, and 4) since they often test recall abilities and favor candidates who luckily prepared for the specific question asked. But that can be easily addressed by starting with a broader question like “tell me about your most recent project” and going into more specific questions while already within that normal/fresh context: what worked well and didn’t well? (#1), did you have to reset expectations? how? (#2) what parts of the project were unpleasant? (#4). 

Since conscientiousness is a Big 5 personality trait, another alternative would be to utilize a scientifically validated method for assessing conscientiousness. 

Hiring for Conscientiousness [Osman]

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