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Leveraging behavioral science to make better hiring decisions


At one point, it was generally thought that intelligence was the king of traits when it came to finding the right person for almost any job. After all, an intelligent person would be able to solve problems, find solutions, and navigate tricky situations. Any problems that arose? Well, the employee in question clearly just weren’t smart enough to understand the logic behind the issue. Maybe the next guy will be smarter.

But of course, behavioral science marched on. The behavioral sciences, which encompass psychology, psychobiology, anthropology, and cognitive science, have exploded over the last several decades, providing numerous insights into why people behave the way they do.

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And it has shown what most people knew intuitively anyhow: that most people aren’t rational beings that become more perfect as intelligence increase, but have a host of tendencies and traits that make them more likely to behave in one way or another, and to be successful in a specific environment.

Luckily, you don’t need to go back to school for a PhD in psychology to take advantage of modern understanding of behavioral science. Here are a few tips on how.

From early childhood research: looking at temperaments.

Our personalities develop over a lifetime in response to our environments. We evolve away from grade school potty jokes (or not) to a more sophisticated sense of humor, we form work or social habits adapted to our stage of life, and we reflect the cultural behaviors of others where we live. But anyone who has ever parented more than one child knows that some part of personality is innate; we just come out that way. This is temperament.

After looking at the behaviors of infants and children over the course of years, three basic temperaments were identified. There are the feisty children: those who literally attack their surroundings in their eagerness to get what they’re after. There are the flexible ones, who tend to embrace whatever comes their way with open arms. And there are fearful children, who prefer to look on cautiously before investigating further.

Each of these basic temperaments relates to how we interact with new and challenging situations (which, for a baby, is pretty much everything). And critically, none of these are “wrong.” You want your accountant to be cautious and double check everything three times before sending out a report. Your head of sales should absolutely jump on new opportunities and pursue them vigorously. And your administrative assistant no doubt needs to be able to go with the dozens of distractions that are thrown their way every day. Thinking about the ideal temperament for a particular position can help you find someone who will thrive in the role.

From personality research: looking at the “Big Five.”

The five factor model of personality, also known as the “Big Five” traits, consists of five broad dimensions of personality. Every person contains each of the traits to varying degrees. The traits are:


    • High: curiosity, creativity, and attraction to novelty
    • Low: pragmatic, preference for routines


  • High: methodical, organized, and hard-working
  • Low: easygoing and flexible


  • High: friendly and talkative
  • Low: introspective and focused


  • High: compassionate and collaborative
  • Low: competitive and authoritative


  • High: easily concerned, problem-focused
  • Low: confident, unworried

As with temperaments, you can see how any of these traits, alone or in combination, could be useful in the workplace depending on the role and the team. The person putting together a hospital’s emergency preparedness plan should show a healthy amount of neuroticism, looking for anything that could possibly go wrong and addressing it, whereas that same degree of neuroticism might cause a terrible case of nerves in a motivational speaker. Think of a position you’re hoping to fill in the near future. Can you imagine what personality traits might be helpful?

How can you know someone’s temperament or personality?

A lot of this can be uncovered by asking behavioral questions during the interview process. If you ask someone “Tell me about a time when you had to take on a new responsibility unexpectedly,” listen for more than whether they handled it well or poorly. Did they immediately reach out to their mentor for advice? That’s an indication of agreeableness. Did they put together a checklist? That’s a high conscientiousness indicator.

Their attitude towards the new challenge also reveals temperamental differences. Did they tackle it like an exciting new challenge, or do lots of research before beginning? Or was it just another Monday to them?

Still not sure you know enough about behavioral science?

That’s an excellent opportunity to call in an expert. At SelectOne, we take not only personality but a number of other factors into account when determining job suitability. This assessment process takes us from a 40-45% rate of successful hires to closer to 90-95% success. Interested in learning more? Get in touch today.

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