How To Test Whether A Job Candidate Is A Conformist

Companies love to proclaim that they want employees who will think out of the box. But by nature, companies are social groups that follow rules of conformity, sometimes over a cliff.

In grade school we used to prank the new kid by telling this joke: “Two elephants are in a bathtub. One elephant says, ‘Pass the soap!’ The other elephant says, ‘No soap! Radio!’”

Everyone in the group bursts out laughing hysterically. The new kid laughs just as hard, until he realizes the rest of us are now laughing at him. The punchline wasn’t funny. It was meaningless. The joke is that the new kid, in an effort to fit in, doesn’t think for himself.

Conformity Is No Joke
In 1951 psychologist Solomon Asch devised a legendary experiment to test conformity—a common social response when people want to be accepted as part of a group. Underpinning conformity is the degree to which people can be influenced by others (or by situations).

Simply, Asch showed a subject three lines of different lengths and asked which one another line was most similar to. This is easy enough, and 99% of subjects got it right.

But when Asch asked the subject to make the same judgment after watching seven other phony subjects (they were Asch’s confederates) pick a wrong line consistently over several trials, about a third of subjects gave the wrong answer. They were going along, influenced by social pressure. About 75% of the subjects went along at least once. Questioned later, most admitted they knew their answer was wrong, but they didn’t want to be ridiculed by the rest of the group.

Here’s what I think was most interesting—and why conformity isn’t something to pass off as a trivial problem in business: Some of the participants actually insisted the group’s wrong answer was correct. That participant is probably the worst hire you could make.

How Do You Identify Conformists?
I don’t like to use tricky questions when I interview job candidates. I try to be direct and I try to let them put their best foot forward. But I don’t remember a client who wanted me to find a go-along worker. Judging whether people will assert and defend their positions is not easy.

There are two methods you can use to test conformity. One is a so-called behavioral interview question. (See “3 Ways To Make Sure A Job Candidate Is Ready To Rumble.”) You ask the candidate to discuss his or her former behavior. “Thinking back on a time when you disagreed with your team or boss about the best way to do something, tell me about it, and explain how you handled it.”

You might wonder, where’s the behavior in that? Well, there isn’t. People will tell you all kinds of things about their past experiences, and there’s no way to verify what you hear.

I prefer to introduce real behavior to judge how conformist or out-of-the-box a job candidate is. In our interview I’ll bring up some real issues my client’s marketing team is grappling with, issues that require making a choice and defending it. I’ll ask the candidate what she would advocate and why. Then I pass the candidate’s responses on to my client, the hiring manager.

See For Yourself
All my clients know I favor “working meetings” when assessing job candidates. Bring the candidate into a real project meeting with your team. Welcome them to participate. There’s no way for a candidate to fake it. You’ll learn a lot.

The team makes sure to discuss some of the issues I raised with the candidate. However, to avoid trickery, I tell the client—the hiring manager—not to tell the team what the candidate’s positions are on those matters. The manager listens and observes.

  • Are the candidate’s comments about these issues consistent with what she told me?
  • Does the candidate assert those positions, advocate, and defend them reasonably?
  • Or does the candidate quickly conform to group opinions without justification?

While I wouldn’t try the elephants in the bathtub joke with a marketing candidate, I wouldn’t let a candidate in the door without testing for independent thinking. In some ways, we want people to conform and belong to a group. But it’s important to know just how conformist a person we’re considering hiring.

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