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Why you should hire for attitude and not skill during organisational transformation



Desirable skills are easy for hiring managers to describe. What behaviours we’re seeking and why present more of a challenge. The impact of not recruiting people with enough of the attitudes that align with your organisation’s strategy is that it can perpetuate the previous culture you’re trying to move away from.

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance Robert Pirsig

Many organisations are trying to remove unnecessary costs and are reorganising their structures and ways of working. To successfully transform, organisation’s need team members who are flexible and comfortable with owning their own decisions. They need teams who can work across functions – a far cry from the silos and pyramids which many are used to.

If you hire for skill, you’re selecting bias for people who can do the job. However, it does not necessarily mean they care about the job or how it’s done. You then run the risk of ignoring attitude, which impacts customer satisfaction and building strong teams, both of which are pivotal to embedding change.


This is not to say skills should be ignored, but there are other facets of talent that can be prioritised to make sure you hire the best candidates who have the attitudes that align with your organisation’s strategy.

“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it”. Lou Holtz.

What are the barriers?

Hiring for attitude, personality or culture is hard to measure as it is done in an interview-based test. Interviewing candidates well is something which many hiring managers struggle with as they are not aware of their own decision-making biases which surface during interviews. This is not helped by the fact research shows that many interviewers do not follow a structured format, making a comparison of candidates difficult. There is a positive correlation between using structured interviews for selection and organisational performance.

Testing for culture is difficult and perhaps something that artificial intelligence can fix in the future. However, due to current technical limitations, organisations who test for

personality, attitude or skills usually start with an internal survey to build candidate personas. This creates a selection bias for the sorts of candidates that are already part of the team. When you have movement in the transformation at all levels, are selecting the right candidates and begin to foster the right culture, you then have to make sure it sticks. You can do this by measuring and monitoring performance and behaviours, and by continually adapting to keep the culture heading in the desired direction. Only 10% of people who have heart bypass surgery stick to a change of diet and lifestyle. This illustrates the challenge of getting people to change and adapt.

You’re not alone.

Many companies have previously re-strategised and re-organised in an aligned manner to survive, meet shareholder expectations or to grow.

Southwest Airlines is a business founded on cost-leadership. Its principles are built on being able to reduce waste in the operating model by keeping the planes in the air for as long as possible, namely by reducing their turnaround time on the ground. Southwest also recognise they need to put the customer at the centre of the business even though the cost is low. The HR strategy recognises staff are front and centre in providing the customer- facing service. They recognise that hiring staff with customer-centric attitudes is key. Southwest’s HR process which supports the strategy, is to hire the right people with the attitudes that they need. In 2018, Southwest reviewed 287,000 resumes, chose 102,000 candidates for interview and only hired 6,000 or 2%. They can be selective because they are clear in what they are looking for: ‘warrior spirit’ (desire to excel), ‘servants at heart’ (put others first) and a fun-loving attitude. They even specify this on the position descriptions.

To provide greater reach whilst maintaining their attitudes-first selection criteria, Goldman Sachs use video interviews. They clarified their strategy to operate more efficiently, streamline their structure, invest in automation and increase transparency. Using video interviews makes anyone with internet access accessible. This combined with the use of stringent selection processes, they refine and select people based on attitude to match their culture. Their interviews are scenario based and ask how candidates would behave, rather than what they have done. This combination of video medium and selection strategy enables access to a larger candidate pool. It also minimises variance in attitude by strictly following a selection system.

Zappos has always placed the customer at the heart of the business and maintains the requirement of having the right people with the right attitudes. It is so central to the operational strategy that they have an acid test to ensure candidates don’t have undesired traits; they seek feedback from the driver of the car that Zappos sends to candidate’s homes to drive them to the airport for interviews. Zappos are clear in their dependency on the customer in their organisational strategy. They state that service is key in ensuring their customers return as they are dependent on return custom – 75% of it.


Netflix became famous as a HR case study after the release of their culture deck in 2001. Netflix recognised the right attitude was key to the company’s success from an operating perspective in keeping cost down and making sure they had high performing teams. They abandoned many processes which so many large organisations hold tightly, such as expenses and leave policy. Netflix realised by underpinning their organisation with staff with the right attitudes, they could depend on the staff to act in accordance with the company’s best interest by being outcomes focused and not having inefficient expense processes. They are clear and realistic with their expectations as they are available for anyone to see, including the consequences of not meeting their expectations, a severance package.

What can we do?

An organisation cannot immediately change its culture by hiring it all in, but you can provide a solid start for change. This change starts from within as it requires you to reflect upon yourselves to determine your own requirements for HR plans and strategy and make sure you consistently execute the plans. Here are six steps to set your foundations:

  1. Clarity of Employee Value Proposition – Like Netflix, have the employee value proposition nailed to the front door. This will make what you expect clear, and reduce the amount of applications which aren’t aligned with your expectations of what you’re looking for.

  2. Support hiring managers. Hiring managers are the gate-keepers for candidates, so support them with education. With the removal of management layers, the dependency on managers to hire well and consistently is important.

  3. Improve your training capability. By improving your training capability, you can reduce the bias of hiring managers that hire for skill. They will worry less about a skills gaps or hiring to fill a gap so they can hire for attitude and train for skill.

  4. Increase the speed at which you hire. Good candidates move quickly as they are likely to have several offers of employment. Don’t allow your internal processes to stand in the way of being ready to make an offer to a candidate you need.

  5. Implement and stick to behavioural questions. Like Southwest Airlines – if your strategy includes being customer-centric, you need to be able to identify candidates with high levels of customer service attributes. To identify this mindset and attitude, you need to first define the attitudes and write the questions which identify them and don’t deviate from them in the interview.

  6. Don’t rely on hiring managers. We all have biases and they can quickly surface in interviews. One way to mitigate making a poor decision based on bias is to involve HR business partners in the process. This also has a dependency on ensuring HR business partners are educated about the business.

We can make changes to create new cultures, but it’s ultimately down to the gatekeepers of the organisation to ensure they are consistent in approach. How we do that is centred around championing the hiring manager. How do you champion yours?


I’d be interested to hear your experiences hiring for attitude and not skill and also vice-vera. Please do comment, like and share the article on Linkedin. If you would like to see more articles about business leadership subscribe for the latest content.


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