October 18, 2012

Tough Hiring Decision? Sleep on it!

Woman asleep on laptop at deskMany hiring decisions can be more straight forward: you have a batch of candidates and one candidate is head and shoulders above the rest, no matter which way you cut it or change the relative weightings of the selection criteria.

But, many decisions are much stickier than that: you have two or three candidates who are quite evenly matched, with each one coming out on top if you cut the selection criteria to favor certain conditions, e.g. more emphasis on new sales brings Candidate A on top, but more emphasis on repeat sales brings Candidate B out on top, and more emphasis on team motivation brings Candidate C out on top. You’ve got multiple selection criteria and multiple variables; it’s a complex hiring decision and the gut tendency is to ‘do the math’ and work through the problem, right? Well, that’s how I have always done it – and I guess so have many of you.

But, some research from Dr Maarten Bos (reported on the CNN blog) who researches decision making and the unconscious mind at Harvard Business School suggests that there may be another more effective way to approach complex decision making [in our case a complex hiring decision].

While we have known for years that the unconscious mind has been a source of creativity and scientific breakthroughs, there is a growing body of research to suggest that our unconscious mind can help us to more effectively weigh up multiple factors when making complex decisions [such as the complex hiring decision based on complex selection criteria].


So of course, it would be great to tap into this powerhouse of unconscious processing to help us with complex hiring decisions, but how can we do it? A bout of impromptu hypnosis prior to each hiring decision?

The sleep perspective

Not exactly, but close. Dr. Bos says that a huge amount of our unconscious processing goes on while we are asleep. He suggests that sleep is associated with better memory performance and “slow-wave” sleep, which has been shown to enhance the human ability to make mental connections and integrate unassociated information. He goes on to say that the mental ‘heavy-lifting’ that occurs during sleep could be useful for creative problem solving and making complex decisions, such as those combining multiple factors [our complex hiring decision]. It appears that the unconscious may be better at processing large amounts of data and priorities importance factors over the relatively trivial, meaning it can more quickly put things into perspective.


But, is there any research to back up Dr Bos’ assertions. Well, yes, although it is based around real estate decision making. The joint study between the Kellogg School of Management and Nijmegen University (which Bos participated in) looked at two groups of subjects and they were asked to choose the best out of 12 apartments based on six rules which they had to follow, (rental prices, pets vs. no pets…) to make their choice. So, what were the findings? They found that:

  • Subjects who were allowed 4 minutes to decide, chose apartments that met the rules 75 percent of the time but selected the best apartment only 29 percent of the time.
  • Subjects who were allowed 2 minutes thinking time and then were distracted for two minutes chose apartments which met the rules only 44 percent of the time, but chose the apartment with the best aggregate of attributes 58 percent of the time.

So, what the findings suggest is that the best decision was the one that allowed the subject to combine conscious processing (the first two minutes), and unconscious processing (the second two minutes). It enabled the person to identify the best option and make the best decision.

Use distraction as a decision making tool.

Bos feels that you can actively use this unconscious intuition as a decision making tool, meaning you take in all the data about your decision [in our case the complex selection criteria and candidate performance data] and then you distract yourself and go with whatever feels right, but you need sanity to check your decision by reviewing the facts again.

Bos argues that we should not just rely on our fast gut decision making process for complex decisions [like our complex hiring decisions), but to also allow time for the slower, deliberate, decision making process that happens subconsciously.

One way to achieve this is by using his distractions model mentioned above, and of course the other way is to tap in to the powerful decision making processes of the unconscious which occur after a good nights sleep.

In practical terms, does this mean I think you’ll be able to convince your HR Director to install beds in offices and enable a policy of power hiring ‘Decision Naps’?

Well, I don’t know, I have to to sleep on it.

Read more in Hiring Process

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.