Key Selection Criteria: When less is more

Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking, (Penguin, 2005) provided me with some fantastic insights highly relevant for recruiters, specifically when Gladwell explores the ‘less is more' syndrome.

Gladwell asserts that in certain circumstances, receiving more information about an issue can cause you to become more inaccurate or ineffective in your response to, or conclusions about, that issue with a corresponding increase in your confidence that your conclusions are accurate.

Gladwell gives two very different real world examples, one of a US military exercise called Millennium Challenge and another; the admission of potential heart attack victims to the Cook County ER. In both cases it was proven that more information had led to less effective or inaccurate responses or outcomes.

Gladwell's conclusions were:

(a) Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.

(b) In good decision making, frugality matters. Even the most complicated of relationships and problems ... have an identifiable and underlying pattern ... research proves that in picking up these sort of patterns, less is more. Overloading decision makers with information ... makes picking up that signature harder, not easier. To be a successful decision maker we have to edit. When we thin-slice, when we recognise patterns and make snap judgements, we do this process of editing unconsciously.

These conclusions are very, very important for recruiters to understand.

It reinforces one of the most important things I teach new recruiters about taking a job from a client - you must gain agreement with the client about the four or five key selection criteria; the criteria that is the most important criteria to being able to do the job being recruited for.

A massive mistake I see in far too many job descriptions is a list of selection criteria as long as the team list for a football game. A list this lengthy actually makes it harder, not easier, to accurately assess a candidate's suitability for a position. You know the sort of thing I mean - it looks something like this:

Selection criteria


Hard working

Excellent communication skills

Technically sound

Team player


Demonstrate initiative


Learns quickly

Problem solver



Strong priorisation and time management skills

Sound decision maker





I promise you, a list like this will make it harder to effectively short-list candidates because you simply don't have time to make accurate assessments of each criteria for all the candidates you are interviewing.

The solution is simple (but not necessarily easy); you have to force your clients to narrow down their selection criteria to the most important five competency-based criteria (hint: ‘years of experience' is not a competency-based criteria).

The more specific the criteria, the more likely it is you will be effective in your short-listing. For example if your client insists that ‘excellent communication skills' be included as one of the five key selection criteria then you need to probe to understand exactly what behaviour the client is seeking (eg present effectively to a small group, write clear and concise management reports, negotiate effectively with key customers, win over difficult yet influential team members, hold their own at a board meeting, motivate an underperforming team, build relationships with key stakeholders, deliver honest feedback to individuals, speak clear and understandable English, build trust quickly over the telephone with prospects, etc).

In an interview lasting 30 to 60 minutes, you only have time to genuinely assess four or five selection criteria so a longer list of criteria is pointless anyway.

Far too many recruiters accept job descriptions and accompanying selection criteria from clients without question and as a result, are using a document for interviewing that is more of a hindrance than a help in identifying candidates to short-list.

Remember: YOU are the recruitment expert, not your client.

Your job is to ensure your client agrees on a short and well-defined competency-based key selection criteria for every role you recruit for them. If they do not want to engage with you to do this then I would suggest that if you decide to work on the client's vacancy then you do nothing more than send one resume for the client to interview (to at least give you both a ‘benchmark' candidate before you undertake any further sourcing and assessment of candidates).

Interviewing candidates without an agreed key selection criteria is like going shopping for a specific meal without a recipe shopping list; you might still be able to make a decent meal from memory or ‘supermarket gut instinct' but there's a very high probability that your meal won't be as good as it could have been with all the ingredients included in the recipe and in their right portion size.

Here's an exercise to undertake right now: Write down the five key selection criteria for each job you are recruiting for and then ask yourself ‘do I have my client's agreement on each these five key selection criteria?'

If you can't answer ‘yes' with certainty then I would suggest you have a phone call to make or a meeting to schedule.


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