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Don’t be Fooled: Past Behavior Doesn’t Predict Future Performance

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Being highly motivated and skilled to excel in some situations doesn’t mean the person will be highly motivated to excel in all situations.

I recently met with two candidates on a search I’m leading for a senior financial management position. One is a dynamic financial executive who wants to leave her job because she can’t work with her new boss. The other told me he wasn’t able to rebuild his team as promised and therefore wanted to leave his job right away.

At a conference last week an outstanding director of recruiting told me that within 90 days after taking a big job at a highly regarded company she realized she had made a huge career mistake. She was a cultural misfit. She left the day her one year had passed.

Last month, I was talking to one of Silicon Valley’s top Ruby software developers at breakfast. He had just started a new job at a smaller company and smaller pay level. Yet his enthusiasm was bursting through his breakfast burrito. He had left his well-known company to go where he could make a real impact.

And the list goes on. The big point though is that behavior is not the same as performance. Behavior is driven in large part by external circumstances. Collectively, these drive performance.

As the job market heats up there will be a tendency to dust off the behavioral interview in an attempt to better predict the performance of each new hire. However, it’s like fools gold. Past behavior doesn’t predict future performance. A good person with all of the correct behaviors will underperform in the wrong situation. We all know people like this. Each of us has likely been in the exact same situation. We all perform better in some situations than others. The work we’re doing is a key part of it. We all like to work on projects we’re better at than others. Who we work for has an even more direct impact on our performance and motivation. Of course, then add in the team, the culture and the daily grind to determine job satisfaction, performance and motivation.

Despite the commonsense of all this, companies still build elaborate competency models and use behavioral interviewing on the flawed premise that past behavior predicts future performance. It doesn’t.

Past performance doing similar work in a similar situation does predict future performance.

That’s why skills-infested job descriptions and generic competency models are flawed. Having these abilities doesn’t predict performance. That’s why it also makes no sense to open up a requisition for a new job by first defining the skills and attributes of the person taking the job. This is backwards thinking. However, it does make perfect sense to open up the same requisition by defining the performance expectations of the job and the actual environment (culture, manager, resources, pace, etc.) involved.

After doing this exercise for almost one thousand different positions over the past 30 years, it’s very clear that every job has 6-8 tasks or objectives that define performance. For example, “Build a team of account executives in 90 days to quickly break into a new and very competitive market,” is a lot better than saying, “The person must have 6-8 years of sales management experience, be results-driven and possess strong communication skills.”

To determine if the person is competent and motivated to do this work, have the candidate describe in detail an accomplishment that’s most comparable for each of the objectives. Then map these accomplishments on a graph showing impact and growth over time. Hire those people who have a track record of growth and excel at doing similar work in a similar environment. Afterwards, don’t be surprised that the person has all of the skills, experience and competencies needed to meet all of the performance objectives of the job.

Being highly motivated and skilled to excel in some situations doesn’t mean the person will be highly motivated to excel in all situations.

Here’s an article describing how to prepare these types of performance-based job descriptions and one on how to conduct the one-question performance-based interview. (This book describes the whole process including the forms needed.)

I remember taking an engineering design course as a first year undergrad. The professor started the course on day one with a picture of a bridge that didn’t meet in the middle. He began the first lecture with, “In this course, you’ll learn how to prevent this from ever happening to you.” When assessing candidates, maybe being right 50-60% of the time is good enough. But it’s certainly not for designing bridges.

Past behavior is not the same as past performance and, worse, it doesn’t come close to predicting future performance. Perhaps anyone who thinks it does should take a course on how to design bridges.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.

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