Why job interviews are a waste of time unless you hand over your car keys

Why job interviews are a waste of time unless you hand over your car keys

Years ago I heard someone suggest that to get to know a candidate, conduct the job interview while they drive you around the block.

It sounded crazy, which is why it stuck in my mind.

So I was amused to see an interview with Trex CEO Ron Kaplan in the New York Times recently where he said “I hand them my car keys and say, ‘Why don’t you drive?’, and see what kind of reaction they have to driving my car in a strange city.”

“Then I’ll be giving them directions and asking them questions while we’re driving to see if they can multitask. Some people can handle it with aplomb, and others can’t.”

Let’s look at why Ron is on to something, and how reaching for the keys could resolve the big flaw in job interviews.


The problem with job interviews


Job interviews are a necessary evil. We need to get to know the candidate, and they us. But do we actually get to know them?

In an effort to predict how the candidate will behave in the workplace, multiple formats of interview have been tried. Two of the most popular have been the;

  • behavioural interview – asking the candidate to tell you about a time when they have done something, and
  • situational interview – asking the candidate what they would do in a situation.

The theory goes that in a behavioural interview, demonstrating a past behavioural competence will mean the candidate is more likely to demonstrate this behaviour in future.

In a situational interview, being able to tell you what they will do will make them more likely to do so.

Both have a significant flaw.


You’re hiring the Elephant, not the Rider


The flaw here, is that whenever you ask a candidate a question in an interview setting, you are getting an answer from the candidate’s “System 2”, rationalising, deliberative brain (a.k.a. the Rider), where you are really hiring their “System 1”, habitual, fast-thinking, intuitive brain (a.k.a. the Elephant).

System 1 is what people use day in, day out to navigate the bulk of their life and their work.  With a massive processing capacity, the equivalent of 11,000,000 bits per second, the Elephant is what you end up working with most of the time.

System 2 is what people use for special occasions; situations that are unfamiliar, unusual or serious – you know, just like job interviews. System 2 is used only intermittently and can be depleted easily because its capacity, in contrast to System 1, is a mere 40-50 bits per second.

This explains why your job candidate will likely be exhausted after an interview – they’ve chewed up all their System 2 battery by trying to put on their best face. But it doesn’t help you make a determination about who you are really employing.


Getting them to drive you around the block


Now imagine you are being interviewed for a job. The interviewer has thrown you the keys and you are on your way. You’re in an unfamiliar car, driving on unfamiliar roads with an unfamiliar person beside you. What’s happening to your brain? 

Your System 2 has taken the wheel because, in this circumstance, the uniqueness of the situation demands heightened focus. Not crashing is your priority.

What happens when System 2’s limited capacity is occupied? System 1 attends to lower-grade issues, like the questions the interviewer is throwing at you.

This means you are incapable of exerting the self-control (a System 2 function) that you normally would in answering the questions. You are less guarded and more intuitive.  Whether this is a good thing is something they will judge, but at least they are meeting the Elephant not just the Rider.

So, while Ron employs the driving technique to gauge his candidate’s ability to multi-task and deal with unusual circumstances, he’s actually giving himself an opportunity to get beneath the veneer we tend to present in highly artificial, traditional job interviews.

What are your thoughts? Frustrated by job interviews that don’t really get to the true nature of your staff? Tried any other techniques? I’d love to hear so drop me a note.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. 


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments