The unconscious mind in the interview

The past couple posts explored the value of the educated unconscious mind, where that value may exceed the value of the educated conscious mind.

In the initial post, I linked to a site that included several keynote speeches.  His speech presented to the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) included a story of a kingdom being menaced by a dragon where the kind commissioned a school to get rid of the dragon.   The school taught students extensively on all of the objective knowledge of dragons and then the students were sent out to slay the dragon.   Because all their students never encountered a real dragon before, they failed.   Perhaps the story could be embellished a bit more, but it is enough to get across the basic concept that objective conscious knowledge is what gets through exams, but experiential unconscious knowledge is what is needed to get a job done.

In the second post, I explored the problem of how to demonstrate in an job recruiting process the experiential knowledge of an educated unconscious mind.   I linked back to earlier posts that suggested that there is a need for something approximating an audition where the candidate performs and the hiring manager observes that performance.   I made the analogy to the artistic performer auditioning where the performance demonstrates unconscious capabilities in a way that is unavailable through question-answer sessions or a review of a portfolio of past performances.  The performing arts may work because the director or producer evaluates the performance in their natural role as passive observers.

I realized later that the audition model does not work so well with non-performing arts positions because the hiring manager will need to participate directly in the performance and that direct participation will interfere with his ability to observe.   That direct participation by the interviewer will inevitably lead to the the objective knowledge interrogation of a typical interview.

I still desire a way to measure the experiential education of the unconscious mind during a job recruitment process for long term employment.   The objective knowledge only answers the immediate needs of the company and if those were the only needs, the company would be better off hiring a short term consultant.

Perhaps it makes more sense for the company to seek short term consultants (independent contractors) instead of employees.   A common characterization of the interview process is that it centers on some pain currently felt by the employer, and this pain needs immediate remedy.   Consequently, a common career advice to job seekers is to construct a pain letter that demonstrates that the candidate recognizes the pain exists and the candidate knows how to relieve that pain.   In either case, the prescription is for a short term consulting arrangement to cure the current pain.   Long term employment involves future pains that will be unexpected an unrelated to the first.    The employment recruitment process needs to find someone who can be valuable for all future pains, not just the most immediate one.  For long term employment, I want to know if the individual will be valuable a year from now, or even many years from now when everything I can discuss today will be obsolete or irrelevant.

I want to learn the capabilities necessary for remaining relevant to changing needs.   I am convinced this requires learning about the education of the unconscious mind.  As I mentioned in the last post, I distinguished the unconscious mind from the subconscious mind and conscious mind where the latter two are accessible to rational discourse.   In recent decades, there has been a lot of discussion about emotional intelligence (EI) as a more complete description of intelligence than the fact-driven intelligence quotient (IQ).   We can probe both IQ and EI through rational dialog.  In vague terms IQ equates to conscious intelligence and EI equates to subconscious intelligence.   In contrast to these two types of intelligence accessible through casual discussions, unconscious intelligence is hidden.

We cannot objectively describe our unconscious intelligence.  Neither can we learn someone else’s unconscious intelligence from a human language questions and answers.   Unconscious intelligence is accessible only through observing behaviors.

Recently an interviewer asked me to describe in words how I would mentor someone.   I fulfilled my conversation obligation to provide some words that answered the question.   Even assuming that my answer sufficiently impressed the interviewer, the answer was complete gibberish.   The ability to mentor is not something that can described by words.   If it were that simple then there would be a step-by-step instruction book somewhere for someone to consult to become a great mentor.   There are probably countless books about mentoring, but reading them or even mastering them to the point of passing some graded exam is not going to make someone a great mentor any more than the earlier mentioned story about learning facts about dragons prepares someone to slay the dragon.

One learns how to mentor by mentoring.  One’s mentoring capability can only be observed in the act of mentoring.  The measure of this unconscious knowledge is the effectiveness of one’s mentoring capability.   The effectiveness can never be answered in a conscious mind question and answer session.  It has to be demonstrated.

I am very skeptical of the value of the interview for selecting long-term staff.   While there is a benefit for evaluating quick response answers to questions to evaluate the conscious intelligence, requiring a certification would be more efficient and effective.   If the certifications exist from reputable sources, then the interview quiz is nothing but a time killer (and in fact that may be the intent).

The interview may offer some benefit for evaluating emotional intelligence or sub-conscious intelligence in the form of observing behaviors in a stressful setting to be sure it will be a good fit for a team.  I would argue that most team interactions are unlike the interview setting and either not stressful or the stress is within a context of familiarity and possible mutual recognition that is absent during the interview.   The interview may simulate the aspect of emotional intelligence needed for presenting to a foreign and unfamiliar audience, but many jobs do not require much or any of that kind of interaction.    All that said, I respect that some element of emotional intelligence may be observed how well the candidate is able to interact with others as he pursues his own objectives for persuasion and building trust.

When it comes to unconscious intelligence, an interview offers very little if any opportunity to demonstrate and observe this trait that is most essential for the task.  By my definition, the unconscious mind is beyond the reach of direct interrogation.   During a typical interview, the unconscious mind might as well take a nap.  It has nothing to do because it is blind to what is happening in the generally simple question and answer conversation.

The best way to interview the unconscious mind is to give it a real task.  As I discussed in the previous post, this task must be as realistic as possible.   Using the bicycle analogy, the task would be to ride a real bicycle instead of a stationary bicycle in a simulator, or a video game.   The task must be real in the sense that the task can fail in a way that can cause some kind of injury, or succeed in a way that can deliver some wealth.   The real bicyclist task risks falling down in an attempt to arrive at some point within a specified period of time.

Interviewing the unconscious mind needs all three parts: an activity that risks injurious failures in the pursuit of a tangible benefit from success.    Unless the interview is for an entertainer, the failure of disapproval of success of applaud from an audience does not satisfy the requirement for a realistic task.   The task has to have real world consequences for failure and success associated with that task.

A common strategy for computer programming interviews is to sit around a table in a computer-less room.   In these interviews, questions about specific programming skills involve fictional stories that may have some metaphoric relevance to the project.   The candidate is asked to write a program using pen and paper, or using a white board.    This kind of interview only evaluates the conscious mind.   This is equivalent to an exam, and it would be completely redundant for a certified candidate who has proven he can pass a far more rigorous exam than possible in an interview.   More importantly, it does not even wake up the unconscious mind.   The unconscious mind does programming at a real computer with the actual programming tools that support a wide range of sub-tasks for performing a particular exercise.   In addition, the unconscious mind engages in some real objective such as manipulating real data, or managing a real user interface.   The unconscious mind is most alert when success and failure means something tangible, something that can be felt.

Asking questions in an interview with only an opportunity to answer verbally or with pen and paper does not activate the unconscious mind that knows how to do the task.   Instead, it activates the conscious mind to try to explain what it observes when the unconscious mind does its magic.   In effect the conscious mind thinks “I have observed myself doing this several times and when it happens I observe this happening, but I’m not really sure”.   In contrast, the unconscious mind would just do the task, leaving the conscious mind wondering what is going on.

There is obviously a communication channel between the three minds.   In particular the conscious mind tasks the unconscious mind and observes what it does.   The two minds are distinct.  The conscious mind does not really know how the unconscious mind really gets the job done, it can only observe and attempt to present an explanation.   Returning to the bicycling example, the unconscious mind knows exactly what to do to maintain balance in a way that is mysterious to the conscious mind especially when encountering unexpected hazards.   At best, the conscious mind can come up with a theory of how he managed to maintain balance when he did, but the unconscious mind knew what needed to be done without having this theory.

A more vivid illustration of two minds is the analogy of the shepherd and his sheep dogs for herding sheep.   Dogs are very well trained to respond to various whistles to move sheep where the shepherd commands them to go.   There are numerous videos available online (one example) of demonstrations of the precision and effectiveness of the sheep dogs doing all the work according to the intentions of a shepherd.  I admire the intelligence of the dogs and clearly they have some kind of conscious ability to understand the shepherd’s intentions and act appropriately to achieve those objectives.   For my analogy, I want to compare the shepherd to the conscious mind and the sheep dogs to the unconscious mind.   The shepherd may understand how to train the dogs and what to expect from them, but the dogs still need to be trained.   Similarly, as the narrator in the linked video explains, much of the abilities of the dogs are inherent in their nature and how the sheep perceive the dog’s actions.   In short, the shepherd can not offer a rational explanation for exactly how each action is performed so well.  He can describe the general principles involved, but we need the actual demonstration to show that the dogs really are in control of the sheep to precisely follow the shepherd’s commands.

I imagine a very similar arrangement between the conscious and unconscious minds of the human.   Of the two minds, the conscious is more human, and the unconscious mind is more animal.  The animal (such as the sheep dogs) is intelligent but it demonstrates its intelligence through actions instead of discourse.   The dog never answers a verbal quiz about what it should do for each type of whistle or command.  It also doesn’t go through the motions on an empty field.   It proves its capabilities to successfully execute precise instructions with real sheep.   Similarly, the unconscious minds needs a real world problem to direct its activities to demonstrate its skill.    This is not going to happen in a typical interview with access to only verbal or written questions and answers.

In any case, we seem to be stuck with the interview process to select job candidates.   In most cases involving a short one-hour interview, the focus will be the conscious and emotional (subconscious) intelligence.   Because we continue to use this interview model for many decades, I assume it is adequately effective for selecting candidates.  My own disappointment with the process is not sufficient reason to change it.

I may be alone in observe that the traits I most want evaluated are  within the unconscious intelligence that is beyond the reach of rational discourse.   The unconscious intelligence needs a real task with real consequences.   Often there are good practical reasons for not offering such tasks in an interview.  For example, the candidate is not yet approved for the privilege of accessing the relevant equipment or information for a task.

One possible strategy to use the existing interview process to probe unconscious knowledge may be to engage in deep conversation.   Instead of the interviewer asking simple questions with short answers, the questions can be more ambiguous and invite clarifying questions from the candidate.  In addition, the candidate can challenge the interviewer for relevant but tangential questions with similar ambiguity and invitation for clarification.   The goal is to engage in a deep conversation where the hierarchy of roles of interviewer and interviewee disappear and the conversation is on the actual nature of the job.   The actual dialog exchanges information at the conscious level.   However, the dynamic of the dialog can expose the unconscious mind’s participation in contributing ever deeper inquiries into relevant issues.

I am a big fan of dialog as demonstrated in Plato’s writings.   The back-and-forth challenging of ideas between two sides of an argument can expose deeper truths that otherwise would not come up in more casual question and answer sessions.   I admire the Socratic observation that explores the implications of ones initial answers.   These implications were not obvious before engaging in challenging dialog.

A similar model of dialog may be practical in an interview settings where the goal is to probe the unconscious intelligence when there is no opportunity to give that mind a real task to perform.    As a hiring manager, I did attempt this approach multiple times, but this failed because the candidate declined to answer in a way that would foster deeper dialog.   Candidates expect the shortest and most accurate answer will win the prize.  Both answering in a way that invites follow-up questions and answering with counter questions are signs of weakness in the candidate’s qualification.

I have complementary experiences as a candidate for a job.   My deliberate ambiguous answers inviting follow-up or my counter questions are usually dismissed as an unfavorable response or as a form of chicanery.   The interviewer expects the hierarchical respect from candidate to answer questions in a manner similar to an inquisition: answer the question asked and nothing else.   Because the interviewer demands to remain in control, he prevents the deep dialog of equal partners that I feel would give an opportunity for the unconscious mind to participate in the conversation.    The dialog has to dive very deep into an issue before the unconscious is triggered to provide contributions that would not be available from the conscious mind.   An example of such a contribution would be an innovation to solve a problem of the current discussion, or an unexpected opportunity for a mutually satisfying compromise.   The ease of reaching that kind of achievement may demonstrate the skill of the unconscious mind.

Many argumentative conversations do not end quickly with an easily recognized resolution, but the interview is necessarily a single event with some time constraint.   Even lacking a clean resolution, we may still observe that the conversation continued to make productive progress toward what might be a resolution.   Unfortunately, we can not observe this during the conversation because we are actively engaged in the dialog.   Both interviewers and interviewees are active participants and there is no one else present.   It may help to have an interview conducted in front of a two-way mirror with the actual hiring manager on the other side of the mirror and the interviewer is one of his staff.   This low tech solution can allow the behind-the-mirror observer to look for the clues of unconscious skills without being too invested in the specific conversation.   In contrast to the modern high tech alternative or recording a video for review later, the low tech approach avoids the interference caused by the knowledge of persistent record of the conversation.

The unconscious intelligence we seek to demonstrate or to observe is the intelligence that interacts with the real world of ambiguity and mistakes.   A recording of the mistake takes it out of the context of the operation of unconscious mind and presents it as a failing of the conscious mind.

A recording of the session is not very acceptable (at least I would object to it while performing in either role), and we are not about to start outfitting interview rooms with two-way mirrors.

The common interview process lacks the opportunity to exercise the unconscious intelligence through performing realistic task with tangible consequences.  This aspect of intelligence is of most interest evaluating suitability for long term employment.   One interview strategy to engage the unconscious in conversation is to engage in a dialog that dives deep into a specific task in order to find a resolution to a real problem.   As some point in that dialog, we will run out of objective conscious knowledge and this will require us to engage our unconscious intelligence to offer ideas to continue toward a resolution of the dialog.  That new information beyond the conscious knowledge is the innovation that came from the unconscious mind.   Assuming that we are granted the opportunity to use an interview for a deep single topic dialog, our challenge is to recognized this dialog-inspired innovation so that we may evaluate its quality in context of the job opening.


2 thoughts on “The unconscious mind in the interview

  1. Pingback: Evaluating the discipline of the unconscious mind | kenneumeister

  2. This article compliments my points about the unconscious interview:

    I really, really, need to hear evidence that you have sacrificed, and delayed gratification. I need to hear how you made a promise and kept it, day after week after month. It’s that quality I want to know about. If you need to tell me about your hobby or your family to show me that quality, then that’s what you need to do. You’ll have to trust that I won’t be distracted by the circumstances. I’m only interested in your experience of commitment.

    The art of the interviewer is to to be honest about what the interviewer wants from the interviewee. Too often we set up the questions and dialog to give openings for the superfluous details such as personal lives, passions, and technical skills (that might have been memorized from wikipedia entries). We need to set the context early in the interview. The best way to start off the interview with an explicit statement that the interviewee is being auditioned, and the goal is to discover the unconscious maturity.

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