The Interview Brainteaser and its Discontents - 2

by Joe Mabel

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(This is the continuation of an article about the use and abuse of brainteasers in job interviews.)

Top 5 flaws of a bad idea

Here are the five biggest difficulties I've seen with the use of brainteasers in job interviews.

  • 1. To teach a dog a trick, you first have to know more than the dog.
  • 2. Brainteasers encourage cleverness rather than wisdom.
  • 3. Brainteasers add pressure to a pressured situation.
  • 4. Brainteasers in an interview can create a bad power relationship.
  • 5. You may accidentally reward dishonesty.
  • To teach a dog a trick, you first have to know more than the dog.

    It's been said that first rate people hire first rate people, but second rate people hire third rate people. If you are a first rate hiring manager, you are constantly trying to hire people who are your peers or stronger. Therefore, it may be very hard for you to properly frame a problem that will allow you accurately to judge their thinking. This is particularly true because, unless you are Martin Gardner  🔗, the clean design and accurate statement of brainteasers is presumably not your particular area of expertise.

    Brainteasers encourage cleverness rather than wisdom.

    If you are trying to hire someone for a job involving precision of thought, don't be surprised if they are more inclined to challenge the terms of the brain teaser than to plunge directly into solving it. I don't claim to know for sure about anyone else, but I've been trying for the last thirty years to get away from giving the quick, glib answers they reward in high school and to learn instead to step back and actually try to get context on a problem. I was better at quickly solving brainteasers when I was seventeen. I'm a lot better now at taking some time and seeing where the statement of a problem might actually be incomplete or inconsistent. And I'm sure I'm a lot better computer professional for having learned that. If brain teasers feature prominently in your interview process, unless you wield them with great subtlety you are liable to develop an aren't we a bunch of clever lads"; corporate culture, and actually filter out mature judgement.

    Brainteasers add pressure to a pressured situation.

    It's a dirty little secret, but a lot of people interviewing for jobs -- especially those currently unemployed or underemployed -- are at least mildly depressed. They are not at their best for the kind of fast thinking that works best for brainteasers. This may not have been much of an issue in the recent Roaring 'Nineties, when your typical candidate certainly had plenty of opportunities and probably was already in a decent job and trying to move up, but in the job market right now (I am writing in June 2002), tough personal circumstances and limited economic opportunity are the rule rather than the exception.

    The pressure to perform in an interview is already enormous and (in the case of a mildly depressed person) psychologically difficult. It's hard enough to get a candidate to relax and be open with you even when that is your primary goal. Posing a brainteaser is absolutely counterproductive to that goal.

    Further, once you have deliberately created or exacerbated a pressure situation, why shouldn't the candidate question your motives and wonder whether this is all a trick or a trap? This is especially so if (deliberately or accidentally) your problem has no good solution.

    Brainteasers in an interview can create a bad power relationship.

    Communication proceeds best among equals. Throwing someone a brainteaser in an interview deliberately places yourself in a dominant role. How would you feel if the candidate threw a brainteaser at you? You'd probably feel like you had a pretty arrogant job candidate on your hands. If you are interviewing a peer, why shouldn't he or she feel the same way about you?

    I'm told that some hiring managers deliberately give candidates unsolvable brainteasers without setting any context for that possibility. I suppose there is a chance that the manager learns a lot from what follows, and I imagine that there could even be a circumstance where this is a useful technique, but if you then hire the candidate, how will he or she learn to trust you?

    You may accidentally reward dishonesty.

    The interviewee may already know the problem. If he/she is dishonest, and a moderately good actor, he/she can appear (falsely) brilliant. You've just enhanced your chances of hiring a sociopath.

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    Originally written: June 26, 2002
    Article copyright © 2002 Joseph L. Mabel
    All rights reserved.
    Copyleft: With appropriate notification and appropriate credit, non-commercial reproduction is welcome: contact me if you have any desire to reproduce these materials in whole or in part.

    Last modified: 26 June 2002

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