MPs need better interviewing skills

Andy Hayman’s protests about his treatment by the parliamentary committee last week have been drowned out by his critics. Those on the receiving end of media firestorms usually find themselves shouted down. Mr Hayman may not be the country’s most popular copper at the moment but there is still some truth in what he says. The performance of the Home Affairs Committee would have been considered unacceptable in any other profession.

Calling Mr Hayman a “dodgy geezer” and “Clouseau rather than Columbo” was rude and counterproductive. No matter how much you disapprove of what you think someone has done, calling them names rarely helps you get to the truth.

The interviewing was desperately poor too. Each MP asked questions in turn but they rarely built on each other’s points. It was as if they each had a go with a drill for a few minutes, after which it was handed to someone else who would then start drilling in a different place. As as result, there were lots of little holes but no-one managed to drill down to the core.

This is typical of large groups. You see it in management meetings. People queue to speak and have their pet points they want to make. They rehearse their own speeches or questions in their heads and don’t listen to what has been said before. Once they have made their point or asked their question, they then stop listening again while they prepare for their next one. That is why meetings are so often disjointed.

Such behaviour is bad enough in any context but when you are trying to probe for facts and greater insights, it is disastrous. That is why most organisations in both public and private sectors abandoned large panel interviews years ago. They are ineffective and yield little useful information about candidates.

MPs might see a parliamentary committee as a moment of fame but it should not be treated like a debate in the House of Commons. Its purpose is not to score rhetorical points and give the media soundbites. It is, or should be, about finding out what happened and holding people to account.

To be fair on the Home Affairs committee, most other parliamentary hearings have been just as bad. I have watched a couple where I have known some of the background and seen MPs consistently fail to get to the nub of the issue. People whose performance and behaviour should have been seriously probed have walked out of the room relatively unscathed.

Tony Cunnane’s withering critique of last week’s proceedings is worth reading in full if you didn’t see the hearing and want to get a flavour of what happened. If any corporate executives conducted an inquiry into misconduct in such a haphazard manner, they’d be facing disciplinary charges themselves.

If the Murdoch’s keep it together next week, they will be able to drive a coach and horses through the disorganised MPs. Unless they drop a clanger, like Rebebkah Brooks did in 2003, they have little to fear. By the end of the session, it is unlikely that the MPs will have discovered any more than they did from assistant commissioners Yates and Hayman. The judge’s inquiry will be more professional and will, hopefully, get to the truth. 

Parliamentary committees have their place, though. It is right that people should be called to account by our elected representatives but poor interview techniques and silly name-calling make the MPs look stupid, just at the point where they should have the moral high-ground. Insulting people might make the MPs’ feel better but, if they really want to nail those they suspect of wrongdoing, focused and probing interviews are a hundred times more effective.

These hearings need to be conducted more professionally. MPs on the committees need to be skilled at interviewing people politely but effectively. No-one should be insulted in a parliamentary hearing but no-one should walk out of one having been let off the hook. Corporations have invested a lot to improve the interviewing skills of their executives. It’s time parliament did the same.

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7 Responses to MPs need better interviewing skills

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    Spot on Rick. This poor interviewing style feels like the typically shoddy behaviour MPs show to each other in the house, just leaking out into other places. Yes the interviews need to be more professional, polite and effective, and so to does the general day to day activity of MPs in the House of Commons. It would be encouraging to see a change of behaviour here too, it’s long overdue.

  2. Pingback: MPs need better interviewing skills - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Bruce Lewin says:

    Fair enough, but a tad bearish perhaps?

  4. Tom Freeman says:

    Absolutely right. It seems that each committee member fancies him/herself as a little Paxman or Humphrys, making emotionally charged challenges in the hope of eliciting embarrassment. Having been on the receiving end of that sort of interviewing often enough, maybe that’s how they think it’s done. But it has no forensic value.

    More than interviewing skills, though, the basic problem is lack of teamwork.

  5. I’m not sure, I think you’ve taken two good observations and come out with a not so good conclusion. Surely the better comparator for the committee process is our legal system which as its core basis is adversarial? MPs are merely parroting the way in which many “common man” is treated up and down the land every week. The judge’s inquiry will be better, because it is an inquiry – and many a person better and brighter than me has made the suggestion that moving to an inquisitorial legal system might be no bad thing (unless you happen to be one of the people who makes money from belittling others).

    Management meetings aren’t adversarial (well not many of them at least!) what is happening there is a different dynamic. No-one is lining up to try and land the sucker punch. I agree that often people do fail to listen, but that isn’t because they are waiting to say their next line – more generally because (in my opinion) they have too many other things to think about and are likely to be on their Blackberries under the table.

    I’d argue that it isn’t about the effectiveness of questions – recruitment interviews are proven to be statistically irrelevant as a means of selection whether using one person or ten and I’m not convinced that there is an interview skills course on the planet that would solve this problem. The issue is more mindset and approach. We have set our political system up to be divisive and adversarial, like our court system, until we change that then anything else is window dressing.

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