What NASA can teach us about hiring

As NASA hopes to send a crew of astronauts to Mars by 2030, the space agency has delved deeply into the study of team dynamics. Through that process it has discovered that building a high-functioning team for space exploration requires much more than simply appraising the work experience of its individual members. How team members react with other other, how they deal with stress and pressure, and above all, how they maintain morale and relationships with a group, have all been found to be critical factors, so much so that NASA has now focused on identifying “critical psychological factors … during the astronaut selection process that may mitigate risk factors and enhance team performance.”

There is a lot to learn from this, even if you’re not planning to launch your team into space. Here are a few things NASA can teach us about hiring.

Understand your team to find the right person

Much of the way NASA works with teams today is related to the Hubble Disaster. Investigations following the incident laid the blame on miscommunication and poor team dynamics. As a result, former NASA Director of Astrophysics Charlie Pellerin created what is called the 4D system to help encourage diversity, openness, and understanding. To measure, benchmark, and predict behavior and performance, Pellerin developed a system that involved assessments, workshops, and coaching, all of which allowed NASA brass to get a better sense of their team members.

That might sound elaborate for a small business, but at its core, this is a fundamental lesson in team building: before you can start the recruiting and hiring process, you must understand your team.  Is there a personality type that is more prevalent? How does the manager like to work? What employees have been the most successful in that position? Once you’ve taken inventory of your team’s personalities and working styles, ask yourself, what traits should your ideal candidate have to best fit into your team? Do you need someone who is entrepreneurial and self-directed; someone who just figures things out? Or, do you need someone who is thorough, detailed, and works best in a structured environment?

Use interview questions to probe personality and behaviour 

Two whole years can go by from the time NASA advertises a job to when they’ve finally found a suitable candidate. The space agency holds an initial set of interviews to get a sense of personality. It then will assess applicants with field exercises and a second round of interviews, with psychiatrists actively looking for reasons to disqualify them. This is a long process of elimination that ensures the people selected can work with other people in risky and isolated environments.

“It’s challenging to pick astronauts for a lot of reasons, primarily because we are predicting behavior so far in the future,” Kelley Slack, a psychologist and member of NASA’s astronaut selection panel, told Space.com.”We’re looking for the ‘right stuff,’ but we’re also trying to get rid of people with the ‘wrong stuff,'” she said.

I don’t suggest submitting applicants to grueling psychologically tests, but the lesson here is to make the most of your time during the hiring process. Yes, we are often rushed when it comes to filling a position, but the more you understand a candidate, the more likely you will make the right hire. During the interview process, ask specific questions about a candidate’s experience with past team members and managers. For example: “Describe the best manager you’ve had, and what you liked most about him or her?”

Conversely, you could also ask: “If you were to take over that position, what would you do differently?”

The more questions like these you ask, the more you’ll get a sense of the applicant’s working style and personality type. But don’t just take their word for it! Ask for references! References can help you double check your assessment. If you want to know how a candidate reacts to stress, for example, consider asking references situation-specific questions, such as: “Can you walk me through an example of how this person operated in a stressful situation? Can you throw unexpected curve balls at him or her?”

Consider complimentary dynamics versus clashing opposites

In its Strategic Human Capital Implementation Plan, NASA stated that its “approach to teamwork is based on a philosophy that each team member brings unique experience and important expertise to project issues. Recognition of and openness to that insight improves the likelihood of identifying and resolving challenges to safety and mission success.” Do you envision a work environment like NASA’s, with unique experiences and perspectives coming together? Or do you want to build a more complimentary dynamic, with like-minded individuals and similar personalities? It’s often useful to have this sort of template in mind.

If members of your team are direct and straightforward, can a sensitive candidate with soft people skills handle that? Similarly, if a manager likes to micro-manage, can a free-flowing candidate adapt to a more structured, detail-oriented process? The answers to these questions can help guide your hiring decisions, ensuring your company boldly goes where it has not gone before.


Julie  Labrie is the president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions. After a decade and a half of recruiting top talent, she is a veteran in her field. Fluent in both English and French, Julie also provides bilingual placement and expertise. She works closely with both business and HR executives and job candidates, and can offer insights into the strategies, nuances and psychology of the hiring process.

See also:
Eight interview mistakes hiring managers make
What you need to stop asking in interviews (and what to ask instead)


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