3 Things to Watch for When Candidates Talk About Mistakes and Weaknesses

March 11, 2019

We’ve all sat across the table from candidates who weren’t able to be forthcoming with their mistakes and weaknesses. It’s never a good sign and it’s usually a deal-killer, especially when the issue is consistent and pronounced.

But sometimes we see only slight signs of concern. Let’s say you just finished interviewing an otherwise talented candidate for a senior position on your team. During your interview, the candidate discussed a minor conflict he had with a peer, and was not very forthcoming in acknowledging his own (rather obvious) contribution to the tension.

Perhaps this candidate is close enough to the mark?

“No,” one of your colleagues says, “it’s a clear sign that he tried to hide the truth from us, and honesty is one of our core values.” Another team member sees the situation quite differently: “I don’t think he was being deceptive, I think he just tends to focus on the positives and downplay the mistakes — it’s not a great thing, but it’s not deceptiveness.” And a third team member has a very different hunch: “I don’t think he forgot the mistake — he never realized he made one in the first place! I think it’s a fundamental lack of self-awareness.”

Which perspective is right? What’s the real difference between these three possible explanations, and how can we use our interview data to tell us what is actually going on? Let’s start by providing a working definition of each root cause.

  1. Lack of self-awareness is an inability to understand how we come across — a gap in our own reflective consciousness. It is, in essence, an inability to gather certain kinds of information about ourselves. When pronounced, it can stifle a person’s growth and lead to persistent performance issues, especially in roles that require a lot of teamwork and interpersonal engagement.
  2. Resistance to self-critique is a subtle but very real issue. This individual can detect signs that they are missing the mark in the moment, but will tend to selectively filter out or repress this information thereafter, because it threatens their sense of self. It is not an issue of information gathering, but rather one of information retention — a desire to avoid or delete evidence that conflicts with one’s identity. Such individuals may be able to perform well within their comfort zones, but over time their learning curve flattens (and relationships become strained) as missteps fade from memory and “constructive critique” is ignored.
  3. Deceptiveness is a deliberate attempt by a candidate to withhold information about his or her past during the interview itself, and it is arguably a fundamental issue of character. In essence, the candidate knows the truth but is simply unwilling to share it. To be fair, if a candidate exhibits a subtle tendency to “spin” negative information — particularly early in the interview — it may be understandable (it’s an interview, after all). However, obvious or repeated attempts to avoid talking about one’s faults is a very bad sign indeed.

How can we tell which factor is at play? There is no perfect science, of course, but there are several reliable guidelines I have discovered based on my assessments of hundreds of senior executives:

  • Candidates who lack self-awareness typically struggle to offer up both positive AND negative information about themselves in an interview. They can talk about an accomplishment or a mistake (the “facts”), but when you ask them to trace that back to specific qualities that they either possess or lack, they give you blank looks or a diagnosis that does not seem to fit the evidence. In extreme cases, there are warning signs in their in-room behavior, such as odd comments, unusual conduct, or an inability to respond to clear cues from the interviewer. But it is not necessary for a candidate to exhibit such behaviors for self-awareness to be a problem — many individuals with sub-par self-awareness have learned to present themselves quite normally by modeling others’ behaviors at a subconscious level.
  • Candidates who are resistant to self-critique display one or more of the following traits. First, they tend to have an easier time recalling mistakes and weaknesses from their recent history vs. their more distant past. The same is not true of their accomplishments and strengths — these come easily regardless of timeframe. Second, when they do mention mistakes and weaknesses, they may display subtle signs of distress in their words and nonverbal behaviors. Because they tend to personalize negative information, they react to it with defensiveness, blame, or withdrawal. Third, they rarely take strong ownership of the critique they do get — rather than putting together an action plan and soliciting ongoing feedback, they downplay it or move on to a new role/organization where they can start over with their erroneous self-concept intact.
  • A deceptive individual repeatedly deflects or spins their answers when asked about mistakes and weaknesses in their prior roles. Like the individual struggling with self-critique, they exhibit subtle signs of distress in the interview. Unlike those with self-critique issues, the deceiver’s distress does not come from discussing the content of their mistakes — it stems from their efforts to steer you away from the topic altogether. The deceptive candidate will often be very quick to reply to your question about a mistake or weakness. They are ready to throw out a decoy and hope you will take the bait. These come in the form of “strengths disguised as weaknesses” (“I work too hard”), irrelevant weaknesses (“I’m terrible at golf”), or negative outcomes that always seem to be a result of others’ actions or “politics.” And in the end, their story does not seem to add up — expectations and targets change, job transitions don’t make sense, and self-perceptions appear mismatched with actual performance.

None of these three traits is an attractive quality, of course. And the truth is, we all possess kernels of these attributes in ourselves, even if only in small degrees. It’s important to understand the distinctions between them, especially when the magnitude is small, so that you can increase the accuracy of your hiring decisions.

Once you have used these guidelines to determine which factor(s) are at play, there is an obvious question as to whether or not this should eliminate the candidate from consideration.There is no single algorithm that applies to every hiring situation, but it is critical to consider (1) the magnitude of the issue and (2) the relevance to the role in question. For example, you may be comfortable with slightly sub-optimal self-awareness, particularly if the role does not involve frequent and/or potentially tense touch-points with important stakeholders. Similarly, you may be comfortable with an otherwise highly-talented and motivated candidate who occasionally struggles with self-critique, particularly if the role will not involve a massive learning curve. If there is any question on these points, however, I recommend a negative bias — the cost of a bad hire always exceeds the cost of continuing your search.

Deceptiveness, however, is an area I suggest making no compromises once you are certain that's the issue. If you have (1) asked a candidate for mistakes or weaknesses from a place of true curiosity, (2) politely re-directed when the candidate tried to deflect and then (3) faced a second or third deflection thereafter, this is a red flag. Do not “call the candidate out” or stop the interview, but make a note of the issue and be prepared to discuss it with the rest of the interviewing team. And take heart — you have just avoided a costly hiring mistake!

Need to train your teams on hiring and interviewing skills? Visit Jordan Burton's website at www.burtonadvisorsllc.com.

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