Considering Candidate Flaws in Interviews

The importance of valuing candidates who disclose, not hide, their imperfections.

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Mar 4, 2024

Identifying the best candidates for your organization paradoxically means looking for individuals who are willing to reveal their flaws during the interview process. While it may seem counterintuitive, there are compelling reasons to value this transparency.

First, candidates who present themselves as flawless are often those who resort to speaking in absolutes, using words like “always” and “never.” This tendency can be a red flag, suggesting a candidate might lack honesty, struggle with complex situations, or be unable to navigate nuanced situations. In fact, one study found that poorly-rated job candidates spoke in absolutes twice as frequently as their more highly-rated peers.

Suppose you asked a candidate to describe a time when they received tough feedback. Now imagine they responded with, “I’ve never gotten tough feedback because I’m always in tune with my boss, and the quality of all my work is top-notch.”

This response doesn’t sound particularly sincere. They’ve never gotten tough feedback? And if their response is accurate, does this sound like a candidate who’s going to respond well if they do happen to receive tough feedback in the future?

Second, the admission of flaws is integral to demonstrating a candidate’s capacity for growth and learning. In a world where adaptability and resilience are key, candidates who can identify, articulate, and work on their weaknesses show potential for personal and professional development. These qualities are essential for emotional intelligence and signify a candidate who can evolve with their role and contribute meaningfully over time.

Moreover, the ability to recognize and articulate one’s flaws in a constructive manner is a sign of self-awareness and coachability. From the Hiring for Attitude research, we know that coachability — or the lack thereof — is one of the top predictors of a new hire’s success or failure. Encouraging candidates to share their flaws allows you to gauge their self-awareness and willingness to engage in continuous improvement.

Imagine you asked a candidate to describe a time that their idea or opinion was rejected. Here’s an actual response a candidate gave to that question:

“Whenever you are part of a team, at some point, your idea or opinion will be rejected. I cannot recall a single instance where my idea or opinion was rejected in such a way that left an impression on me. I believe that this is part of the collaborative nature of teams.”

Not only does the candidate fail to fully answer the question, but their unwillingness to talk about an instance of rejection raises some serious red flags.

First, it’s safe to assume that this person struggles with being coachable. Coachability requires an individual to be receptive to feedback, criticism, and the possibility of change or improvement. By not recalling any specific instance of rejection, the candidate fails to demonstrate their experience with receiving and responding to feedback. In a typical collaborative environment, feedback and idea rejection are common; how one responds to these situations illustrates coachability.

Second, self-awareness involves understanding one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and driving forces. It also includes recognizing how one’s actions and behaviors are perceived by others. The candidate’s inability to recall an instance of rejection suggests a lack of self-awareness or a reluctance to acknowledge and discuss past challenges or failures. An answer that shows recognition of and reflection on past rejections would demonstrate greater self-awareness and the ability to critically assess one’s own ideas and actions within a team context.

Third, personal growth typically stems from facing challenges, including having one’s ideas rejected and learning from these experiences. Growth entails understanding what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to adapt in the future. Not providing an example of a rejected idea raises questions about their willingness to grow from difficult or challenging experiences and whether they can apply learned lessons to future situations.

When you value and probe for candidates’ willingness to disclose their flaws, you not only get a more authentic view of their character but also gain insights into their potential for growth, adaptability, and long-term contribution to your organization. Every single person you have or will ever hire has made mistakes. Your goal in interviews is to both surface those mistakes and assess whether the candidate was able to turn flaws into something better.

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