The F-Word Missing From Many Interviews

A focus on success during conversations with candidates often obscures their most important qualities.

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Nov 6, 2023

While it might seem counterintuitive, focusing only on a candidate’s successes during a job interview doesn’t always give the deepest insight into their capabilities. Overemphasizing triumphs can often obscure the qualities and experiences — like resilience, grit, and drive — that truly make a successful employee.

When asked about their accomplishments, candidates tend to highlight moments where everything went smoothly, sidestepping discussions about the challenges and obstacles faced along the way. But understanding how a candidate navigates failure or handles challenging situations can be as valuable, if not more so, than knowing about their successes.

That’s a difficult concept for many recruiters and hiring managers. After all, most of us would rather spend our time with glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty people.

Research shows that the leadership style that employees most enjoy is someone who believes in the positive potential of everyone around them. A report on employee surveys found that low optimism is one of the major drivers of burnout. But while optimism, potential, and all those other glass-half-full characteristics are terrific in our daily lives, when it comes to hiring, we need to dig into the challenges, failures, and mistakes that candidates have experienced.

The easiest way to start is by eliminating a few words from most interview questions. Take a question like, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work and how you overcame it.” By adding those five words to the end of the question (“and how you overcame it”), the interviewer explicitly tells the candidate not to talk about the mistakes they couldn’t overcome. It sends the message that we don’t want to hear about the gut-wrenching mistakes; rather, we just want the mistakes that were easily overcome.

But which of those mistakes (i.e., the gut-wrenching mistake or the one easily overcome) will reveal more about the candidate? Which story will tell you more about a candidate’s resilience and drive?

By simply eliminating those five words at the end of the question, you could learn exponentially more about what really makes this candidate tick. Those little phrases at the end of interview questions are shockingly common, however. A report on behavioral interview questions finds that four out of five hiring managers don’t notice those flaws in their questions.

You don’t have to pose absurdly difficult questions, like asking candidates to describe their most painful professional moment or the mistake that has stuck with them throughout their career. Just getting rid of the words and phrases at the end of most interview questions is enough to stop biasing the question in favor of only sharing successes.

In addition to obscuring resilience and grit, asking candidates to share only their successes limits your ability to learn about the candidate’s self-awareness, capacity for self-reflection, and humility.

For instance, take this real-life answer a candidate gave when asked, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work.”

“Once, I made a hasty decision that caused a production halt. Initially, I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed, realizing a colleague could have quickly resolved the issue. This experience was humbling and insightful. I learned the importance of seeking assistance and not allowing stress to cloud my judgment. It was a growth opportunity in decision-making and emotional self-regulation.”

The candidate openly acknowledges making a mistake, demonstrating humility and accountability. And by expressing how they felt overwhelmed and embarrassed, they’re showing emotional awareness and vulnerability. But notice their response isn’t only about their mistake; their answer highlights learning and growth, turning the negative experience into a positive.

You’ll still hear about candidates’ successes, but you don’t need to ask about them directly. Start by asking about their mistakes, times they received tough feedback, times they faced competing priorities, or when they had to make a tough decision. You’ll be much more likely to hear about candidates’ struggles and the extent to which they have humility, accountability, and self-awareness. And for those who continue their answer unprompted to share how they overcame that mistake, you’ll quickly discover their resilience and drive.

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