To Eliminate Hiring Failures, Stop Being So Optimistic

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Mar 31, 2021

I’m pretty certain that you’re optimistic, confident, self-efficacious, and resilient; those are essential characteristics to achieve success. And while I would never tell anyone not to embrace those wonderful traits, surprisingly, they can hinder your ability to hire effectively.

In a thorough interview, candidates will generally let slip a few of their more worrying traits. Their lack of focus, fragility, or negativity will typically appear in their interview answers. The signs may be subtle, but they’ll be there.

Yet unfocused, fragile, and negative people are regularly sailing through interviews and getting hired. Don’t interviewers notice these warning signs?

It turns out that interviewers do notice these worrying traits. But because of their optimism and confidence, hiring managers often downplay those concerns, thinking, “I can fix those traits; the person just needs a good manager, like me.”

In the study “Why New Hires Fail,” we discovered that 89% of hiring failures result from candidates’ attitudes, not their lack of technical skills. And perhaps most shocking, when we asked hiring managers if they noticed candidates’ poor attitudes during the interview, 82% of interviewers admitted that the warning signs were noticeable.

In other words, hiring managers do see a candidate’s disquieting tendencies. But because good managers are possessed of an optimistic problem-solver mindset, they’re confident in their ability to improve a flawed candidate. Interviewers can sometimes devalue candidates’ flaws because they’re so desperate to get a position filled, but they still need optimism to believe those flaws are surmountable.

Again, I’m not telling you to stop being optimistic; it’s an incredibly beneficial life skill. In fact, our study on optimism discovered that highly-optimistic employees are 103% more likely to love their jobs.

But when you’re interviewing candidates, you’ll want to dial back your optimism a bit. Specifically, rather than approaching an interview looking for reasons why you should hire someone, you need to start searching for reasons not to hire this candidate.

This is a seemingly subtle shift in our interviewing mindset, but it’s a critical change. Many hiring managers approach interviews with an unconscious hope that this will be the right candidate so they can cease the arduous hiring process. While that’s a natural hope (none of us like the laboriousness of the typical hiring process), it’s a recipe for confirmation bias and terrible hires.

Confirmation bias is searching for and interpreting information in a way that supports our prior beliefs or values, while also ignoring or dismissing contradictory data. For example, if my optimism, self-efficacy, and confidence lead me to think that I can coach any employee regardless of their flaws, I’m going to dismiss candidates’ weaknesses. If I enter an interview thinking, “This candidate has a good resume; this should be a good fit,” I’m unlikely to ask questions that could potentially reveal an alarming flaw. And if I’m interviewing a candidate with the hope that I can bring an end to a grueling hiring process, I’m going to focus on the candidate’s strengths while ignoring their weaknesses.

However, the truth is that bad hires cause much more pain for you than great hires please you. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve experienced meetings where it took only one negative employee to ruin the experience. Even in a meeting full of positive people, one person with a really bad attitude can suck the energy out of the room. And think about how much time your company’s leaders spend managing (and dreading) their bad-attitude employees.

Of course, we’d love our hiring process to generate an abundance of star hires with great attitudes. But if we don’t first take steps to eliminate the poor hires — that is, the candidates with bad attitudes virtually guaranteed to make our lives miserable — we’ve never going to reap the benefits of great hires.

So here’s where you should start: First, review your past five to 10 bad hires and make a list of the characteristics that caused their failure. Were they negative? Not a team player? Couldn’t handle multiple priorities? Whatever the causes, write those down.

Second, think through the interviews you had with each of them. Did you see any signs or hints that they were negative or unfocused? If you’re brutally honest with yourself, you’ll be able to see those subtle (or obvious) tells that this candidate had flaws.

Third, and this might be the most painful step, figure out why you didn’t pay attention to those warning signs. Were you too optimistic that you could correct those worrying traits? Were you overly fatigued with interviews? Whatever the cause, that’s the issue you’ll need to correct moving forward.

It’s not an easy exercise; I’ve personally let my optimism and confidence override my concerns about a candidate. But if you’re willing to briefly be more critical and less optimistic, to look for flaws rather than confirmation, you can spare yourself a great deal of the pain that comes from failed hires.

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