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 this concern. Let’s say you just finished interviewing a new candidate for your senior team. During your interview the candidate discussed a conflict he had with a key peer, and was not very forthcoming in mentioning his own contribution to the tension. Perhaps this candidate is close enough to the mark? “No,” one of your colleagues remarks, “it’s a clear sign that he tried to hide the truth, and honesty is central to our values as a company.” But another team member sees the situation quite differently: “Maybe he wasn’t being deceptive, maybe he just tends to focus on the positives and forgets the lessons learned—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 lesson learned—he never even got it in the first place. It’s a fundamental lack of self-awareness.”
What’s the real difference between these diagnoses, and how can we use our interview data to tell us what is actually going on? Let’s start by providing a practical definition of each.
- Lack of self-awareness is an inability to understand how we come across, a deficiency in our own reflective consciousness. It is, in essence, an inability to gather certain kinds of information. It can stifle a person’s growth path and lead to persistent performance issues, especially in roles that require a lot of teamwork and interpersonal engagement.
- Resistance to self-critique is a subtle but very real issue. The candidate knows how he or she is coming across in the moment, but tends to selectively filter out or even repress the negative feedback over time, because it threatens his or her self-concept. It is not a matter of information, but rather of emotion and identity. This person may have an easier time relating to and connecting with others in the short term, but over time relationships can become strained and the individual’s learning curve can flatten.
- Deceptiveness is a deliberate attempt by a candidate to withhold information about his or her past, and it is (arguably) a fundamental issue of character. The candidate knows the truth but is unwilling to share it.
How can we tell which factor is at play? As with anything involving humans, there is no perfect science, but here are some guidelines that I have found based on my assessments with 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 the accomplishment or the mistake (the “facts”), but when you ask them to trace that back to specific qualities that they either possess or lack, they either give you blank looks, or a diagnosis that does not seem to fit the evidence. In the worst cases, there are clear signals in their in-room behavior (i.e. they are oblivious as to how they come across). But it is not necessary for a candidate to exhibit strange behaviors for self-awareness to be a problem—many individuals with sub-par self-awareness have learned how to interact well with others, even if only by subconsciously detecting cues from others.
- 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 weakness from their recent history vs. their distant past, even though 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 respond to it through 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 periodic feedback, they downplay it or (if it’s bad enough) move on to a new role/organization where they can start anew.
- A deceptive individual dodges and deflects consistently when asked about mistakes and weaknesses. Like the individual struggling with self-critique, they exhibit subtle signs of distress in the interview—but their distress is not from discussing their mistakes, it’s from their efforts to avoid the topic altogether! Unlike the others, the deceptive candidate is often quick to reply to your question about a mistake or weakness—they have a decoy in their pocket and they are ready to throw it out, hoping you will take the bait. They often share “strengths disguised as weaknesses” and “mistakes” that always seem to be due to others’ actions or to “politics.” And in the end, their story does not seem to add up—expectations and targets change, job transitions don’t make sense, and boss feedback seems mismatched with performance.
None of these three traits is an attractive quality of course. But the truth is, we all possess kernels of these attributes in ourselves, even if only in very small degrees. It’s important to understand the distinctions between these traits, especially when the magnitude is small, so that you can be confident in your eventual hiring decision.