On opening day, Minnesota Twins center-fielder Denard Span struck out three times in five at bats (in an 0-5 effort). If that is the only time you ever see him play, you might draw the conclusion that “Span can’t hit the curve ball” or “Span can’t hit against right-handed pitching”. Based solely on the first game of the 2010 season, you might write him off as a terrible hitter with no future in the big leagues. Only if you either a) continue to watch him over the course of the season, or b) look back at his last year’s statistics, would you realize that he’s a good hitter (.311 batting average last year in 578 at bats). In other words, you need to seek out context to know if what you have seen is truly an indicator of future success.
Conducting an interview is a lot like watching only the first baseball game of the season. If we don’t work hard to see the complete picture of a candidate, we can easily allow ourselves to jump to conclusions that are inaccurate at best, or unfair to candidates (and hiring teams) at worst.
Human nature dictates that when we begin to form an opinion of something, or someone, we attempt to prove ourselves correct. For example, if I meet someone and find them to be somewhat rude, I will likely subconsciously try to find more examples of that rudeness to validate my initial judgment. We like to believe that our initial judgments are correct, but this natural path of attempting to prove ourselves correct is a dangerous one during a job interview.
I’ve seen far too many managers pounce on a less-than-perfect answer during an interview in an effort to validate an initial opinion of “this candidate won’t succeed here based on that single response”. They’ll jump on that “bad” answer and then ask another question in an attempt to bury the candidate based on that single negative. Instead of attempting to railroad the candidate into “proving” an inadequacy, I believe it is absolutely required of effective interviewers to instead seek out “Contrary Evidence”.
Rather than hearing something that seems negative during an interview and then trying to prove it is a negative, interviewers should instead give the candidate a chance to demonstrate that it isn’t a negative at all. Did the candidate just tell a story that included a negative outcome? Ask him or her about a similar situation in which there was a positive result. Did the candidate just “miss” on a question you’ve asked? Give them another chance with a follow-up question.
As employees we all have strengths and weaknesses that will be apparent on a day to day basis. We don’t get everything right the first time. Imagine if our co-workers just assume that an error we make means we’re terrible at our jobs? Thankfully they are typically willing to consider our failures in the greater context of our successes. We should afford interviewees the same opportunity. If they give us a glimpse of a weakness, we should dig deeper to find the context that might actually show greater success. In other words, we need to make sure we’re making an accurate read of the candidate’s ability to contribute (or not) to the hiring organization. We cannot do that if we allow initial answers/reactions to dictate our overall evaluation of their abilities.
A year in the life of a career is like a baseball season – it’s a long grind. We should not let one bad answer in an interview lead us to believe the person is a terrible fit. Instead interviewers MUST work hard to seek contrary evidence – to see if the candidate really might be a great fit despite a swing-and-a-miss during the interview.