You’re Rescuing Others and It’s Killing Your Interviews

In observing an interview on-site with a client earlier this month I recognized a disturbing trend across everyone in the organization that, upon further research, is happening in nearly every company and in every interview. When asking someone a tough question, instead of waiting for a response, the interviewer is rescuing them.


We’ve modeled our interview process on the best practices of Topgrading® and they all start with:

  1. In your most recent role, what was the situation when you accepted the position with respect to talent, resources, systems and efficiency?
  2. What were your top 2 or 3 responsibilities?
  3. What were your top 1 or 2 accomplishments?
  4. What are the 2 mistakes that you made in the role or what would you do differently if you were starting that role again today?

What we’ve witnessed is that nearly everyone is more than willing to answer the first three questions – and when asked in this order, they feel more and more confident as you give them permission “brag” about themselves. However, when you get to the 4th question, a significant number of candidates (whether for fear of appearing weak or not wanting to have to talk about the tough parts) will respond with, “You know, I can’t think of anything.”


Because interviews are often scheduled for 30 or 60 minutes at most companies, hiring managers and interviewers often feel like there’s a ticking clock that doesn’t allow them to stop and wait and (this is the hard part) endure the awkwardness of silence. Yet throughout history, the top business leaders are in agreement that our greatest learning opportunities happen when we are making mistakes – not when things are going really well.


To learn more about the skill of the skill of purposely allowing candidates to struggle, I interviewed Christopher Mursau, the Vice President of Smart & Associates in Chicago, IL.


JDavis: What’s the benefit of letting someone struggle through a tough question?


CMursau: It sets the stage early on that you’re going to ask the questions that allow them to give positives but you also need to know about the negatives and you’re not going to let them off the hook. It’s important that they understand that when you ask them a question they need to answer it honestly and if they need some time to think – that’s ok!


JDavis: How have you learned to be patient during these difficult stretches of an interview?


CMursau: It depends on where we are in an interview – if I’m talking about someone’s career when they were just coming out of college and they can’t think of a mistake that they made (in a position from 20 years ago) I’ll often use the opportunity to let it slide to get to know them a little better. I’m also starting to “train” them about what’s coming up in future questioning – that’s why it’s called a CIDS Interview (Author’s Note: CIDS = Comprehensive, In-Depth, Structured)


There’s a difference between pushing and building rapport. Ultimately, I want the candidate to give me their best and honest answers about their most recent positions. If they’ve had 5 jobs in their career, I might let them off the hook on the 1st one but the next 4 jobs (leading up to the present day) I’m going to be more patient and more insistent on them answering the tough questions. Because I’ll ask the questions in the format you mentioned above about every position, the person I’m interviewing realizes quickly that it’s going to be awkward for them and unacceptable to me when they say, “I don’t remember” twice in a row about the same difficult question.


JDavis: How much significance do you give to the questions around admitting weakness or owning up to mistakes?


CMursau: Incredibly significant – it’s possibly the earliest warning sign for me of an interview that won’t end well. When someone is unwilling to talk about weaknesses or mistakes, it’s been my experience that they won’t respond to constructive criticism, they’ll be hard to coach and more often than not they’ll be prone to blaming others when something goes wrong. When someone has shallow insights into their strengths and weaknesses I seldom advise a company to hire that person.


JDavis: What counsel would you give to an interviewer to help them deal with the candidate who can’t find it within themselves to share the mistakes that they made?


CMursau: Give the candidate opportunities. Ask the question around the mistakes about 3 straight jobs (if they struggle twice in a row, try asking it in a slightly different way the 3rd time). Employ the “pregnant pause”. If, after the third time they can’t think of anything, it’s likely they have low self-awareness. When this is present, I’ve found it to be a leading indicator of a lot of other red flags and the likelihood of that person being a fit for your company is very, very low. I’d strongly encourage someone to end the interview if the candidate shows lack of awareness about 3 consecutive roles in their career.


Chris completed his undergraduate degree in psychology at The University of Wisconsin, and his MBA at St. Thomas University. He joined Smart & Associates, Inc. in 2001 and provides the full range of professional services.

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