When I was building a team at a startup earlier in my career, our investors, advisors and I developed what appeared to be a bulletproof recruiting strategy. Our advisory group collectively had more than 100 years of experience in operating companies. But despite the wealth of expertise behind our hiring process, I learned an important lesson the hard way: Even the most rigorous hiring strategy is only as strong as the decision maker’s biggest blind spot.
“Elliot”, a media professional I interviewed, was articulate, energetic and showed a natural affinity for our product. His credentials were solid and – crucially – he was willing to take a stock position rather than a high salary. For a startup this was a big factor. We hired him.*
But in recommending this decision, I overlooked a few red flags. In particular, Elliot admitted to leaving a trail of burnt bridges with former employers and was convinced that he had repeatedly been the victim of ungrateful bosses and bad environments. He did not make a good impression on our lead investor and his own references spoke neutrally of him. But he had what I thought mattered: passion and potential. I thought I could fix the rest.
Elliot eventually caused numerous problems for the company. We believe he stole information, lied and destroyed intellectual property. While we couldn’t have foreseen the magnitude of this behavior, we dismissed warning signs from the get-go. Our problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge about hiring best practices – it was my own blind spot. I downplayed the risk and thought we could rehabilitate this haunted candidate and unleash his potential. So, despite the warning signs and concerns of a major investor, I made the recommendation to get him on board.
Having worked with and mentored by dozens of leaders and founders, I know I’m not alone. Nearly every hiring manager has a blind spot that, if left unidentified, can lead to devastating consequences, even within well-planned systems. Over time, I’ve identified five of the most common blind spots that compromise recruiting results.
Repair and Rescue
This was my blind spot with Elliot, and one that is common among founders and other entrepreneurial leaders. Entrepreneurs are naturally more likely than average to believe that they can make huge changes. This can extend to an overconfidence in their ability to “evolve” employees, even in the face of evidence that a person lacks the requisite character traits for growth, such as responsibility and openness to feedback. A superstar sports coach rehabilitating a talented yet self-destructive athlete makes for good television, but the reality is that most hiring managers don’t have the resources, skills, or time to reform troubled employees.
In addition to over-confidence in their problem-solving abilities, entrepreneurs are also vulnerable to this pattern because of their tight budgets. They are often looking for a deal, and a candidate willing to take a significant portion of their salary in stock is just that. Leaders who are proud of their organization assume that the motivation of the individual is their passion for the company. They will overlook the possibility that other reasons could prompt someone to take a step back financially — including a lack of options.
Recognizing this blind spot in yourself, one of the best ways to mitigate the danger is the obvious but underused: Don’t just make hiring decisions. Seek a second opinion. If you already have a second opinion, don’t make my mistake – listen to it.
“Emily,” a CEO of a tech startup, found her business in jeopardy when her product experienced a massive feature flaw in beta testing. No one on her team had criticized before the launch. She didn’t understand how this was possible. But Emily admitted that she only hired people who showed boundless enthusiasm in interviews. She considered candidates who praised the product too little as ‘not passionate enough’.
As a result, she overlooked contrarian candidates, the exact people who list problems, even if they do, are not popular. A study from Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management warns that leaders who “develop heightened hubris through high levels of such unfriendly behavior” are less likely to “initiate necessary strategic change.” Emily, who mixed validation with passion, was a great example of this.
If you have a blind spot seeking validation, otherwise known as affect-based decision-making, realize that pointing out flaws takes passion. It requires attention, analysis and the courage to speak. Compliments are easy. Don’t overlook the candidates who make thought-provoking criticisms of your company, even if your knee-jerk reaction is to fire them.
“Anna,” a marketing executive, believed a selling point for job applicants was that her team was “like a family” — at least until a co-worker admitted the team resented how much time Anna spent helping “Jill,” one of her own. direct colleagues. reports, navigating her divorce. There was always something wrong with Jill – with her partner, her parents, her social life, her car – and Anna felt it her duty to give in to these ’emergencies’, often at the expense of the rest of the team, who the slack.
Anna recalled how Jill was drawn to the idea of a close-knit team during the interview process. What Anna failed to understand is that there is a time and place for empathy. Empathy can make a good leader a great leader, but it can also be misapplied.
When describing her team as a family, Anna thought she signaled an empathetic culture to job applicants. But language like ‘we are a family’ or ‘we are always there for each other no matter what’ actually indicates a lack of professional boundaries.
If you find yourself attracting pompous candidates who monopolize everyone’s time, take note of what overly personalized language you may be using. Also, be wary of over-sharing by candidates, especially when they present personal stories as mitigating factors for recurring problems at work.
Most people accept, at least in theory, that micromanagement is an undesirable practice rooted in self-doubt and insecurity. Nevertheless, many leaders still signal a micro-managed culture to candidates as they recruit them. Self-determination, autonomy and a strong internal locus of control inspire the creative impulse. Enterprising people need the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, and challenge deep-seated assumptions.
Thus, a hiring manager who hints at heavy oversight during the hiring process is likely to attract candidates who tolerate inflexible environments well—those who lack passion, aren’t very committed, prefer linear work, and aren’t very driven.
If you find yourself struggling to attract and hire self-directed, creative people, it’s worth considering the signals you’re sending out. Consider whether you are perhaps overemphasizing rules and procedures, glorifying hierarchy or the org chart, or suggesting that all conflict (some of which can be productive) is undesirable.
“Jamie,” a healthcare leader, was forced to fire someone she hired after he bullied colleagues. This wasn’t the first time Jamie’s mercenary didn’t get along with the team, and she didn’t understand how it could happen again. Upon review, we realized that Jamie touted ‘total freedom’ in interviews as a hallmark of company culture, telling candidates that she would only step in when necessary, so as not to get in their way.
Jamie thought she was a signal that she wasn’t micromanaging. But according to colleagues, she telegraphed instead that she didn’t really care.
While hands-off management can show your team you trust them, emotional distance tells people they’re on their own. Research indicates that teams with an absent leader often feel like they are in a sink or swimming environment, which can become a breeding ground for unhealthy conflict. A laissez-faire leadership style creates a vacuum that allows bullies to thrive. Jamie had never considered that her interview style attracted power seekers rather than team players.
Going too far with the “you’re on your own, good luck” messages can also cause a transaction group to want to clock in and out of individuals and not be harassed. If this is your team, consider balancing independence messages with the reassurance that a strong network and committed leadership are in place.
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All these blind spots are harmful, not only because of who they attract, but also because of what they cause you to miss out on. Every time a leader brings in a team member who has no responsibility or is not involved or a bully, the rest of the team pays the price. With a little self-reflection and an honest assessment of the mistakes that can lead to repeated hiring violations, managers can nip many of these patterns in the bud — and start noticing the superstars they’ve passed.
* Some details have been changed for privacy reasons.
This post 5 Ways Managers Are Sabotaging the Hiring Process was original published at “https://hbr.org/2022/03/5-ways-managers-sabotage-the-hiring-process”