Want to Recruit Top Talent - Focus on These Three Weaknesses

Want to Recruit Top Talent? Focus on These Three Weaknesses

Published 15th June 2017

CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems and Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University; Pederson is Director, Asia Pacific Business Development, Global Alliances at Hogan Assessment Systems.

Published 15th June 2017

Most companies focus their hiring strategies on strengths or what candidates can do. They assess the qualities and skills that are supposed to enhance job performance, and subsequently test whether candidates are likely to display those qualities once on the job. But why are companies focused on hiring based on weaknesses?

There are millions of different jobs in the world today spanning many different borders. While each company has its own culture, which contributes to a wide range of potential variability in what employers actually want, at the end of the day all strong candidates look rather similar, in that they are generally more rewarding to deal with, more able, and more willing to work hard. Now, different countries may have slightly different ways of expressing these concepts, and employers may use many different names for what they want (e.g., grit, agility, EQ, IQ, and entrepreneurship), but essentially, what they always need is ability, likability, and drive.

But while these three core competencies predict future job performance and career success with remarkable accuracy across a number of cultural contexts, they do not tell the full story about a candidate’s potential. In fact, no matter how attractive a candidate’s bright side may be, they will also always have a dark side, defined as the set of undesirable and counterproductive characteristics that hinder the person’s ability to do the job well, mostly because of their disruptive effects on others. The bright side of talent predicts positive career outcomes (e.g., teamwork, engagement, performance, and leadership effectiveness), but the dark side predicts derailment and failure (e.g., coasting, underperformance, antisocial behaviors, etc.). In short, when evaluating candidates it’s essential to consider their weaknesses, for not all flaws are created equal.

Interestingly, many employers ask candidates to report on their weaknesses during job interviews. However, such questions only assess the candidates’ social skills and preparation – they are actually an invitation to fake modesty or disguise additional strengths as weaknesses. When asked about their worst habits or character traits, astute candidates may confess to being “a perfectionist”, “too altruistic”, or “too humble”. They then provide a personal anecdote to pretend that those qualities are not as good as people think in the hope that interviewers fail to believe it. In contrast, if candidates genuinely listed their faults –  being lazy, grumpy, selfish, or dim – they may at best gain the interviewers’ sympathy and possibly some brownie points for honesty, but their likelihood of landing the job would be reduced to zero. Because most people would decline an invitation to hang themselves, employers can easily eliminate the candidates who foolishly accept the invitation to expose their true weaknesses.

Although we are reluctant to be honest about the existence of weaknesses in candidates, at the end of the day some types of flaws are still preferable to others. Thus if you want to ensure that you hire people with the best profile, it is essential that you assess the whole person, including both strengths and weaknesses, instead of pretending that the person is flawless. The key to success hiring people with the least problematic weaknesses. In order, here are the three best flaws a candidate may have:

Conformism: The trends in the global markets have let us to celebrate “originals” and iconoclasts, but no organization (or society) could function if such individuals made up the majority. In fact, any collective system requires the bulk of its people to follow rules and norms, and while employers say they need innovators and disruptors, what they really want is people who will do what they are told. The traditional competencies that the global markets have constantly criticized Asian companies for -  “obedience”, “dutifulness”, or “conformist” – are actually beneficial for the long-term stability and growth of companies. In fact, a great deal of psychological research suggests that rule-bound and conscientious individuals tend to perform better, even when they are leaders (presumably because they can still please their bosses). As I show in my latest book, a large number of bosses would rather promote obedient and easy-going employees than talented but difficult ones – and in fact they actually do.  

Attention seeking: Although we are fascinated by attention seeking leaders, the common view is that great employees and leaders let their achievements speak for themselves. If two people are equally talented or productive, we assume we would prefer the one who avoids self-promotion and, even better, seems humble or modest. Modesty has been a virtue in Confucian societies for ages, and we assume that the best leaders should be the role-models for unassuming achievements. Yet meta-analytic studies show that attention-seeking individuals tend to emerge more often as leaders, and they are also often perceived as better, more effective leaders in 360-degree feedbacks. Jack Ma is an example of an attention seeker who is perceived as a great leader. The risk, however, is that many attention seeking candidates may also be narcissistic and arrogant which can be damaging. The best case scenario is someone who enjoys performing and being the center of attention but without actually being self-obsessed or entitled. In other words, an altruistic exhibitionist; a leader who develops a highly visible individual brand, but is concerned about the welfare of those she or he manages.

Dishonesty: While pathological dishonesty is harmful, particularly when coupled with low integrity, in small doses little white lies are not too problematic. sIn fact, people who are brutally honest, seeing everything in terms of black and white will struggle more in their careers than those who are able to see things in many different shades of colours.  Furthermore, “dishonest” people are often more creative, because lying actually requires creativity and imagination. The premise that we should “just be ourselves” is both naïve and foolish. Being oneself concerns acting without inhibitions or constraints, as we do when we are at home relaxing or watching TV with our family. The ideal employee is capable of both exercising diplomacy and adhering to the social etiquette, and this requires the ability to be somewhat dishonest in a clever way: e.g.,complimentingg people on their hard work  (especially when they really tried hard) despite the fact that they did not do a good job ; telling your boss that she had a great idea when in fact she did not while finessing the idea to actually become workable; and of course, making a client feel that they are the most important person in the world when in fact you cannot stand them. The fundamental social role of civilization is to suppress our unrestrained self so that we behave like a better version of ourselves instead. As Laozi said: When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

In short, when selecting employees, make sure you remember to look at both the yin and the yang of a person to grasp the full picture.  Pick those who are able, likable, and driven, but also make sure that they have the best possible flaws. A bit of dishonesty, attention seeking, and obedience may not be the best, but probably is not the worst either. 

This article is adapted from Why You Need to Hire Job Candidates with These Three Weaknesses.

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