How to Fix the Biggest Mistake Interviewers Make

Summary: The biggest mistake interviewers make is to accept generalities (“I could communicate better”). The fix is to probe for specifics. This article presents some standard “fixes” plus a powerful, original fix. These practical techniques make probing so effective you can arrive at penetrating, accurate conclusions about candidates.

Background: There are now about 30 Topgrading Professionals who have conducted more than 1,000 Topgrading Interviews each (I stopped counting at 6,500), and together we all have observed tens of thousands of managers in interviews as they practice in Topgrading Workshops and in tandem Topgrading Interviews we conduct with CEOs. So we constantly coach interviewers on their interviewing techniques.

The easy interviewer mistakes to spot are “leading the witness” (“You say you were a bit disorganized in that job; how did you improve?”), not using the interviewee’s name (so the interview seems cold), and not taking enough notes (so that after the interview the interviewer relies way too much on memory of what the candidate said).

Accepting generalities is the biggest interviewer mistake. When interviewers do not probe deeply enough, they accept generalities such as, “I could improve my people skills“ (everyone could!); my decision making needs some work” (no one is a perfect decision maker); or “My boss criticized my communications skills” (everyone could improve at communications). This could mean a lot of things:

  • I am usually late in performance appraisals.
  • I’m too blunt when asking peers to embrace a change initiative.
  • I keep him in the dark about serious issues.
  • My emails are too lengthy.
  • My speeches are uninspiring.
  • I tend to explain how to build a watch rather than respond directly to his questions.
  • I don’t edit written communications enough.
  • I’m too defensive rather than admitting mistakes.
  • When implementing change, I don’t communicate enough with enough of my peers.
  • I share confidential information and put the company at risk.
  • I’m verbose.
  • I don’t say enough in meetings.
  • Etc.

How to fix “accepting generalities.”  Let’s stay with this example – and offer time-tested fixes.

C(andidate):  My boss criticized my communications skills.
Y(ou):  What would she say were your communications strengths and weaker points?”
C:  I keep everyone well informed and I’m an award-winning public speaker.
Y:  Great! How exactly did she want you to communicate better?
C:  It was my communications with my peers.
Y:  In what specific ways did your boss want you to communicate better with peers?
C:  I guess I tend to be a little direct at times.
A:  Like what times?
C:  Most of the time I get along great with peers. Some are my best friends.
A:  And what about the other times?
C:  Ok, the CEO has announced a major organizational change that I led. I explained it well to everyone, but then when some peers were just not getting it, well, my communications tended to get a little terse.
A:  And blunt? (it’s okay to “lead the witness” toward a negative admission)
C:  Yeah, I guess so.
A:  Suppose we had a video of your being too blunt. Here (point to the wall) is the screen. Describe exactly what we’d be seeing and hearing. (People under 40 are video oriented and easily relate to this probe that asks them to place themselves in a video).
C:  Ok, I was sort of kidding, but Pat Smith was a week late with a report, so in a video you’d see me pointing to my iPhone calendar and saying, a little sarcastically, “Pat’s report is due today. And then I said, “Not tomorrow, not next month or next year, but today! And I’d hate to tell the CEO I missed my deadline because YOU missed YOURS.” I guess my playful jab kinda turned into bluntness.

Conclusions: When candidates say something that is vague and unclear, leaving you unable to actually make ratings on one or more competencies, probe. In fact probe, probe, probe deeper until you have the specifics that enable you to make ratings. The easiest probe is to ask for specific examples, and sometimes the most revealing probe is ask what the examples would look like in a video.[su_spacer size=”1″]

Published on June 24, 2014

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