How to Fix Your Biggest Interviewing Mistake

This blog presents the most common and most serious interviewer error and shows you how to avoid it so that you can get the deepest insights into candidates for hire.

We at Topgrading know a lot about interviewing. I’ve written 5 hardbound books on the subject. We have learned the most probing, revealing interview techniques from conducting thousands of 4-hour interviews for clients, and from observing thousands of interviews in our Topgrading Workshops.

We’ve also learned the best interview techniques by watching executives in real life; we interview candidates for C-suite jobs and we invite the hiring executive, the CEO or other senior executive, to participate. We conduct 90% of the interview but our hiring manager partner asks questions as well. After the interview we of course discuss the candidate, but also coach our client against any interviewer errors we witnessed.

The most serious interviewer error we have seen is accepting vague, general responses to questions and not probing enough for specifics that would enable you to make accurate ratings on competencies. In other words, if the candidate doesn’t want to reveal something, usually about a weaker point, then they might give an answer that hides that weaker point.

For example, suppose you ask, “Chris, what are your weaker points and areas to improve?” Chris responds, “I can always improve at communications.” That is such a general response that you lack the specifics to know what the weaker point is.

You should think: What communications – written, oral, conducting meetings, performance appraisals, speeches, tone, typos, violating confidences? There are a thousand possibilities for what aspects of communications the candidate should improve. If you hear generalities like that and you do not probe for specifics, then at the end of the interview when you go through your notes and try to arrive at conclusions and rate the candidate… you can’t, because the interview responses you heard can be interpreted so many different ways.

Here are some more examples of candidates speaking in such general terms you can’t rate them:

  • I can be a little late in performance (How often, how late and with what consequences?)
  • My emails are thorough but a little lengthy. (How lengthy, how often, with what consequences?)
  • When my boss asks questions, I tend to be too complete and thorough in my answer. (Give me a recent example – what did they ask, what was your response, and how did they express their displeasure?)

Here’s how to fix “Not probing enough for specifics.” Let’s dig into one example in detail.

Chris (Candidate): My boss in that job said I could communicate a little better.

You: Communications skills could mean a thousand things. What would she say she specifically wanted you to improve?

C: It was my communications with my peers.

Y: Give me an example.

C: I guess I tend to be a little too direct at times.

Y: Like what times? Pretend we have a video of you being too direct with a peer. What would we see?

C: Ok, a few weeks ago Pat, a peer, was supposed to give me a report and it was a day late. I told her last week I wanted her report yesterday so I’d have a full week to prepare my report for the CEO. So, in a video you’d see me pointing to my calendar and saying, a little sarcastically, “Pat, your report was due yesterday.” Then we’d see her say it was almost done and she’d give it to me by noon. And then I said, “Noon today, noon tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow? I told you I wanted it yesterday so that I’d have a full week to prepare my report. I’d hate to tell the CEO I didn’t have enough time to prepare my report because you were late with your report.”

Y: How often are you too blunt?

C: Daily, I suppose. I get frustrated and zing people to get them to shape up.

Y: So, what is the criticism by your boss?

C: She tells me to show more Emotional Intelligence but I’m not a big fan of EI because it’s soft and tolerates mediocre performance.

Bingo! You just got some information that shows a person is probably deficient in communications skills, peer relations, and leadership style. And Chris is probably blind to many of his shortcomings and so he’s not motivated to improve. If this interchange happened early in the interview, you’d form hunches and you’ll probe for specifics to fully test those hunches.

Conclusion: When candidates say something that is vague and unclear, leaving you unable to make ratings on one or more competencies, probe for specifics. 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 asking what the examples would look like in a video.

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