Psychological Principles All Hiring Managers Need to Know Part #3

Over the past few weeks, I’ve delved into a few psychological principles that you may come across during the hiring process.  A Ph.D. in psychology is not a qualification to effectively interview candidates and hire the right talent but it helps to understand some key psychological principles.  (This is coming from someone with a Ph.D. in psychology.) This blog explains how interviewers can gain deeper insights into candidates by understanding how one psychological principle –Regression– works.  (Visit the prior blogs in this series on Projection and Denial/Rationalization.)  Let me know in the comment section below if you would like more blogs on additional psychological principles.

Background on this series: Some companies are hesitant to trust their instincts and ability to “read people,” which has created an industry of psychologists who interview candidates for these companies. I’m one of those psychologists. CEOs have hired me, figuring that because I have that Ph.D. I must have deep insights into the inner workings of the mind. However …  I’ve proven that sharp managers, like you, can achieve professional level (85%+) hiring success without having an advanced psych degree. Part of the Topgrading training method teaches key concepts in psychology to deeply understand candidates for selection. One of these concepts is Regression.

Psychology Concept:  Regression is the conjuring up childhood emotions including fears and anxieties that impact current behavior.  Freud might not agree with this definition, but I’ve seen it affect 100% of the 6,500 managers I’ve interviewed.

We are all hard-wired psychologically, in a few ways, by the time we are 18.  The influential people in our lives (primarily parents, but also coaches, teachers, peers, etc.), have made us unconsciously motivated to CONFIRM our expectations for people, and MOTIVATED (unconsciously by the of fear of failure) to do things that are not totally “rational” which can interfere with potential success.  In Topgrading Interviews we ask, “Who were major influences – people who contributed to the way you are today in terms of your motivations, career interests, personality, and values?  They could be positive influences or negative influences, people who convinced us to not be like them.”

Your job as an interviewer is to listen and ask follow up questions to form hypotheses as to how childhood molded this candidate. As you go through the rest of their education and all jobs, keep in mind:  this candidate was hardwired to do some things, good or bad in the world of work. Since the motivation is probably unconscious, the result is repeated tendencies. Be on the lookout for patterns of success and failures.

There are a number of high performers who had wonderful influencers (parents and others) that helped candidates become responsible, resourceful, hardworking, and kind with no harmful, negative or weaker points that are repeated throughout the career.  Unfortunately, there are many high-performers whose influencers tore them down, abused them emotionally or physically or did not provide the support and encouragement needed during their formative years. As an interviewer you’ll need to be aware of and uncover these patterns of unconscious motivation  that detracts them from success.

Real Life Example (names changed):  Pat was a candidate for Global Chief Operating Officer.  Her parents were wonderful during her school years in providing encouragement to study hard, work hard, and in leadership roles to push, push, push people do get things done.  Pat was very successful but along with the encouragement her parents also conveyed fear – “be afraid that if you do not push hard ‘THEY” will hold you back.” In all seven jobs in her career I asked her the standard question, “What could you have done differently to get even better results?,” and she said various ways, “Not push people so hard.”  She admitted that every boss criticized her for driving people too hard. Instead of winning over people to welcome her leadership and get quick results her behavior made them passive aggressive, and they slowed down her results.  The bottom line: results were not faster but SLOWER because she alienated too many people.

Toward the end of the interview I asked Pat how she would break this negative behavior if my client hired her.  She said the Topgrading interview was very helpful because for the first time in her career she saw the pattern of pushing too hard.  She proposed a plan: she, the CEO and head of HR in the client company would identify who are the opinion leaders she must win over and periodically ask for feedback on whether or not she’s pushing too hard and if she is contributing to a high-performance team.

Success!  She was hired and her plan is working.  What had been a repressed need to push too hard (out of unconscious fear of failure) was now conscious and being dealt with constructively.

Have you experienced Regression in the hiring process or the workplace?  Please leave a comment with your situation and how it was dealt with.

Psychological Principles All Hiring Managers Need To Know

This blog is the second in a series of three that explains how to spot and get deeper insights into candidates who use common defense mechanisms.  Projection was addressed in the first blog, this blog will explore Denial and Rationalization.

Many is not a qualification to effectively interview candidates and hire the right talent but it helps to understand some key psychological principles.   I’ve proven that sharp managers (like YOU?) can achieve professional level (85%+) hiring success without having an advanced psych degree.  I’ve shared GE’s prodigious improvement from 25% high performers hired to 90% using Topgrading, and Argo is another great example.

Topgrading’s business model helps large and small companies conduct Topgrading interviews and reference checks themselves – the interviews that produce 85%+ high performers.  Part of our training teaches  key concepts in psychology to deeply understand candidates for selection.

Here is one of the psych concepts that have helped us understand candidates,

Psychology Concept: Denial/Rationalization:  I’ve combined the two because they are so closely related.  We’re all quite familiar with both because we see them in the course of most days.  Denial is when someone sticks their head in the sand … because psychologically they cannot bear to face the truth:

  • I can drive – I’m not drunk
  • I didn’t lose the customer – they will buy again
  • I did too send it; if you didn’t get it maybe your PC is the problem

Rationalization is pulling one’s head out of the sand and then making up “logical” (but incorrect) excuses for failure.  It’s easier to blame others or outsides influences rather myself.  However, two hours ago I was taking a soaring (glider) lesson, and trying to find thermals to get more altitude.  My instructor said, Brad, you keep losing the thermals and if you want to get better blame yourself first.  Maybe it’s not your fault, but if your first hunch is that YOU turned into the thermal too fast or too slow, or you sped up too much or not enough you won’t learn to do better.  So don’t tell me the thermal was too narrow or petering out, or the glider is just not responsive enough.  True! So become suspicious when you ask for failures and mistakes in each job and the responses show candidates don’t take responsibility for failures and mistakes.  If they don’t take responsibility for their mistakes your interviewee might be hard to manage, unresponsive to developmental suggestions, or lacking in resourcefulness.

To clarify the question:  After asking for successes and accomplishments in each job, the next question is, We all make mistakes – what were mistakes, failures, or things you might have done better in that job? I’ve heard responses 65,000 times (6,500 interviews, X 10 jobs) and so I’m really, really sure that high performers admit mistakes to themselves and learn from those mistakes.

 A powerful follow up question:  If you do NOT hear admission of mistakes early in the interview, maybe your candidate is playing the game – “admitting” no serious mistakes, thinking that will impress you.  I want to give them a chance, so I have a powerful follow up question.

Remaining candidates are honest and high performers … yet maybe 20% still try to hide any weaker points.  So Topgraders might follow-up with Pat, I’m not hearing real mistakes or things you could have done better, but all of us make mistakes in every job, and hopefully by recognizing them we learn to avoid them in the future.  You know that a final step in hiring is for you to arrange calls with bosses you’ve had in the past decade.  We talking about a job you were in from 2012 – 2015, reporting to Chris Smith.  Keeping in mind that if we move forward you will arrange a call with Chris.  So, I’d like to ask again, in that job reporting to Chris what were some things that in retrospect you could have done better?”

 That little, but powerful speech will produce real mistakes … unless Pat is suffering massively from Denial/Rationalization.  More good news is that with candidates told they have to arrange reference check calls the ones who drop out are the low performers who have not learned much from their mistakes.

Have you come across this type of behavior when interviewing candidates?  Leave a comment and share your experience.

How to Get Candidates to Tell You the Whole Truth

After decades in the industry, I’ve found that candidates have a common tendency to not be entirely honest during the application and interview process. They may hype their experience in resumes and interviews, and conceal mistakes made in their careers and jobs that didn’t work out.  If you’ve been a hiring manager, in HR or a company manager, no doubt you’ve encountered this.  If these individuals do get hired, they are more likely to repeat past mistakes or behaviors, causing frustration and costing the company money and time. So how can you get candidates to tell you the whole truth?

I’ve developed a technique that’s worked for 30+ years, infusing honesty in hiring for leading companies like UBS, Honeywell, and American Heart Association, and thousands of other companies. This “truth serum” has prevented millions of mis-hires and saved companies $X-million.  This is the first of several blogs which explain how to get the “whole truth” from candidates.

At my company Topgrading, we teach managers what is called the Threat of Reference Check (TORC) or “truth serum” to separate potential mis-hires from the rest of the candidates. We recommend informing candidates that a final step in the hiring process is for them to arrange the reference calls with their managers. This puts the responsibility on the candidate to contact those they’ve reported to and anyone else you want to talk with (peers, customers, division leaders, etc.).  I hit on this technique early in my consulting career and it quickly became a game changer to the hiring process.  It motivates low performers and those that have inflated their accomplishments to drop out.  They don’t want you to talk to the people they have reported to, for fear those bosses would give a negative reference or illuminate information they were trying to withhold. They also know that it’s very unlikely bosses would agree to talking with you, for fear of a law suit if they told you the truth about their poor performance.  Through this threat of reference check you save your company both time and money by weeding out these candidates before they move ahead as a potential hire.

High performers are VERY willing to arrange the reference calls because they have nothing to hide and know their managers will agree to talk with you and sing their praises.  In Topgrading’s  Career History Form candidates are asked to give their full salary history (except where prohibited by law), the true reasons for leaving jobs, and  how they think every boss would rate their overall performance (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor).  Hundreds of clients have said knowing these ratings before even talking with a candidate is a huge time saver and the best candidate screening tool imaginable.  Do you agree?

Time Tested:  Leading companies and SMBs have used the TORC technique for decades with 100% success rate.  Over the years clients consistently report that the actual ratings correlate highly and match the candidate’s assessment of their performance. These calls provide another data point are a terrific way to verify what candidates said in their interviews.

The upcoming blogs will answer common questions about how to use the “truth serum” and make the TORC Technique work smoothly.

Have you encountered candidates who have not been entirely truthful during the hiring process?  Share your experience below.

When interviewing candidates you need to understand “projection.”


 You don’t have to have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to effectively interview candidates for hire, but it helps to understand some key psychological principles.

But first — an elaboration on the point about the Ph.D. in Psychology. There is an industry of psychologists who interview candidates for hire for companies who don’t trust their own abilities to “read people.”  I’m one of those psychologists.  Clients (CEOs) have hired me, figuring that because I have that Ph.D. I must have deep insights into the inner workings of the mind; a front-page Wall Street Journal article about me said just that.  Also, having conducted 6,500+ in-depth interviews of C-suite candidates, companies figure that, as a popular insurance company ad says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

But I’ve proven that sharp managers (like YOU?) can achieve professional level (85%+) hiring success without having an advanced psych degree.  Back in the 1990’s General Electric CEO, Jack Welch hired me as a consultant to build the hiring machine that would increase percentage of A Players hired.  I did, using the same chronological, in-depth, (10 questions about every job) interview guide that I used professionally. Zillions of GE hiring managers and HR professionals were trained and Topgrading was embraced to hire managers.  GE’s success shot up from 25% to 50%.  Jack asked me how to improve the results, I said use two interviewers (Tandem Topgrading Interview) and GE’s success shot up higher to 90%.  Needless to say, 99% of the managers trained in Topgrading at GE did not have a graduate degree in psych.  But I’m quite certain psych concepts are important to know.  Here is one …

When candidates emotionally criticize a weaker point in many others have this hunch:  That THEY have that weaker point.  

Shakespeare:  “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”  The psych term is projection and here’s what it looks like:

  • “Joe is always jumping to conclusions.”  “Pat is shallow in her analyses.”  “Plan X was a flop because (boss) is a hip shooter.”  

Of course, any one of these comments could be true and in fact all might be true, but here’s the point: when your interview gets emotional in not just criticizing one person but 3 or more, it’s a red flag.  Comments like these should induce you to go on a fishing expedition – ask questions like, “What were your most important 2 or 3 decisions in that job and how did you go about making them?” or “What would your boss list as your strengths and weaker points in that job?”  And, “What was a circumstance in that job in which you might have performed more extensive analysis?” 

Many times, when this has occurred it becomes clear that the candidate is guilty of the weaker point, and has usually been criticized or maybe even fired because of it.  They “project” their weaker point(s) onto others.

The One Most Important Question to Ask Candidates

As an author of 5 books on hiring, all with the emphasis on the most revealing interview, the long, chronological Topgrading Interview, I’m hesitant to suggest one question being most important.


Most Important and Most Revealing: If the candidate has had 8 bosses, that’s sort of 8 questions, not one, but you get the point.  This is by far the most important, most revealing question you can ask candidates.   It’s important because about 25% of candidates, who hyped their resume to cover mediocre performance, will drop out.  They know they can’t get bosses to talk with you and they wouldn’t want them to talk with you and give “so-so” references.  Good!  At least 25% of resumes have deliberate falsehoods, and you don’t want to waste time with those candidates!

And the question is the most revealing.  At Topgrading, Inc. we’ve interviewed over 20,000 candidates for executive positions, and so we know what questions are revealing.   Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Candidates who are willing to arrange reference calls with managers are sharp and honest.  They might not be the best fit for your job but that’s what interviews can reveal. By asking the big question, 25% have dropped out, leaving you with the best candidates to evaluate.
  • The negatives (failures, mistakes, what bosses would say are your weaker points, not just strengths) reveal what you are MOST interested in knowing.  Every book on hiring tells job hunters to lie on their resume and in interviews, because reference checks are generally worthless.  So, a question that ACCURATELY reveals the negatives, not just positives, is extremely important to you.
  • Realizing THEY will have to arrange reference calls, candidates that did not drop out tell the truth – the whole truth.  High performers naturally share their accomplishments but they are happy to reveal their failures and mistakes because they’ve learned from them and because … they know that bosses will list them.  Literally millions of reference checks, organized by candidates, have been done and Topgrading companies always say that candidates did NOT hype their responses to the question.  Of course not, because the reference call would show that hype!

When to ask that question: Let candidates know in your first communications with them that their arranging reference calls with bosses is a final step in hiring.  The Topgrading Snapshot is a screening tool that informs candidates of this requirement and produces valuable information like full salary history and those boss ratings.  An online screening tool can ask the question for you … and give you answers even before speaking with them.  The 25% or so will drop out (good).  Then invite candidates with the best-looking Snapshots in for interviews.  The most important interview is the Topgrading Interview, and the Topgrading Interview Guide has questions for you to ask including appraisal by the candidate of bosses, what bosses would list as strengths and weaker points, and how each boss would rate their overall performance (a deliberate repeat of what is shown in the Snapshot).

Summary: Getting the “negatives” and not just positives for candidates avoids costly mis-hires.  Let candidates know THEY have to arrange reference calls with bosses assures HONEST answers to that most important, most revealing question.

Click (here) for more information about the Topgrading Snapshot.