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Why You Need To Hire Job Candidates With These Three “Weaknesses”

One personality expert says hiring managers need to stop downplaying candidates’ flaws.

Why You Need To Hire Job Candidates With These Three “Weaknesses”
[Source photo: gemenacom/iStock]

Facebook’s Head of People told Fast Company last week that her team of recruiters works hard to uncover candidates’ strengths. Most companies try to do much the same. They assess the qualities and skills they believe job performance depends on, and they design interviews to test whether candidates are likely to display those qualities once on the job.

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This isn’t exactly a mistake, but it’s only part of the puzzle. Everyone has weaknesses and drawbacks that they’ll invariably bring with them, too. What hiring managers usually do is just try to decide whether a candidate’s strengths will outweigh those detriments.

But what they don’t often do is systematically determine which types of “personality flaws” they’d rather have on their teams. After all, some are a lot worse than others, and some can even be assets under the right circumstances.

What You Want Vs. What You’ll Get

There are millions of different jobs, and each company has its own culture, so what employers actually want in job candidates varies widely. But personality research suggests that all strong candidates tend to look rather similar, in the sense that there’s a limited number of attributes that make them strong: They’re generally more rewarding to deal with, more capable, and more willing to work hard than others are. Employers may use many different names for what they want–grit, adaptability, emotional intelligence, entrepreneurialism–but what they always need is ability, likability, and drive. You can ride those qualities to the bank any day of the week.

But while these three competencies predict future job performance and career success with remarkable accuracy, they don’t tell the full story about a candidate’s potential. In fact, no matter how attractive a candidate’s “bright side” may be, they’ll always have a “dark side,” too–a set of undesirable or counterproductive traits that hinder their ability to work well, mostly because of their disruptive effects on others.

Hiring managers tend to focus on attributes that predict positive career outcomes–like teamwork, engagement, performance, and leadership skills–and neglect the ones that predict derailment and failure: coasting, underperformance, antisocial behaviors, and the like. But whenever you hire somebody, they’re bringing a combination of these qualities with them through the door every single time. And your standard “What’s your biggest weakness?” job-interview question isn’t enough to help you assess the total package.

More often than not, questions like that are simply meant to evaluate candidates’ social skills and preparation; they’re basically an invitation to fake modesty or disguise additional strengths as weaknesses. Asked about her worst habit or character trait, an astute candidate will confess to being “a perfectionist,” “too altruistic,” or “too humble.” Then she’ll deliver a handy anecdote pretending that those qualities aren’t actually valuable in most workplaces–which astute interviewers know they often are.

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Just think what would happen if a candidate answered by candidly listing their real faults, like being lazy, grumpy, selfish, or dim. At best, they might earn points (or even sympathy) for bold-faced honesty, but their chances of landing the job would fall to zero on the spot. Most people would wisely decline an invitation to hang themselves, but employers would assume no responsibility for those brazen or foolish enough to accept it. In practice, asking about weaknesses is just an easy way to eliminate some candidates without having to think too hard.

Yet none of this changes the fact that certain weaknesses are preferable to others. So if you want to assess the whole person and make sure you hire people with the best overall personality profiles, you can’t pretend they’re flawless. Instead, you need to look–intentionally–for the least problematic weaknesses a candidate might have. Here are three of them:

1. Conformism

We live in a world that celebrates “originals” and rule-breakers, 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 employers know this.

While many companies say they need innovators and disruptors, what they truly require is people who will do what they’re told. As Susan Cain recently pointed out in the Times, this isn’t a bad thing; “followership” is a skill set we need just as badly as leadership. (“Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of ‘leadership skills,'” she adds, “is to the practice of leadership itself . . . It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve.”) And yet you’ll find no job listing out there that includes terms like “obedient” or “dutiful,” except perhaps in the military.

Still, 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 own bosses). As I show in my latest book, a large number of bosses would rather promote obedient and easygoing employees than talented but difficult ones. And in fact, many actually do.


Related: Why Your Leadership Skills Won’t Get You Hired (But These Four Other Things Might

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2. Attention-Seeking

We might be fascinated by narcissists, but the common view is that great employees and leaders let their achievements speak for themselves. If two people are equally talented or productive, most of us would say that we’d rather work with the one who avoids self-promotion and seems humble and modest.

Yet meta-analytic studies show that attention-seeking individuals emerge more often as leaders, and they’re often perceived as more effective once they do, according to 360-degree feedback data. The danger, of course, is that many attention-seeking job candidates may also be narcissistic, so the best-case scenario is someone who enjoys performing and being the center of attention but isn’t actually self-obsessed or entitled.

In other words, it isn’t always a bad thing to hire an altruistic exhibitionist–a selfless clown.

3. (A Dose Of) Dishonesty

Make no mistake: Pathological dishonesty is harmful, particularly when coupled with low integrity. You don’t want to give a job to a lowdown liar.

But dishonesty isn’t a categorical evil in practice. Not only is it minimally problematic in small doses, but most of us know how it can even be useful, as the phrase “white lie” indicates. People who are brutally honest straight-talkers may even struggle more in their careers than those who are able to fake it–within reason–particularly if they seem authentic in the process.

That may not sit well with you, but there’s research to suggest, additionally, that dishonest people tend to be more creative (perhaps because lying requires creativity and imagination). So if you’re hiring someone for a creative role, there’s a better chance you’ll be interviewing candidates who are adept at bending the truth. But most of them probably won’t be doing it maliciously. After all, the premise that we should “just be ourselves” is both naïve and foolish given what we know of human psychology.

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Behaviorally, full authenticity describes acting without inhibitions or constraints, as we do when we’re partying with our friends–not a great formula for the workplace. The ideal employee is capable of exercising diplomacy and adhering to social etiquette, and this inevitably requires being at least somewhat dishonest: telling people that they’ve done well when they haven’t (especially if they’ve tried hard); telling your boss she had a great idea when in fact she didn’t; making a client feel like the most important person in the world when they’re actually really irritating.

So don’t stop looking for candidates’ strengths. If you are lucky enough to attract employees who are able, likable, and driven, make just make sure that they have the best possible flaws. Sometimes a dose of dishonesty, attention-seeking, and conformism may be the most tolerable defects you can ask for.