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We’ve all sat across the table from candidates who were not forthcoming with their mistakes. It’s never a good sign and often a deal-breaker, especially when the issue is consistent and deliberately repeated.

But sometimes we only see slight signs of concern. Let’s say you just finished interviewing a candidate for a role. During the interview, they discussed a minor conflict they had with a peer but was not very forthcoming in acknowledging their own (obvious) contribution to the situation.

You let it slide, settle your mind and make the decision.

“Perhaps this candidate is close enough to what we’re looking for? Ah sod it, let’s just hire them!”

But what do your colleagues think?

“No,” one of them says, “it’s a clear sign that he tried to hide the truth from us, and honesty is one of our core values!”

Another colleague sees the situation quite differently, “I don’t think he was trying to hide anything. I think he just tends to focus on the positives. It’s not ideal but hey, they weren’t deceiving us.

A third colleague has a different view. “I don’t think they forgot the mistake. They never realised they made one in the first place! It’s clearly a fundamental lack of self-awareness.”

Which perspective is right?

What’s the real difference between these three possible explanations, and how can we use what we know to tell us what is really going on? Let’s start by looking at a definition of each root cause.

  1. Lack of self-awareness is an inability to understand how we come across. A gap in our own reflective consciousness I suppose. It is an inability to gather certain kinds of information about ourselves. It can stifle a person’s growth and lead to persistent performance issues, especially in roles that require a lot of teamwork and interpersonal engagement. Recruitment for one!
  2. Resistance to criticise themselves. The individual tends to selectively filter out information because it threatens their sense of ‘self’. It is a desire to avoid or delete evidence that conflicts with one’s identity. Such individuals may be able to perform well within their comfort zones, but over time the learning curve flattens, and constructive criticism is ignored.
  3. Deceptiveness is a deliberate attempt by a candidate to withhold information about his or her past. It is arguably a fundamental issue of character. The candidate knows the truth but is simply unwilling to share it. Deliberate attempts to avoid talking about their faults is a very bad sign.

How can we tell?

There is no perfect science, of course, but there are several reliable guidelines I have discovered:

  • Candidates who lack self-awareness typically struggle to offer positive and negative information about themselves in an interview. They can talk about an accomplishment or a mistake but when you ask them to trace that back to specific qualities that they either possess or lack, they give you a blank look.
  • Candidates who are resistant to self-criticism will most likely display one of the following traits. First, they tend to have an easier time recalling mistakes from their recent history. The same isn’t true of their accomplishments. These come easily to them. Second, when they do mention mistakes, they may display subtle signs of distress in their words or certain body language. Because they tend to customise negative information, they react to it with defensiveness.
  • A deceptive individual repeatedly spins their answers when asked about mistakes in their previous role. They will try to steer you away from the topic altogether and often be very quick to reply to the question. They will be ready to throw out a decoy and hope you will take the bait!

None of these three traits is attractive.

The truth is, we probably all possess some of these attributes, even if only in small degrees.

It’s important to understand the distinctions between them, however. Especially when the signs are subtle so that you can increase the accuracy of your hiring decision.