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My new hire is terrible, but he interviewed so well

I’m a manager at a company that develops video games. Recently, I hired someone for a senior programming position, and boy is he awful. He looked good on paper, though. Experienced (although admittedly in more junior roles) – and maybe not as much coding background as I would have liked. But his references all checked out. What really sold me was his in-person interviews. Extremely confident, of both his technical abilities and his capacity to handle the demands of a senior level position. Basically he exhibited the sort of “can-do” attitude that I find to be lacking in so many other candidates. I wish I could bottle it! I even stopped my search after meeting with him for the first time, that’s how sure I was.

     Well, was I ever wrong. He struggles with the most basic tasks, has trouble prioritizing, and can’t seem to make a deadline. I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s even been asking his junior colleagues for a lot of help. I’d really hoped it would be the other way around! What happened? I can’t bring myself to fire him (yet), but if things don’t improve I’ll have to do something. He’s starting to make me look bad. What should I do? ­- Name withheld

Yes – it sounds like you made a mistake.

You were won over by this person’s self-confidence – so much so that you seem to have ignored whatever other doubts you had about his suitability for the role. Now that you’ve hired him, however, these shortcomings have come to light, and you realize this person just may not be up to the job. Do you stick it out and hope his performance improves? Or do you admit you made a mistake, fire him, and begin (again) the time-consuming (and expensive) process of hiring someone else?

Basically, you’re living every manager’s worst nightmare.

Don’t beat yourself up too much, however. We seem to be experiencing a collective moment right now where ‘attitude’ is considered ‘everything’. This is perhaps especially true in business. A little bit of self-confidence—or even outright bravado—is viewed as a good thing, so much so that it is believed to more than make up for any other deficiencies a person may have. According to current conventional wisdom then, a measure of self-assurance is to be sought out, not avoided. That you think this too is understandable.

I’m sure there are those who would say you were simply duped by this candidate. He figured he’d tell you what you wanted to hear in order to get the job, and deal with living up to his exaggerated claims later. Possibly. But even if he did, I’d remind you that this inclination goes both ways, lest we judge anyone too harshly. Employers are certainly not above a little ‘embellishment’ of their own on occasion…especially if they think it’ll attract a better candidate.

My own suspicion, however, is that this individual did not set out to deliberately mislead you. Coding skills are not easy to fake (at least as I understand of them to be), so lying about this particular expertise in an interview, or on a resume, is almost guaranteed to backfire. Why risk that kind of humiliation when you’re almost sure to be exposed?

No – I suspect there’s something else going on here.

In a wonderfully titled paper ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It,’ psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning describe a phenomena that I think may shed light on your situation.

What these researchers found is that the capacity needed to do something well is often the same skill needed to know if you’re good at that thing. So, for instance, a person with poor grammatical skills (this was one of the abilities these researchers studied) may not realize how bad their grammar is because that would require the same skill that would improve it. Kind of a ‘don’t know what you don’t know’-scenario. Complicating matters further, when confronted with the truth about their abilities (ie. after testing poorly), these individuals still have difficulty recognizing their own incompetence. Instead, they tend to come up with excuses for their poor performance (tired, having a bad day, etc).[1]

The upshot of all this is that the inept are not only unaware of their ineptitude, they tend to overstate their abilities.

Perhaps this is what’s happened in your circumstance: Your new hire was simply unaware of his shortcomings through no fault of his own. Nevertheless, he was able to confidently assure you that he could handle the job because he also lacked to capacity to assess his abilities to begin with. His incompetence blinded him to his incompetence.

So what should you do?

Unfortunately, it may be too late for this guy. I wouldn’t fire him just yet, but it may be in the cards. As you say, he’s making you look bad. For the time being though, give him all the support and encouragement you can and then some. Additional training, mentoring – whatever time and energy you can spare. Then be patient, and hope he gets to where he needs to be.

In the future, however, there is a good deal more you can do – especially when it comes to your interviewing and hiring practices.

For instance, now that you are aware of the ‘Kruger-Dunning effect’, check yourself before being won over by a candidate’s confidence. Again, it’s not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, or that anyone is deliberately lying to you. Just appreciate that self-assessments of this kind are not terribly reliable. Do your due diligence instead, and thoroughly check those references. Also, seriously consider getting as many people involved in the hiring process as you can. Tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ so to speak, by including everyone who will be working with this person, if possible. One of your colleagues may pick up on something you miss.

Finally, consider that a lack of confidence in a prospective employee may not actually be such a bad thing after all.

In the same study, Kruger and Dunning found that while low performers tend to overstate their abilities, the gifted frequently understate them. This is due to what’s known as the false-consensus effect. High-performers don’t realize they’re remarkable because they mistakenly assume everyone is similarly capable. They believe they are just ‘average’, in other words. It is only when presented with clear evidence that they are outstanding that this perception of themselves changes.

I’m reminded of a delightful passage in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In it, Isaacson describes Jobs bumping into a dejected candidate in Apple’s cafeteria after his interviews had apparently not gone well. When Jobs asked the young man to show him one of his ideas, he demonstrated what has since become one of the Mac’s most iconic features. It turns the cursor into a little magnifying glass so that more icons can be included in the dock at the bottom of the screen.

Jobs hired him on the spot.[2]

The lesson in all of this, I think, is that identifying these ‘diamonds in the rough’ may not be so easy – nor is it likely that they’ll simply announce themselves to you in an interview.

Instead, it takes a bit more effort…but is almost sure to be well worth it in the end.

 

NOTES

[1] Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning. “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 1121.

[2] According to Isaacson’s biography, this same employee later came up with that elegant ‘momentum’ feature found on many Apple products. This is the one that gives the impression of the screen continuing to scroll even after your finger has left it. Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. 2011 (New York: Simon&Schuster), p. 363.

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