When building a team at a startup earlier in my career, our investors, advisors, and I crafted what looked like a bullet-proof recruiting strategy. Our advisory group collectively had more than 100 years of experience operating companies. But despite the wealth of expertise behind our hiring process, I learned an important lesson the hard way: Even the most rigorous recruiting strategy is only as strong as the decision-maker’s biggest blind spot.
“Elliot,” a media professional I interviewed, was articulate, energetic, and showed a natural affinity for our product. His credentials were solid, and — crucially — he was willing to take an equity position in lieu of a large salary. For a startup, this was a big factor. We hired him.*
But in recommending this decision, I overlooked a few red flags. Notably, Elliot admitted to leaving a trail of burned bridges with former employers and was convinced he’d been repeatedly victimized by unappreciative bosses and bad environments. He didn’t make a good impression on our lead investor, and his own references spoke about him in neutral tones. But he had what I thought counted: passion and potential. I believed I could fix the rest.
Elliot ultimately stirred up numerous problems for the company. We believe that he stole information, lied, and destroyed intellectual property. While we couldn’t have foreseen the extent of this behavior, we dismissed warning signs right from the start. Our problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge about hiring best practices — it was my own blind spot. I downplayed the risk, thinking we could rehabilitate this troubled candidate and bring out his potential. So, despite the warning signs and a major investor’s concerns, I made the recommendation to bring him on board.
Having now worked with and mentored dozens of leaders and founders, I know I’m not alone. Nearly every hiring manager has a blind spot that, if left unidentified, can lead to devastating consequences even within well-planned systems. Over time, I’ve identified five of the most common blind spots that compromise recruitment outcomes.
Fixing and rescuing
This was my blind spot with Elliot, and one that is common among founders and other entrepreneurial leaders. Entrepreneurs are by nature more likely than average to believe they can affect massive change. This can extend to an overconfidence in their ability to “develop” employees, even in light of evidence that a person is lacking the requisite character traits for growth, like accountability and openness to feedback. A superstar sports coach rehabilitating a talented but self-destructive athlete makes for good television, but the reality is that most hiring managers don’t have the resources, skills, or time to reform troubled hires.
Beyond overconfidence in their problem-solving skills, entrepreneurs are also vulnerable to this pattern because of their tight budgets. They’re often looking for a deal, and a candidate willing to take a sizeable portion of their salary in equity represents just that. Leaders with pride in their organization will assume that the individual’s motivation is their passion for the business. They’ll overlook the possibility that other reasons may drive someone to take a step down financially — including a lack of options.
If you recognize this blind spot in yourself, one of the best ways to mitigate the danger is obvious but underused: Don’t make hiring decisions alone. Seek out a second opinion. If you already have a second opinion, don’t make my mistake — listen to it.
“Emily,” a tech startup CEO, found her business in jeopardy when her product experienced a massive feature failure in beta testing. No one on her team had voiced any criticisms pre-launch. She didn’t understand how this was possible. But Emily admitted that she only hired people who showed unbounded enthusiasm in interviews. She deemed candidates who under-praised the product “not passionate enough.”
As a result, she overlooked contrarian candidates, the exact people who call out problems even when doing so is unpopular. A study out of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management warns that leaders who develop “heightened overconfidence from high levels of such ingratiatory behavior” will be less likely to “initiate needed strategic change.” Emily, who conflated validation with passion, was a case in point.
If you have a validation-seeking blind spot, also known as “affect-based” decision making, realize that pointing out flaws does take passion. It requires attention, analysis, and the courage to speak up. Praise is easy. Don’t overlook the candidates who offer thought-provoking criticism of your business, even if your knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss them.
“Anna,” a marketing executive, believed a selling point for job candidates was that her team was “like a family” — at least until a colleague confessed that the team resented how much time Anna spent helping “Jill,” one of her direct reports, navigate her divorce. With Jill, something was always wrong — with her partner, her parents, her social life, her car — and Anna felt it was her duty to indulge these “emergencies,” often at the expense of the rest of the team, who picked up the slack.
Anna remembered how drawn Jill was to the idea of a tight-knit team during the interview process. What Anna didn’t understand is that there is a time and place for empathy. Empathy can turn a good leader into a great leader, but it can also be misapplied.
In describing her team as a family, Anna thought she was signaling an empathetic culture to job candidates. But language like “we’re a family” or “we’re always there for each other no matter what,” actually signals a lack of professional boundaries.
If you find yourself attracting high-drama candidates who monopolize everyone’s time, make a note of any overly personalized language you might be using. Also be wary of oversharing by candidates, particularly when they present personal stories as mitigating factors for recurring problems at work.
Most people accept, at least in theory, that micromanagement is an undesirable practice rooted in self-doubt and uncertainty. Nevertheless, many leaders still signal a micromanaged culture to candidates while recruiting them. Self-determination, autonomy, and a strong internal locus of control inspire the creative impulse. Enterprising people require the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, and challenge engrained suppositions.
Thus, a hiring manager who hints at heavy oversight during recruitment will likely attract candidates who tolerate inflexible environments well — individuals who lack passion, are not highly engaged, prefer linear work, and are not highly driven.
If you find yourself struggling to attract and hire self-managing, creative people, it’s worth considering the signals you’re sending. Think about whether you may be placing too much emphasis on rules and procedures, glamorizing the hierarchy or org chart, or suggesting that all conflict (some of which can be productive) is unwelcome.
“Jamie,” a health care leader, was forced to fire someone she’d hired after he bullied colleagues. This was not the first time a hire of Jamie’s didn’t get along with the team, and she didn’t understand how it happened again. Upon review, we realized that Jamie touted “total freedom” in interviews as a hallmark of company culture, telling candidates she would only weigh in on an as-needed basis so as not to get in their way.
Jamie thought she was signaling that she didn’t micromanage. But according to colleagues, she instead telegraphed that she didn’t really care.
While hands-off management can show your team that you trust them, emotional detachment tells people that they’re on their own. Research indicates that teams with an absent leader often end up feeling like they’re in a sink-or-swim environment, which can become a breeding ground for unhealthy conflict. A laissez-faire leadership style creates a vacuum that allows bullies to thrive. Jamie had never considered that her interview style attracted power-seekers instead of team players.
Going too far with the “you’re on your own, good luck” messaging can also result in a transactional group of individuals looking to clock in, clock out, and not be bothered. If this is your team, consider balancing the independence messaging with reassurance that a strong network and committed leadership are in place.
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All of these blind spots are damaging not just because of who they attract — but because of what they lead you to miss out on. Every time a leader brings in a team member who lacks accountability or is unengaged or a bully, the rest of the team pays the price. With a bit of self-reflection and an honest assessment of the oversights that may be driving repeat hiring offenses, managers can nip many of these patterns in the bud — and begin to notice the superstars they’ve passed over.
* Some details have been changed for privacy.