growth mindset
How to Hire for Growth Mindset With One Interview Question
You may have heard of Carol Dweck’s bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She introduces two opposing concepts:
  1. Fixed mindset: My talent and abilities are what they are – they are not going to change.
  2. Growth mindset: I can expand my abilities through hard work, challenge, and overcoming setbacks.
Here’s Dr. Dweck’s two-minute primer on Growth Mindset:

For all but the most routine jobs, you’d be better served by hiring someone who exhibits a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, all else being equal. People with a growth mindset more readily accept new challenges, are more open to feedback and coaching, and bounce back more quickly in the face of setbacks.

(Interestingly, some research suggests the opposite behavior among hiring managers: a preference for natural talent over hard work and dedication. But you’re not like most hiring managers.)

So the question is, how can you hire for a growth mindset? Asking this one crucial behavioral based interview question can help you understand a candidate’s mindset:

“Tell me about a professional failure you’ve experienced.”

I’ve asked this question countless times, and the candidate’s response is always highly illuminating. I can categorize the answers I receive in three buckets:

Bucket #1: “I’ve never had a failure in my career.”

A staggeringly large number of people cannot think of a time they failed at something. Either they have such a fixed mindset that they never try anything even remotely challenging, or they are unable to admit when they’ve made a mistake, and therefore learn from their experience. These are the same people when asked, “What is your greatest weakness?” always respond, “I work too hard, and I care too much.” They may also go on to tell you that if there was a time that they experienced failure, which they hadn’t, it was definitely because of someone else’s incompetence. Candidates don’t win any points with me by falling into this bucket, since not only are they completely unaware of their development areas, they probably aren’t very nice to work with, either.    

Bucket #2: “I failed at something one time, and vowed to never try that specific thing again.”

  This answer is only slightly better than the answers from Bucket #1. Although this respondent can identify their areas of development, they see those areas as fixed and are unable or unwilling to change them. Maybe this person had a presentation that went poorly, or took on a special project or stretch assignment that failed. If I probe to ask them what they learned from the experience, the answer is likely, “Presentations are really hard to do, and I am not good at them,” or “Don’t take on additional assignments outside of your job duties, because it is a lot of work and you might not succeed.”

Bucket #3: “Here’s what happened, here’s what I learned from it, and here’s what I do differently now.”

Responses that fall into bucket #3 clearly show a growth mindset approach to work. The person shares a specific example where they failed – they made a mistake or made a poor decision, and they clearly see their role in the failure. Generally without prompting, this person will share what they would do differently if they could do it over again, what they’ve done differently as a result of that experience, or what they’ve learned from the experience. If a person responds like this, I might predict that when faced with setbacks in the future, they might have the ability to look at the situation and their behavior critically and use it as a learning experience. With the high rate of change in the workplace today, that is the person that I want to hire.  

Try it out – what were your results? Are there other questions you’ve used to assess a candidate’s Growth Mindset?