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You Get Hired for What You Know, You Get Fired For...

Lessons from our favorite leadership nightmare, The Office's Steve Carell

Steve Carell as Michael Scott

To illustrate our point, consider everyone's favorite leadership nightmare, Steve Carell of the hit show The Office, a mockumentary. Carell's character is Michael Scott, the boss of the office and he doesn't have any idea who he is. Scott is clueless, and this creates the premise for the hilarious episodes. His character is an extreme version of being particularly bad at self-knowledge, the number one responsibility of leader. The faux manager/leader is filled with self-delusion, has an identity based on who-knows-what shifting fantasies and he misreads people and the possibilities to lead continually. His lack of insight on these misreads is the sad/funny part.

In one of his monologues into the camera where we view the inner workings of his mind, he describes himself..."and yes entertainer, that is a word that also describes who I am as a leader." And his timing and taste is so totally off that he is indeed entertaining. The train wreck variety of entertaining. So The Office, as it updates Dilbert before it, is this generation's gift to how not to select real talent.

If only it were that easy. In real life, the filled-with-regret talent selections happen when a manager suffers from a crucial, and well-disguised, lack of self-knowledge. Things may go well for a while. But when the wheels come off at a time when real leadership is needed, that is when the person who hired the pseudo Steve Carell knows he made a mistake. Most managers have done it, more than once. "How could I have missed that?", we ask. "What didn't I see?"

Which brings us to the second part of how to improve your chances to make the right hiring choice. Candidates for jobs can hide their lack of self-knowledge and give good answers to questions. They can have compelling answers on their experience. They can have excellent reference letters.

What they can't hide from are rich questions that penetrate their ability to talk about themselves. We encourage you to formulate questions that dig into a person's work and life history. Of course, not in an invasive way but in ways that make them think and reveal their past, which is the window into their present.

Here are the some questions you might want to start with:

  1. Are you a lucky person? Why or why not? Examples?
  2. What weaknesses, the ones that hurt your team or peers, do you have to fight the most when you are under stress How do you do that? Examples?
  3. How are you changing and growing as a professional and leader?
  4. What failure/difficulty from your past have you most learned from? How are you applying those lessons today?
  5. What strength do you know you have that you have not yet fully used? How do you know this? Examples?
  6. What is a big ethical dilemma you have faced and how did you handle it? Where did you get the values to think yourself to a decision with that dilemma?
  7. If you were managing you, what would you want to do to improve your performance and get the most from you? When that does not happen for you, what have you done about it?

And of course, make up your own questions, and tailor to the person.

As the interviewing experts warn, the more philosophical and general the answers--without examples--the more you will need to probe for non-b.s. answers. You are hiring a person who performs, not a person who can philosophize.

There are no guarantees or special set of questions that avoids a hiring mistake. But you can give it your best effort to keep even a minor version of Steve Carell from showing up on your team. Try to assess how self-aware each candidate is about him or herself. Have they learned from their past? Not doing so is funny on TV. It is tragic in real life. Remember the old adage: you get hired for what you know: you get fired for who you are.