The three words you want applicants to say during the interview

Group interview with a young woman as candidate

Conventional wisdom seems to be that “I love you” are the three hardest words to say in the English language. This isn’t true. Not for everyone anyyway. Get a few drinks in me and I’m saying it to waitresses, strangers in the ladies’ room, and my pillow.

The freaks at Freakonomics headquarters agree with me, and recently made the argument, in their latest book, “Think Like a Freak,” that the three hardest words in the English language are actually “I don’t know.”

In the book authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore people’s unwillingness to admit they don’t know something, as well as the surprising cost of this unwillingness. It’s a habit that reaches right back to childhood – 76% of kids it was found will answer yes or no to a question to which there is absolutely no way they could know the answer – but adults are often no better.

Dubner and Levitt observe that the cost of this is potentially quite high. Think about it. If the people at your organization are running around pretending to know the answers to questions they don’t actually know the answers to, what is this costing you? I don’t actually know the answer to this question.

Authors Levitt and Dubner offer several examples of sunk costs, one being a retailer that was blindly spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, despite no evidence that the ads were effective. They insisted on continuing to spend the money because nobody wanted to stand up and say “We don’t actually know that these ads work. Perhaps we should ask some questions and try some experiments.”

Why do we do this? “In most cases,” argue Dubner and Levitt, the cost of saying ‘I don’t know’ is higher than the cost of being wrong— at least for the individual.” They add, “None of us want to look stupid, or at least overmatched, by admitting we don’t know an answer. The incentives to fake it are simply too strong.”

Will people really will think less of you for saying “I don’t know?” It seems like a potentially counterproductive reaction, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is the case. “I don’t know” often comes up as something one should never say in a job interview, possibly for good reason: the hiring manager will hold it against the candidate and fail to see its value.

Dubner and Levitt, however, suggest the opposite – that employers should actually be on the lookout for the candidate with the humility to say “I don’t know.” This could save organizations a lot of time and money. As one hiring manager wrote to the Freakonomics team, “A lot of time is wasted when employees plod along in ignorance rather than admitting limitations.”

The message? Embrace the three hardest words in the English language. Seek out the candidate who is willing to say “I don’t know.”

That same manager also asked how one might screen candidates for this ability in a job interview. One idea is to look to Google’s famous stupid interview questions, such as “How many piano tuners are there in the world?” or “A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?”

Google’s Laszlo Bock told the New York Times a couple of years ago that Google doesn’t ask that type of question anymore, having determined them to be useless. But maybe they weren’t using them for the same purpose.

Dubner also, having noted that people are all too willing to make blind predictions, suggests combining unanswerable questions with “this burning desire to make predictions about any and everything.”

So, for example, ask the interviewee what the interviewer is going to have for lunch that day. “Because it’s completely stupid and pointless … and completely unanswerable.” Although, Dubner notes, one might say “you could say you look like a pretty chubby fellow so I’m going to say you’re going to have some pasta.” But that’s fine. Just don’t hire that person.

What you’re looking for is the one who says “I don’t know the answer to that.” If you get that admission, you might then ask the candidate, “and how would you go about finding out?”

You want them to have the humility to admit not knowing, but also the drive to find the answer. Otherwise, there’s no benefit to the first.

If you’re satisfied with the follow up answer, maybe you have a candidate worth considering.

Remember that it’s also OK for you to say “I don’t know.” Then follow up with “But maybe I can find out.”

We’ll all make better business decisions if we’re not walking around faking it all the time.

*Excluding, of course, to things one actually should know. Like, if you claim to be a programmer but it turns out you don’t know how to code, your boss would be justified in getting annoyed.

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