Establishing trustworthiness early is a fundamental part of the interview process. Nothing else matters if you don’t think you can trust someone. Hopefully, you’ll build trust by way of multiple interviews, references, working sessions, etc. — but how can you get comfortable with someone you are meeting for the first time in the interview process, and vice versa?
To this end, one fundamental error hiring managers make is being so focused on assessing candidates’ skills that they forget the importance of building trust early in the very first meeting. Often the pushback is, “I’ll build trust once I know I want someone for this role.” My suggestion is to do the opposite: Build trust whether or not you see that candidate in the role.
I recommend building trust early for several reasons:
First, it’s important to know that trust is a relational phenomenon (read: “a two-way street”). This means it takes effort from both you and the candidate to create a trusting, open dialogue. It is your job as the interviewer to open that door and create conditions that will allow for such dialogue. Once you have opened the door, you will see how different people respond to that openness. The intent is to provide space for candidates to be more open and to share insights on their experiences, which will allow you to better understand their qualifications for the role.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this is not a way to assess a candidate’s moral compass or integrity – that is an entirely different task. Rather, building trust is about the kind of environment you create during an interview. If you become concerned about a candidate’s level of integrity or their propensity for fraudulent activity, creating a comfortable dialogue with them is increasingly important: Once they feel comfortable and open, you can ask more candid questions and read the candidate better.
Here are a few interview pointers to keep in mind:
One more thing to think about: For some of us, trust needs to be earned before it is given; for others, trust is given until it is broken. Give some thought as to which perspective you have on this, because this is how trust works for you personally. For those of us for whom trust needs to be earned, we should ask questions that will elicit an answer to this question, “How can I build trust with and in this person?” Whereas, for those of us whom trust is potentially lost, a question is, “What does this person — or, indeed, any person — need to do to lose my trust?” With these internal questions, you can then determine the right things to discuss in that interview.*
Here are some sample interview questions that can open the door to understanding a candidate. :
Ideally, you will get a candidate to tell you a story about one of these questions. Listen for a pattern. In order for a personality characteristic to be considered an issue, it must show up multiple times in a person’s life. I like asking about both work and personal life experiences, and I look for the same type of story appearing over and over — usually involving disturbances in their interpersonal relationships.
At the end of this deep-dive, you should have a good sense of how someone values trustworthiness in a relationship. Generally, it’s better to assess through examples than from just asking questions.
Interviewing for trust is different from interviewing for integrity. The reason is that building trust is a relational phenomena that takes place when meeting/interacting with someone, whereas assessing one’s integrity is an individual phenomena. Whether I feel I can trust you, or not, during a meeting is based on a series of things happening between us that are very specific to that interaction. Whether someone has integrity is not a feeling, but rather a personality trait that an interviewer needs to assess.
But what is integrity? At the risk of oversimplifying it, integrity is all about keeping your word. You do what you say you are going to do. When teams operate with integrity they become more powerful; provided teams are committed to a shared intent and shared perspectives because they are delivering on their promises.
Several years ago, I had the good fortune of getting to know Chris McGoff, who wrote The Primes – an excellent book that I refer to often. He wrote that
“integrity is not based on value or morals. It is based on honoring and keeping your word. When people choose to operate in integrity, their words about the future cause the future. People trust them. They reach a level of performance that otherwise would be unattainable.”
Taking it even further, Chris takes a firm approach to integrity by stating that it is all or nothing: “The rule is that there are no small or big promises; there are only promises. And promises will be kept.”
I tend to agree with Chris, with one exception being recognition of how hard one works or tries to keep a promise. If a team committed to one another to win a game and everyone competed to literal exhaustion and “left it all on the field,” did they not keep their promises to one another if they lost the game? To what end do you only evaluate only the outcome and ignore the actions taken in an attempt to keep a promise?
When getting to know someone that would be potentially joining your organization, I suggest interviewing them for this demonstrated behavior of integrity. Integrity under any other definition might be difficult to interview for, but it’s a little easier in the context of keeping promises. Some good questions to gauge whether they understand and appreciate what it means to give their word include:
I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible people over the years, including the amazing talent team here at a16z. The highest performing teams knew down to the bone what it meant to agree to something . . . to make a promise. Imagine if you were part of a team that signed up for this definition of integrity. I think it is the greatest commitment you can make to your teammates.
* Thanks to Jerry Colonna for his perspective on these internal questions.