One day, it hit me.

All I had to do was move my crew to a different shift and our overall productivity would increase dramatically. I was a supervisor at a book manufacturing plant, and that one change meant changeover times would decrease, increasing our productivity. And it would save the business a lot of money.

When I told my crew, they hated the idea. The inconvenience to their personal lives would be considerable, especially over the short term. But the payoff seemed worth it.

On paper, my idea was perfect.

In practice, it was terrible.

A few weeks later I had another meeting with my team. “I know you didn’t think this would work,” I said, “and you were right. We’re going to move you back to your original shift.”

I felt stupid. But according to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, I wasn’t.

I was actually pretty smart.

Why it’s important to find employees who contradict themselves

According to Bezos, smart people are sometimes right… but they’re always willing to change their minds.

“(Bezos) doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait,” Basecamp CEO Jason Fried wrote. “It’s perfectly healthy —encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today.”

Bezos’s perspective might sound strange. It’s easy to assume people who have the right answers are, well, smart. And it’s definitely easy to assume people who take one position today and another position tomorrow aren’t—especially when they’re in charge.

Leaders are supposed to have the answers. Leaders are supposed to know the answer.

And so are the employees you hire.

Sure, you want your team to be smart.

But what you really need are people who are adaptable, especially when you run a small business. People who:

  • Recognize, and more importantly react, when a plan isn’t working.
  • Recognize and react when a perspective no longer has merit.
  • Recognize and react when a current method, strategy, or way of doing business no longer works as well.

In other words, you need the employees you hire to be able to change their minds.

A lot.

The two interview questions you need to ask

One way is to include this common behavioral interview question in the interviews you conduct:

“Tell me about a goal you recently achieved. What did your initial plan look like? What worked particularly well?”

One, it’s a great icebreaker question. (Any candidate who can’t talk in detail about a goal they hit is likely to be a terrible candidate.)

Most candidates will describe a goal that was set for them, a plan they were given, and the steps they took to achieve the goal. Which is of course fine.

But what you’re truly looking for are candidates who:

  • Set their own goals
  • Created their own plans to get there, and
  • Not only followed those plans but adapted to circumstances and changing conditions along the way.  

Your job in the interview is to find out what didn’t go according to plan.

After all, the best employees are able to not just plan well, but also to react and adjust well. Then go a step farther, and ask this follow-up question:

“Tell me about a goal you didn’t manage to achieve. What happened? What did you do as a result? And what did you learn from all this?”

Disappointment, adversity, and failure are a part of life—both professionally and personally. That’s why everyone has failed.

(In fact, most successful people have failed a lot more often than the average person; that’s why they’re so successful today.)

Good job candidates will take responsibility for failing and they’ll see it as a learning opportunity. So look for people who:

  • Don’t place the blame on other people or on outside factors. They should recognize that few things go perfectly, and a key ingredient of success is being able to adjust.
  • Learned key lessons from the experience, especially about themselves. Good candidates see failure as training wheels. That means they can describe the perspectives, skills, and expertise they gained from their experience.

And they can admit where they were wrong—and how they were not only willing but eager to change their minds.

To determine whether a potential employee has the smarts your business needs, don’t focus solely on whether they are always right. Find out if they’re willing to admit when they were wrong—and are willing to change their minds as a result.

I dreaded telling my crew I had been wrong. I was sure they would lose respect for me.

I was wrong about that, too.

Later a relatively new employee said, “I didn’t know you well, but the fact that you were willing to admit you had been wrong told me everything I needed to know.”

When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. People will respect you more.

And, in the process, you can show everyone just how smart you really are.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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