A few years ago I wrote a series of posts on the subject of improving the interview process in schools:

I thought I’d said all I needed to say of the subject of school interviews. Then a few days ago I responded to a tweet about providing unsuccessful candidates with post-interview feedback suggesting it was a waste of time:

This turns out to be a controversial point of view. Many people got in touch to tell me either that they themselves were excellent at giving useful feedback or that they had received useful feedback as an unsuccessful candidate. This being the case, I feel I should revise my hastily composed tweet: Feedback on unsuccessful interview is almost always valueless. Most of it consists of post hoc rationalisations of why a candidate’s face didn’t fit. It is rarely useful in future interviews.

As you can see, the revised statement is more tentative but it will, no doubt, irritate those who are certain that post-interview feedback is worthwhile. Let me explain my position by exploring the mindsets of the person providing post-interview feedback and the person receiving it.

Giving post-interview feedback to unsuccessful candidates

Pretty much everyone who interviews thinks they’re good at it. We look at all those we’ve appointed and decide we must be great at spotting talent because the evidence of our insight is all around us. But, we never get to see the counter factual. It might be that the person we appoint is good, but we rarely get to discover that the people we failed to appoint are superb. In addition, most interviewers will have made a few hiring blunders – staff members who turn out to be more trouble than they were worth –  but we tend to have little difficult in shifting the blame from us to them. We either feel deliberately tricked or we shrug and say, ‘Well, you can’t win ’em all.’ In this way, interviewing is a wicked domain. The quality of the feedback we get on our ability to hire the best candidate is deeply flawed and the result is that we become increasingly confident about our abilities with little in the way of supporting evidence.

When we made up our mind about who to appoint, we have the tiresome job of contact the unsuccessful candidates to let them know our decision. Part of this process typically involves offering feedback on how they might have performed better, how they might have been more like the candidate we decided to hire. But the first problem is this: why did you decide to appoint the person who got the job? I would argue that unless you followed a process like the one I described in Part 2 of my interview series, you probably don’t really know. Or at least, you know, but you don’t know how to articulate what you know. As Michael Polanyi said, “We know more than we can tell.” Your knowledge is tacit, and to communicate tacit knowledge we have to show rather than tell. How do you that when offering feedback?

I once decided a teacher whose lesson I’d observed was a bit aggressive. I can’t remember precisely how I arrived at this decision but I interpreted one isolated interaction as ‘aggressive’ rather than as ‘firm’ and, probably because I’d taken other unconscious cues that I wasn’t keen on this candidate as I was on others, I decided then and there not to appoint. When I told the candidate that they wouldn’t be staying for the afternoon, they seemed taken aback and asked the reason. When I said I thought they were too aggressive they then proved me right by being – in my view – aggressive towards me. Phew! I thought. A narrow escape. My aggression story was plausible and all the reason I needed. But what if this person had been the least aggressive for four candidates for a physics vacancy? My comparative judgement might well have decided he was exactly the sort of person we needed to employ.

Interviews generate too much information for us to properly evaluate. Because of this we are forced to rely on tacit decision making in which we often ignore important information and are influenced by irrelevancies such as how similar the candidate is to us. This is called sense making – the process whereby we give meaning to our experiences. If we hear irrelevancies or inconsistencies, we’re wired to try to make sense out of them and we will often arrive at a mental accommodation which feels satisfying even though, objectively, it shouldn’t be. This also leads to interviewers firmly believing in their powers of intuition and decision making acuity even when this is disputed by empirical evidence. This is not a criticism of any individual, it’s just a fact about the limitations of the human brain. The more information we have, the harder it is to make sense of it.

What we tend to be much better at is rationalising our decisions. In order to dial down the cognitive dissonance of not really knowing why we made a decision, we settle on an appealing narrative. You’ve probably heard the truism that “stories are psychologically privileged” but this also has a downside. Because our stories make much more sense than reality, they become true as we tell them. We rarely doubt the veracity of the stories we tell and the more we tell them the more coherent and satisfying they become. In effect they replace reality. When we tell our story to unsuccessful interview candidates they may well end up believing them too.

Receiving post interview feedback as an unsuccessful candidate

So, you just failed to get your dream job. Of course you want to know why, so when the interviewer offers you feedback to explain their decisions, of course you jump at it. But, as we’ve already seen, the interviewer doesn’t really know why they made their decision. All they have is a made up story. Sometimes interviewers are really honest about this and say something along the lines of “We just preferred the other candidate”. There’s nothing wrong with this and, I’d argue, it’s about as useful as post-interview feedback gets: at least you know there wasn’t really anything you could have done.

But more often, interviewers will explain, in detail, how they would have preferred a candidate to answer questions or precisely where they went wrong in their interview lesson. The disappointed candidate gratefully notes down all they say and resolves to do better next time. Now you have all this additional information you’re sure to perform better. Or are you? The feedback .you’ve just received is – most likely – a story which, while plausible, is not almost certainly not true. Or at least, not entirely true. This isn’t because the person who’s just given you feedback is dishonest, it’s because they’re human.

The trouble is, if we believe the story, we will become invested in making it true. Maybe they told you that you weren’t dressed smartly enough. OK, you can go out and buy a new suit and get an expensive hair cut, but what difference will this make at your next interview? If you get the job you’re likely to conclude it was down to the new duds and be thankful for the feedback. The idea that the feedback was useful is based on entirely circular logic. And, if you don’t get the job you’ll be told a new story. Maybe this time they say you were too reticent or too pushy during a joint task, or that your answers were too emphatic or not assertive enough. You resolve to be different next time, but what if the next interviewer has different preferences? What if – and I’ve heard plenty of stories of this happening – you get the opposite advice? This way lies madness.

Your best bet is to visit a school in advance of the interview, talk to as many of the decision makers as you can about what they’re looking for and then make a decision about whether you are – or can be – that person. There’s little point being buffeted by the winds of contradictory feedback unless you know you’re not compromising yourself beyond what you can tolerate. Perhaps we should take disappointment philosophically and feel fortunate not to have got the jobs where we were judged to unsuitable. If you end up taking a job where it’s hard to be yourself you’ll probably regret it.

If you’ve received post-interview feedback that you found useful then who am I to disagree. All I’m suggesting is that your decision about whether or not it was useful is probably also rooted in post-rationalisation and story telling. We end up merely absorbing someone’s preferences. The best feedback will be kind and encouraging without being too specific. The more specific it is, the more it will run the risk of being contradicted by someone else. The feedback you receive will only really be useful if you are interviewed by the same person for a similar role in the future, but even then, failure leaves a pungent tang. Even if you act on every bit of their advice, it will be hard for the interviewer to forget that you weren’t appointed last time. They will want to justify that decision by looking for flaws in your repeat performance. Again, this isn’t because they’re nasty, it’s because they’re human.

I would predict that we tend to think of the feedback we’ve received as useful depending on whether we’ve gone on to be successful in subsequent interviews. Just like the interviewer, we never really know why we were successful but it will be extraordinarily tempting to attribute our success to the pearls of wisdom we received when we were unsuccessful. It’s very hard to remember that causation is not the same as correlation.

Probably the biggest factor as to whether you are successful at an interview are the other candidates you’re competing against. All human judgments are comparative and the interviewing panel will be, explicitly or otherwise, comparing you to everyone else. If you happen to come up top, you probably get the job. On a different day, against a different field, you may not have. That’s just life and it can never, ever be captured in any meaningful and useful way by post-interview feedback.

So what should interviewers say to unsuccessful candidates?

First and always, be humble. Admit the impossibility of giving objective feedback and do your best to explain your process of rationalisation. Admit that it’s not fair and that it will have come down to how the unsuccessful candidate compared to everyone else. Acknowledge that there is no ‘right way’ to interview and that different interviewers will prioritise different things. Thank them for the effort that went into the application and let them know that being unsuccessful here should not be taken to mean they will be unsuccessful elsewhere.

That said, sometimes you might have to give feedback on a car crash of an interview performance: this is probably the only area where your feedback will be genuinely helpful. Because there is a consensus in most schools about minimum interview standards, presenting in a slovenly manner, not making eye contact, being over familiar and a host of other thou shalt nots are always worth trying to persuade candidates to avoid.

If you have other suggestions about how to make post-interview feedback useful I’d love to hear them.