Spotting top talent: 6 underrated qualities to look for in candidates 

Vaco Blog Graphic - Underrated qualities to look for in candidates

Every hiring company wants to land the very best talent, whether they’re trying to fill a contract position or a long-term role. The ability to spot that talent, however, is not always easy. When looking to identify the qualities that make not only a great employee but a great teammate, hiring managers may need to shift the characteristics they look for and prioritize in potential new hires.

What makes a great candidate a top candidate?  

If you answered skills, experience or education, you’d be partially right. And while technical know-how is important, soft skills are often a better indicator of a candidate’s true potential. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 92% of hiring managers and talent professionals emphasize the importance of soft skills, and 89% report that “bad hires” are usually lacking important soft skills.  

As a result, the value of soft skills cannot be overstated, especially in today’s competitive hiring market. While most hiring managers are great at determining a candidate’s aptitude for teamwork or leadership, there are some important traits that are harder to gauge without the right interview questions and prompts. 

Below, we’ve outlined a few of the most underrated characteristics of great job candidates and provided sample interview questions to help hiring managers suss them out.  

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Virtually every business, no matter its size or industry, will go through periods of change. Sometimes, the change is immense — like losing a key leader, going public or being acquired, for instance. Most of the time, however, the changes are small, incremental and constant. They require the people within an organization to continually adapt to stay successful. 

Employees with high adaptability face change with an open mind, making this one of the most in-demand soft skills today. In fact, a recent survey from Harvard Business School concluded that 71% of executives rate adaptability as the most important leadership trait for today’s world. Adaptable hires are resourceful, eager to learn and receptive to new perspectives. Most importantly, they are able to pivot to new directives and expectations while maintaining their composure, focus and positivity. 

If you want to gauge adaptability in a candidate, consider asking behavior-based questions including: 

What is the most challenging aspect of starting a new position? How do you address those challenges?  
Have you ever experienced a period of transition or uncertainty in a previous role? How did you respond? Is there anything you would change about your response? 
Imagine you’re in the middle of a large project when the direction suddenly changes. How would you manage the adjustment and ensure that the project stays on track? 
Describe a time when unforeseen circumstances required you to take on new tasks or responsibilities—a co-worker suddenly resigning, for instance. How did you balance your new tasks with your existing ones? What were your methods for prioritizing your workload? 

Pay close attention to the way candidates speak to the scenarios above. Were they unsettled by periods of change in their previous roles, or did they embrace the new direction? 

Candidates who are adaptable will reference periods of change with a positive attitude and provide specific examples of ways they were able to adjust and thrive. 


Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive and relate to another person’s feelings or experiences. It is a foundational element of emotional intelligence—a nuanced ability to identify, manage and respond appropriately to both one’s own emotions and those of others.  

Studies show that empathy is a key driver of numerous positive employee outcomes, including productivity, innovation and inclusivity. High empathy is also linked to feelings and behaviors that foster a healthy work environment like compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, charitableness and cooperation.  

Not every role requires constant human interaction, but most require ongoing communication, teamwork and the ability to get along with others, whether that’s colleagues, co-workers, managers, stakeholders or clients. A candidate who displays empathy and emotional intelligence is more likely to navigate these interactions with sensitivity, openness and understanding. 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to gauge empathy by asking traditional interview questions. Most candidates can sense when a question has a clear right or wrong answer, and they may default to providing the most desirable response instead of being completely honest.  

Scenario-based questions can prompt more authentic answers and provide insight into how the candidate responds in unique situations. 

Here are some examples:

Describe the best manager you’ve ever had. What traits and qualities made them such an effective leader?
Describe a situation when you had to deliver disappointing news. How did you navigate the conversation? What was the outcome? 
Describe a time when a co-worker was struggling and needed help. How did you respond? What was the outcome?
Describe a time when you worked on a difficult team. How did you navigate daily interactions or collaborative projects? 

These scenario-based questions will help you gauge a candidate’s values, how they navigate stressful situations and how they respond to the needs of others. 


Self-awareness, another key component of emotional intelligence (EQ), is characterized by the ability to: 

  • Recognize your own emotions 
  • Acknowledge the ways your emotions may be impacting your thought processes, behaviors and ability to make decisions 
  • Recognize how your behaviors and decisions are perceived by others 

Self-awareness drives several positive workplace behaviors, like being receptive to feedback, having an accurate self-perception and being aware of triggers for stress and anxiety.  

A self-aware person is in tune with the emotions that drive their behaviors; they’re able to reflect on why those behaviors occur and how they may be perceived by others.  

Perhaps most importantly, self-awareness drives accountability. When a person has an accurate view of their strengths and limitations, they can manage expectations—both their co-workers’ and their own—more effectively. Not only that, but research suggests that appropriate levels of self-awareness pay dividends by making people more confident and creative. 

To gauge self-awareness in a candidate, consider the following interview questions: 

What motivates you most in your career? 
Describe an instance in your career when you failed at something. How did you recover? What was your response? 
Think of a time when you received critical feedback from a manager or co-worker. How did it make you feel? How did you respond? 
If your co-workers were asked to name your greatest strength, what do you think they would say? What about your greatest weakness? 


According to Angela Duckworth, author of the New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, grit is sustained passion and perseverance—the ability to keep trying—even when faced with failure or uncertainty. Duckworth’s research concluded that grit is a strong predictor of success, and other studies conclude it plays a strong role in overall work performance. 

In seasons of adversity, employees with grit keep their focus and determination. They bring a can-do mentality to both complex challenges and small bumps in the road. When something needs to be done, they possess an almost unstoppable work ethic.

These questions can help you evaluate candidate grit: 

Describe a time when you were working towards a goal but faced multiple obstacles in getting there. How did you respond? 
Imagine being faced with what seems like an unsolvable problem. How would you navigate the questions and setbacks? What strategy would you take to arrive at a solution? 
Describe a personal or professional goal you’re currently working towards. What motivates you to keep trying?  


According to research from Harvard Business School, 48% of executives consider curiosity a necessary leadership skill. A curious person has a genuine appetite to learn and discover new things. They balance asking questions with quietly observing and gathering the data, information and context they need to reach an informed conclusion or decision. 

Curious employees bring a fresh eye and a beginner’s mind to a variety of workplace situations, from solving problems to resolving conflicts. Rather than approach conflict with defensiveness, they ask questions—with a goal of reaching a shared understanding, rather than “winning” or being declared right. A curious person meets obstacles with inquisitiveness rather than frustration, and they are hesitant to accept conventional solutions to problems.  

If a company wants to challenge the status quo and overcome stagnation, they need curious people on their teams.  

The following questions can help you gauge a candidate’s curiosity: 

Describe a time when you taught yourself a new skill or immersed yourself in a subject. What attracted you to that skill or subject? What steps did you take to learn? 
What questions do you have for me? 

If a candidate is curious, they’ve likely taken a deep dive into numerous subjects and skills, and they discuss their learning process with detail and excitement. Similarly, the questions they ask in interviews are unique and highlight a genuine desire to learn more.  


How can you assess whether a candidate has integrity? Like the other qualities on our list, it takes more than yes or no questions to get a true read on these deep-seated personality traits.  

When you’re evaluating qualities as complex and nuanced as integrity or empathy, it can be helpful to incorporate blind evaluations into your skills and behavioral testing. Outside the spotlight of an in-person interview, many candidates find it easier to be honest and authentic. Blind assessments can also reduce the impact of cognitive bias during hiring.  


Hiring is a delicate juggling act. It requires an understanding of the skills and competencies required to do the job, as well as the ability to spot the personal characteristics that can translate those skills into success. 

During the hiring process, it’s important for employers to consider traits and qualities that transcend the measuring sticks used in traditional interviews. Review the qualities of your most successful team members. Ask department heads and leaders to help draft interview questions that will illuminate the qualities the team needs most in potential new hires. With input from leadership, you can refresh your definition of a great candidate and uncover potential star performers you may have otherwise overlooked.  



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