The Biggest Mistake With Behavioral Interview Questions

The following are some standard behavioral interview questions commonly asked by managers around the globe, and every one of them is seriously flawed. See if you can identify the problem:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a difficult situation. What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to balance competing priorities and did so successfully.
  • Tell me about a conflict with a co-worker and how
     you resolved it.

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with behavioral interview questions that target previous behaviors. Past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior. But there’s a caveat: Behavioral interview questions are only effective when they prompt a response that reveals the truth about both weaknesses and strengths. And that’s where the interview questions above go horribly wrong. Every one of those questions contains an obvious “tip off” on how to game a response that showcases the good and hides the bad. They are all leading questions.

Imagine you asked a candidate the following job interview question: “We have a very team-based culture here, so you’ve got good teamwork and communication skills, right?” The candidate would have to be completely clueless not to get the correct answer to this question; of course they’ll say they have great communication skills. And while we can all laugh at how overtly that job interview question was “leading” the candidate and tipping-off the correct answer, the questions that started the article are more subtle, but just as problematic.

behavioral interview questionsIn this world, there are problem bringers and there are problem solvers. When you ask a problem bringer about a problem, they will tell you about the problem and nothing more. When you ask a problem solver about a problem, they will tell you about both the problem and the solution.

Now, the problem with leading interview questions is that they steal your chance to find out if someone is a problem bringer or a problem solver. Let’s say you ask a candidate about “a time when you had to adapt to a difficult situation.” The leading word here is “adapt.” It signals to the candidate that you only want to hear the one good example of the time they “adapted.” But what if you had left that question more open-ended? What if you had asked them about “a time when you faced a difficult situation.” In this case, a problem solver would still naturally tell you about the time they “adapted” or “solved” the situation. But all those problem bringer personalities out there would tell you about a time they “faced” a difficult situation. They wouldn’t tell you how they solved it, because that’s not what you asked. You asked about a problem, and that’s what you’ll get (and just think how much fun that personality type would be to work with).

Let’s take one of our behavioral interview questions from above: “Tell me about a conflict with a co-worker and how you resolved it.” This interview question goes wrong with the phrase “how you resolved it.” With this question, we’ve just signaled that we don’t want to hear about any times that they did NOT resolve the conflict with a coworker. But from a hiring perspective, that’s the really important information. What if they resolved a conflict one time, and failed to resolve the conflict 500 times? By making this a leading question, you’ve lost all the data on the 500 episodes where they couldn’t resolve a conflict.

And how about another of our interview questions: “Tell me about a time when you had to balance competing priorities and did so successfully.” “Balance competing priorities” tells the candidate NOT to tell you about all the times they struggled or failed to balance competing priorities (which would be good to know), but instead to find the one time they were able to balance priorities successfully and relay that example.

Now, will people be honest when you strip out the leading parts of the questions? Will they honestly tell you the bad examples? In a word, YES. In a recent project where we redesigned interview questions, our client started asking candidates: “tell me about a time you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete an assignment.”

Here are some snippets of actual answers:

  • “Happened all the time; that’s why I’m interviewing with you guys.”
  • “I told them to find somebody else.”
  • “That’s why we have customer service; let them figure it out.”
  • “When I didn’t know what to do, I’d rather do nothing at all.”
  • “I just ignored their request.”

Those are really honest answers. They’re terrible, of course, but honest. And any hiring manager who hears those answers knows instantly that this person does NOT have a great attitude and is NOT a fit for their culture. And that’s the point of behavioral interview questions; to reveal the candidate’s true attitude, not their canned, rehearsed interview personality.

 job interview


Posted by Mark Murphy on 22 June, 2015 Hiring for Attitude | 1 comment
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  • Pitu - November 09, 2015

    - I was just thinking this suejbct this morning our fears basically. Whatever we are most afraid of is what we need to face the most. When we intentionally avoid something, regardless of the reason, we are actually giving it even more of our attention and energy attention and energy that can be used for something more productive and positive. Avoiding something simply keeps us hijacked by that thing. We hold the keys to our own emotional freedom!I also was thinking about how facing things from our past keep not only us from emotional hijacking ourselves but from others using emotional blackmail, (or any other kind of blackmail). If we face it, get it over with, we keep our power; we get stronger and wiser.

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