REPORT: 6 Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions
WHAT ARE BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS?
You're no doubt familiar with the concept of a behavioral interview question. It's an interview question based on the philosophy that how a person responded to a past situation accurately predicts future behavior. Behavioral questions typically begin with the phrase "Tell me about a time..." because these interview questions want candidates to share a past experience. However, most of the common behavioral interview questions have a major flaw...
QUICK VIDEO ON PROBLEMS WITH BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
6 WORDS THAT RUIN BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
While behavioral interview questions can be incredibly effective, most interviewers ask behavioral questions in a way that gives away the correct answer and thus ruins the question's effectiveness. (This is true of even the most experienced human resources practitioners).
It's easiest to see this with some real-life examples. Here are some common behavioral interview questions:
- Tell me about a time when you adapted to a difficult situation and how you did it.
- Tell me about a time when you had to successfully balance competing priorities.
- Tell me about a time when you were bored on the job and what you did to make the job more interesting.
- Tell me about a time when you successfully persuaded someone to see things your way.
You probably noticed that all of these common behavioral interview questions ask the candidate to recount a specific situation when they 'successfully' did something. The candidate is asked a behavioral question about times they adapted to a difficult situation, balanced competing priorities, overcame a stressful situation, made their job more interesting and successfully persuaded someone. And that leads us to the flaw in these questions.
The Flaw In The Typical Behavioral Interview Question
These behavioral interview questions above make very clear that the candidate is supposed to share a success story about adapting, balancing, persuading, etc. No candidate in their right mind would answer these questions by saying "I'm terrible at persuading people, and my boss is a jerk who never listens to me anyway." Or "I'm constantly overwhelmed by competing priorities, and I can't live like that."
These interview questions give away the right answers; cuing candidates to share success stories and avoid examples of failure. You can see how each of these traditional interview questions gives away the correct answer with phrases like:
--and how you did it
--and how you did it successfully
--and what you did to make the job more interesting
--when you successfully persuaded someone to see things your way
Because the interview questions nudge candidates to ONLY share their successes, how are interviewers supposed to tell good from bad candidates if everyone shares only success stories? Wouldn't you rather change the question so that candidates feel free to tell you about all the times they couldn't balance competing priorities? Or failed to persuade people? Or couldn't adapt to a difficult situation?
Essentially, anytime you add words like "and how did you solve it?" or "and how did you overcome that?" or "and how did you accomplish that successfully?" you are giving away the right answer and ruining your behavioral interview question.
QUICKLY FIXING BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Let's take a common behavioral interview question "Tell me about a time when you were bored on the job and what you did to make the job more interesting." Because the question gives away the correct answer (talk about going from bored to interested), anyone who answers is going to say something like "here's what I did to make the job the more interesting, and I grew professionally, and I was so enriched, etc."
But now, imagine that you tweaked the question to not divulge the answer and you asked "Could you tell me about a time when you were bored on the job?" Because you're not giving away the correct answer, the interviewer is going to hear a wide range of responses.
Some candidates (people who are 'problem bringers' in their current job) are going to say things like "OMG, that job was sooo boring" and "I couldn't wait to quit" and "I was bored, but hey, I needed the money." Answers like that are a great gift because they immediately tell you as the hiring manager not to hire that candidate. And those answers make your job as interviewer much easier because they help you weed-out the weaker candidates.
By contrast, people who are 'problem solvers' in their current jobs will have success stories that they'll happily share. Their answers will highlight successes with details, context, evidence of deep thinking, and much more. And it's quite likely that they'll be problem solvers when they encounter a similar situation in your company. And because you (or human resources) will have culled out the poor candidates, these potential star candidates will be that much easier to identify.
COMMON BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND THEIR PROBLEMS
The good news is that the problematic interview questions we've been discussing are fixable (as are most behavioral interview questions).
The first big fix is to replace loaded words (like adapt, successfully, balance, persuade) with less presumptuous language.
For instance, instead of asking candidates about when they 'balanced' competing priorities, we should ask them about when they 'faced' competing priorities.
Instead of asking about when they 'adapted' to a difficult situation, we should ask about when they 'faced' a difficult situation. I would strongly encourage every human resources department to conduct a thorough review of their company's interview questions.
The second big fix is to eliminate leading phrases like "tell me how you did it."
We want to ask questions that are so open-ended that candidates feel comfortable telling us when they did not take any action. Again, we want to let them self-identify as 'problem bringers' rather than 'problem solvers.'
Here are some examples of how we could fix those interview questions...
ORIGINAL: Tell me about a time when you adapted to a difficult situation and how you did it.
CORRECTED: Could you tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation?
ORIGINAL: Tell me about a time when you had to successfully balance competing priorities.
CORRECTED: Could you tell me about a time when you faced competing priorities?
ORIGINAL: Tell me about a time when you were bored on the job and what you did to make the job more interesting.
CORRECTED: Could you tell me about a time when you were bored on the job?
ORIGINAL: Tell me about a time when you successfully persuaded someone to see things your way.
CORRECTED: Could you tell me about a time when people didn't see things your way?
Notice how each of the corrected questions doesn't divulge the correct answer? The corrected questions allow candidates to share failures or successes, and in doing so, allow candidates to reveal their true attitudes.
You probably also noticed that my corrected questions are a bit more difficult for candidates to answer. And that's intentional.
Your job as interviewer is not to help candidates answer your questions. While leaders generally want to help people succeed, this is one occasion where you have to sit back and allow them to fail (i.e. give really bad answers). You need people who will deliver great job performance after you've hired them. People who will fit your company culture. Behavioral interviews, when done well, will reveal candidates' flaws, but only if interviewers do NOT give away the correct answer.
I know it seems harsh, but it's much better to let them fail in an interview than to hire them and watch them fail on the job.
A Better Way To Start Your Behavioral Interview Question
A lot of commonly used behavioral interview questions begin with the phrase "Tell me about a time..." For example, "Tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation."
But notice that the traditional interview question ends with a period and not a question mark? That means, in the simplest possible terms, that it's not a question, it's a command. And when you're trying to get a candidate to reveal their true personality, issuing commands is a very bad way to go.
By contrast, when you add the words "could you" to the beginning, you actually get a really effective interview question. For example:
Could you tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation?
Could you tell me about a time when you faced competing priorities?
These questions are going to relax candidates into revealing their underlying attitudes.
Why else do we need to start interview questions with the words 'could you'? It's about letting the candidate feel like they have some measure of control in the interview process. People are generally pretty guarded when they're in a job interview. They may seem perfectly open, jovial, relaxed, etc., but that just means they've been given good career advice.
You want to get them to loosen up and lower some of those guards so they reveal what's really going on inside their heads, whether they'll fit your company culture, what their future behavior will really be like. And one way to do that is to give them the feeling that they have more control in this process. It makes the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a conversation.
When someone is getting hammered with questions, especially traditional interview questions that start to sound like orders- "tell me about situation A, then you will tell me about situation B... "-it constantly reminds them that they are in a powerless position, and that everything they say is being critically judged. As a result, they become guarded and highly reticent in what they are willing to share.
In order to get people to open up in the responses they give to your behavioural interview, you want them to forget that they're in a position without much power. Instead, you want them to feel that this is more like a conversation with a new friend.
So when you ask "Could you tell me... ?" it's a subtle way of saying: 'You have control because you can choose whether or not you want to answer this question.' Of course, no one is actually going to refuse to answer the question (or they know they're not getting the job). But the fact that you've suggested they have a choice in the matter plants a psychological seed that they have more control, just like they would in a conversation with a friend. Thus they start to act more like they would in a friendly conversation (i.e. open and honest).
This Follow-Up Question Will Ruin Your Behavioral Interview
Imagine that you're interviewing a candidate who's giving poor or unusually short interview answers. Couldn't we maybe draw out some specifics with a bit of probing?
Yes, possibly, but the first probe I would use would be silence. I'd let this person's response sit and I'd slowly and silently count to three. And if the candidate didn't start speaking by the time I got to three, I'd count to three all over again, all while wearing a calm and neutral expression on my face.
Probing with silence can be painful to do, but it's going to be twice as painful for your candidate. They will start talking, and the words that they choose to use will be entirely their own, which will allow you to continue your scientific textual study.
The problem with verbal prompts and probing questions is that they often lead candidates to give a more truthful sounding response (e.g. 'Tell me what it felt like to be part of that team?' or "Tell me what you did next?'). This is when candidates say to themselves "Whew! I didn't have to keep talking and they just told me what I'm supposed to say so now I don't have to give that next layer of information that might reveal I'm telling a lie." Using silence to force the candidate to keep talking, and show you their communication skills, is a simple technique that really works.
Bad Interview Questions
The three most common bad questions that get asked in interviews are:
1) Tell me about yourself.
2) What are your strengths?
3) What are your weaknesses?
Now everybody looks at these and goes, "Really those are bad interview questions? Why are they bad interview questions?" The answer is they're not bad questions because they're evil or anything like that. They're bad questions because everybody gives the same exact answer. Anyone who has ever conducted a job search knows how to respond to these questions. Look at this sample answer:
INTERVIEWER: "Tell me about yourself."
CANDIDATE: "I'm a motivated self-starter. I love individual accountability but I also love working collaboratively and working on teams."
INTERVIEWER: "Huh, I've never heard that before. That's great. Listen, I don't suppose you have any weaknesses or anything like that."
CANDIDATE: "I don't really like to talk about this too much but I have been told at times in the past that sometimes I care too much. Sometimes I give too much of myself. I can be a perfectionist. My work is always perfect and sometimes I'm just a little too driven to make it that way."
Whenever we ask questions like this, unfortunately, just about everybody on the planet has a prepared answer to each of these three interview questions. Why? Because they are the three most commonly asked interview questions ever. We want to avoid questions where everybody gives the same answer.
The Hypothetical Question Is A Real Problem
Hypothetical interview questions are questions like "What would you do if our server crashed at 2 o'clock in the morning?"
"You know what I would do? I first would assemble a team. I'd call everybody up because I'd have them all on my speed dial. I'd call them up, we'd come into the office and we'd instantly form a SWAT team. We'd diagnose the problem, we'd get a contingency plan in place immediately and then by 5:00 a.m. we'd have the situation resolved, messages out to the customer..." blah, blah, blah.
Wow, that's awesome. Then you hire this person and the server crashes at 2 o'clock in the morning and they're nursing a hangover, ignoring their phone calls, and saying, I'll deal with it in the morning. And then when they do come in, they spend the next four hours just screaming and yelling at their vendors.
When you ask somebody a hypothetical question, generally speaking, what you get is a hypothetical answer. A hypothetical question tests whether people know what the right answer is. It doesn't test whether or not they're actually capable of doing the right answer. Nor does it give you any sense of their past behavior in similar situations. This same problem also often applies to situational interview questions.
Now, there are dozens of examples out there of how this works. If you said "What would you do if you were trapped in a convenience store and there was a robbery, and then the robber left, but in the process shot one of the people in the store? What would you do?"
"I would instantly call 911 and I might even track down the robber. I might even try and stop that robber myself." It's what most people would say. You can find a news story once every six months about just this thing. In fact, there was one recently in Kansas where this situation happened. The robber left the store and shot one of the people in the store, and everybody else, when they left the store, they stepped right over the bleeding woman on the floor. They didn't call 911, they didn't stop and help her. They literally stepped over her body on the way out of the store.
Now, would lots of people be scared? Yes, exactly. But if I'm hiring for the Navy SEALS, I kind of want somebody who's not going to step over the body. I want somebody who's going to go lend assistance. This is the problem with hypothetical questions. Everybody sounds good in a hypothetical situation. We all know what the right answer is. Do we do the right answer? Not often, and that's the real issue.
The Technical Interview Is Necessary But Insufficient To Make Great Hires
Contrary to popular belief, technical skills are not the primary reason why new hires fail; instead, poor interpersonal skills dominate the list, flaws which many of their managers admit were overlooked during the job interview process. A coding interview will reveal whether someone has the skill to program, but it tells you nothing about their stress management, teamwork, positivity, resilience, coachability, and more.
Based on the legendary study Why New Hires Fail, when a new hire was determined to be a "failed hire," the hiring managers completed a survey to assess why the new hire failed.
Overwhelmingly, the cause of failed hires was NOT that they didn't have the technical skill to fulfill the job description, rather 89% of the failures were the result of attitudes. The study found that the Top 5 reasons why new hires failed were as follows:
- Coachability (26%): The ability to accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and others.
- Emotional Intelligence (23%): The ability to understand and manage one's own emotions, and accurately assess others emotions.
- Motivation (17%): Sufficient drive to achieve ones full potential and excel in the job.
- Temperament (15%): Attitude and personality suited to the particular job and work environment.
- Technical Competence (11%): Functional or technical skills required to do the job.
Terrible Interview Questions
The following are a few examples of some particularly troublesome undifferentiating questions. These interview questions are actually being used. Some were sourced from the folks who have been certified in Hiring for Attitude or who have attended a Leadership IQ hiring webinar or seminar. I found others on Glassdoor.com. (Glassdoor.com is a free career community where anyone can find and anonymously share an inside look at jobs and companies.)
- "What do you like to do for fun?" (According to Glassdoor.com, this was an interview question for an intern at Ernst & Young. A related question is "What do you like to do outside of work?")
- "How are M&M's made?" (According to Glassdoor.com, this was an interview question asked by US Bank.)
- "If you could be any superhero, who would it be?" (According to Glassdoor.com, this was an interview question asked by AT&T, but we've also been told this question-or the variation "Which superpower would you choose?"-has been asked by companies like Citigroup.)
- "What was the last book you read?" (We've heard hundreds of reports of companies using this question, including Humana and Fujitsu Network Communications. The "movie" variation is also popular.)
- "Which one of the seven dwarves would you be?" (Honestly, it just seems too cruel to name the companies that use this question.)
- "If you could be any kind of tree (or animal/fish/vegetable), what kind of tree would you be?" (We've also heard of hundreds of companies using these questions.)
So let's suppose I ask my candidates the question "If you could be any kind of animal, what kind of animal would you be?" Once again, without any scientific studies to prove that every high performer in my company answers this question "lion," and every low performer answers "gazelle," I just don't gain a lot of insight. And even worse, the insight I think I'm getting could be completely wrong. What if I think all high performers would answer "parrot" (because I'm a huge Jimmy Buffett fan) and all low performers would answer "lizard" (no offense intended to any Jim Morrison fans)? How many wrong people will I hire simply because they too like parrots? And, how many stars might get cast aside because they happen to like reptiles?
I actually had an executive from a well-known energy company tell me that his hiring managers regularly use the animal question. The top executives decided, without any scientific study, that future high performers would say "tiger" and future low performers would say "elephant." And they stood by those answers-if you didn't say tiger, it wasn't likely that you were going to get hired. Just imagine how many potential high performers they passed over (and how many low performers they hired) because of an answer to an undifferentiating question.
Bad interview questions can be crazy, funny, and even illegal, but they all share a common link: they don't do anything to help you assess candidates' attitudes.
How To Spot Liars During Job Interviews
Vague responses, where the candidate responds to questions by speaking in generalities rather than specifics, is one of the biggest linguistical tips offs that someone may not be telling the truth.
During interviews, candidates are typically asked to provide a specific example and they are expected to respond by telling about 'a time when." Qualified high performers are stacked with detailed stories about their great accomplishments and are eager to share each specific situation. They have no reason to lie, and this is apparent in the specific nature of their words.
Consider, for example, this candidate's response to the interview question 'Could you tell me about a time you worked as part of a team?'
"I was asked to help develop a professional services model with a team of my peers. Each of us provided our thoughts and ideas and shared our professional experience. I remember how we were all huddled in a room with a big whiteboard walking through the exercise step-by-step. I went home that day thinking how much fun it was to work with great people in a dynamic, free-flowing, brainstorming way. I felt really lucky to be part of a team where we all applied experience from our past, respected each other, and stayed on task until our deadline was met."
This response is full of specifics including how the candidate thought and felt and how the team interacted with each other. The memory of huddling around the whiteboard sounds like an impromptu detail (as opposed to pre-rehearsed) lending even more credibility to the response.
We also hear the use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) that reveal personal ownership (even when talking about teamwork). Collectively, these specifics are strong indicators that this person lived this experience and is telling the truth.
On the flip side, a candidate who lacks any situational experience working on teams but wants to lie about it, or who is trying to hide an unsavory truth about teamwork abilities, has no real-life story to roll out. This person will have to construct a story, and the cognitive strain of this often reveals itself in a lack of complexity, where explanations about events (that didn't happen) sound unrealistically straightforward or vague.
Liars will often try to compensate for this by throwing in a few qualifiers to amp up their story. In addition to truncating their speech, people looking to omit or hide something (like a bad attitude) tend to use second and third person pronouns which give them psychological distance from their lies.
Here's an example of what a less than truthful response sounds like:
“There was a really great team at my last job, they were really smart people. We met all the time and we were always coming up with lots of great ideas that could have short and long-term impact."
We hear no specifics that link the candidate with having lived this experience. We do hear second person pronouns, qualifiers ('really great' 'really smart' 'all the time' and 'always coming up with)' and hypothetical language ('could have'), all of which are strong indicators that this response is more fiction than fact.
A Behavioral Interview Question To Test Candidates' Integrity
There's a single interview question that does a great job at revealing the truth about integrity. It's a question you should ask if you don't want to get tricked into hiring someone who has no problem bending or breaking the rules. A question that helps identify candidates who lie, or who use blame and excuses to cover up mistakes. A question that can expose people who may misguide clients, who gossip and share confidential information, or who abuse company property or ignore safety precautions.
The behavior based interview question is: Could you tell me about a time you experienced failure at work?
I know it sounds overly simple, but it takes a humble being with a good dose of integrity to answer this question successfully. It's not a question most candidates come prepared to answer, which means it puts people on the spot. And that greatly increases your chances of learning the truth about whether this is someone who always tries to do the right thing
Let's take a look at a specific example of how a candidate responded to the interview question "Could you tell me about a time you experienced failure at work?"
Candidate A: "I can't really think of any failures I've had. But I don't think failure is always a negative thing. In fact, failure can show that you are working hard and trying to be successful. I'm not saying that all failures are a good thing, though. Luckily, my track record on failure is pretty clean."
This candidate takes what might seem like a safe route to answering the question. But while it may be daunting to think of a specific example of failure and to share it in a positive way, choosing to respond with this sort of non-answer actually may indicate a few negative things about this candidate.
Most people who have worked have experienced failure. This leaves us to wonder if Candidate A truly sees themselves as someone who is perfect just as they are (which would indicate a reluctance to grow and develop). Another option is that Candidate A is trying to hide a history of failures. Or, this may be someone who always plays it safe, who doesn't set big goals, take calculated risks or make bold moves, and so truly has never failed. None of these interpretations are particularly desirable.
When you want to hire for integrity, ask your candidates about a time they experienced failure at work. It's a question that is likely to produce a candid response that will tell you the truth about the person sitting in front of you.
The Best Interview Question To Test If Candidates Are Great At Customer Service
Even a well-known repeat customer may prefer different levels of customer service depending on the situation. So when you're hiring for a customer-service position, it's imperative to single out the candidates who intelligently read their customers, in the moment, and then flexibly respond by delivering the level of service that customer desires.
Here's an interview question I recommend from the book Hiring for Attitude: Could you tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult customer?
Asking about a difficult customer provides a window into what the candidate considers to be a difficult customer, reveals how intelligently the candidate interprets a challenging customer service situation, and provides evidence as to how flexible the candidate is when responding to that challenge.
Let me show you how it works by walking you through some real-life answers (both good and bad) to our interview question "Could you tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult customer?"
This was considered a "bad" answer:
"After the customer screamed at me for no reason he then admitted that he had no intention of ever doing business with us again due to a bad experience he'd had with a previous sales person. I can't imagine what that other salesperson could have done to make the customer so upset, but I refuse to participate when someone is screaming at me. I don't get paid enough to deal with that kind of frustration."
This interview answer is incredibly revealing. This person does not evidence the willingness or ability to situationally assess a customer service experience, nor do they show any flexibility in providing the level of customer service their customers desire.
Now let's take a look at a "good" answer this interview question generated:
"I knew I had to go the extra step to make sure the customer's request was met, and that meant following up internally as well as getting back them. It was a bit uncomfortable, especially given how much he had screamed at me, but I knew it was the right thing to do, and you know, it wasn't that bad. He was really nice when I called back."
Here we hear the candidate describe how they took a situational approach to delivering great customer service in a challenging situation. And they took the time to understand what was going on with the customer and to alter their approach to customer service to meet that customer's immediate needs.
An Interview Question To Test If Job Candidates Have Emotional Intelligence
People low in emotional intelligence don't understand or know how to manage their own emotions. And they don't know how to read emotions in others.
We see this in employees who struggle to deal with stress, overcome obstacles and resolve conflict, or who fail to meet the needs of coworkers and customers, are negative, blamers, entitled, procrastinators, change resistors, overly sensitive or drama kings and queens. And that's just for starters.
You've got limited time when interviewing candidates and it isn't easy to assess emotional intelligence. But with a good interview question or two and the knowledge of what good and bad responses sound like, you can identify whether someone can move past negative feelings including anger, doubt and anxiety, or if they are generally flexible, optimistic, confident, empathic, congenial and more.
Here's an interview question to test emotional intelligence along with some real-life responses the questions generated.
Interview Question: Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?
You won't hear people low in emotional intelligence take much accountability for their mistakes. The people you want to hire know that it's OK to make mistakes as long as they acknowledge the error, make corrections, help others to avoid making similar errors and move on.
It should be easy to differentiate the good answer from the bad answer in the following real-life responses:
Answer No. 1 [Bad Interview Answer]: I was told I generated a client report incorrectly, but I had done it that way before and no one ever said anything. After some research, I learned that the proper instructions were never written down anywhere and the person that instructed me to do it that way was no longer with the company. It made me mad and from that point on I always safeguarded myself so I never got blamed for someone else's mistake again. •
Answer No. 2 [Good Interview Answer]: There was a problem on the production line and I ordered a shut down on the whole system. It took hours to repair during which time I learned that one of my peers could have fixed the problem and minimized the impact of lost production. I made a hasty decision in response to feeling overwhelmed in the moment. I felt embarrassed to have failed to access all solutions and expertise available to me, but I learned a lot from the experience.
You can use this question in your own interviews, or look for situations where emotional intelligence (or a lack of it) reveals itself in your organization to create new questions.
The Best Interview Question To Test If Job Candidates Are Good At Teamwork
To assess whether candidates are good at teamwork, I recommend the interview question, "Could you tell me about a time you worked on a team?"
It's not very sexy, and that's by design. It's architected to be very open-ended, with no giveaways about the right and wrong answer. And that's why it's so effective at differentiating high and low performers.
It's a great question, but before you go into any interview, you need to know how your organization defines teamwork.
What works as a team for one company could be a total disaster in another. So make sure you know how your organization defines teamwork (both good and bad) and share that definition with everyone who meets with your candidates.
TEST YOURSELF WITH THESE BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
- Leadership Styles Quiz: Which Of These Different Leadership Styles Do You Use?
- Communication Styles Quiz And Research: Which Of These Different Communication Styles Do You Use?
- Types Of Power Quiz: Do You Use Referent Power, Reward Power, Coercive Power, Legitimate Power, Expert Power or Information Power?
- Quiz: What Motivates You?
- The State Of Leadership Development
- Why New Hires Fail (The Landmark "Hiring For Attitude" Study Updated With New Data)
- Are SMART Goals Dumb?
- Employee Engagement Is Higher For Low Performers In 42% Of Companies
- Quiz: What's Your Organizational Culture?