Here's A Behavioral Interview Question For Testing If Candidates Can Handle Constructive Criticism

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

No one likes getting tough feedback from the boss, but it’s often necessary to grow and develop on the job. Your company doesn’t want to hire folks who can’t constructively receive constructive criticism. You want people who can bounce back in a positive manner. But how do you interview people to test whether or not they can actually handle tough feedback?

Since I literally wrote the book on Hiring for Attitude, I’ll share with you one of my favorite (and most effective) behavioral interview questions:

Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from a supervisor or boss?

That’s it, that’s the whole question exactly as it needs to be asked. It’s important to note that there’s no leading “and tell me how you handled that feedback?” tagged on at the tail end of this question. Asking leading questions is one of biggest mistakes hiring managers make. (If you want to test if you could handle these kinds of job interview questions, take this quiz called “Could You Pass This Job Interview?“)

This simple, non-leading, open-ended question, asked just as it’s written above, is great at revealing someone’s true attitude about how they receive tough feedback (aka constructive criticism) for two big reasons.

First, the bare-bones nature of this behavioral interview question forces the candidate to reveal how they define “tough feedback.” And that’s a good thing. Because imagine someone says “My boss chewed me out for being 10 minutes late every day.” You’re likely to hear this and think to yourself “Really? Being told to get to work on time is what you consider constructive criticism?” Here you’ve already learned that you and the candidate are not on the same page as to what constitutes real constructive criticism. In addition to learning that this person may have some punctuality issues, also valuable information to have, it’s your first red flag that you might not want to hire this person.

Second, because the question asks about a time the candidate got tough feedback (and NOT about a time they responded to/made a change because of/ etc.), it’s entirely up to the candidate how to answer this question. And since feedback-resistant folks don’t tend to have a lot of experiences to share about all the times they DID hear and DID positively process tough feedback, how they answer is going to produce a gold mine of information. As for the folks who understand the value of constructive criticism, they’ll also reveal themselves in how they respond to this interview question.

Now, having a great job interview question is important. But it’s just as important to know how to grade the responses you get. Because what’s the point of giving a test, and interviewing is a test, if you don’t have an answer key that lets you accurately grade that test.

When I wrote Hiring for Attitude, I dedicated an entire chapter to developing and using Answer Guidelines. Essentially, Answer Guidelines give examples of good and bad answers to your behavioral interview questions. Hiring mangers that use Answer Guidelines are well versed in what high and low performers sound like when answering those questions. And this prepares them to evaluate candidates’ attitudes about feedback consistently and accurately.

Let me show you how it works by walking you through some real-life answers (both good and bad) to our behavioral interview question “Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from a supervisor or boss?” These examples come directly from the Answer Guidelines developed for one of my clients, a leading distributor of telecommunication equipment.

This was considered a “bad” answer:

“The best example was the time I was reprimanded for a goal that had not been met for the quarter due to another individual being a road block for me getting the task done. I was pretty angry as I had told my manager about the problem on several occasions and was basically told, “that’s just the way people are and there is nothing that will be done about it.” It’s really unfair that no matter how badly someone jeopardizes a project or customer that they will not be reprimanded or terminated. It’s even worse though when I get blamed even though I wasn’t the one who caused the issue.”

Why is this considered a bad answer? One word: Blamer. Blamers are highly reactive personalities who just won’t accept responsibility for much of anything. When things go wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. Blamers are not folks who generally respond constructively to tough feedback.

It’s also big red flag when a candidate doesn’t choose to talk about a time that they successfully embraced and implemented a change in response to tough feedback. Of course, you won’t hear that if your question leads the candidate to talk about the one time out of a million that they “successfully adapted to tough feedback.” That’s why our interview question, as awkward as it may feel at first to ask, is left open-ended.

Now let’s flip this around and look at what this client considered a “good” answer:

“My boss let me know that I had been a little short with a client. Granted, it was a tough client, but I understood exactly what happened, when it happened, and how I contributed to the situation. I knew exactly what I had said that was wrong. Although it bothered me to hear that feedback, I accepted my boss’ words. I signed up for a conflict resolution classes offered at a local college and learned a lot about how to develop anticipation and awareness so I had much better control over potentially difficult situations. It’s actually had a real impact on my life even outside of work. But at work, I made sure that was the only time my boss ever had to give me that type of feedback.”

Why is this considered a good answer? First, it’s very specific, indicating that it’s probably not fictionalized (the candidate probably really lived through this). Second, the candidate embraced the feedback they were given and made a real effort to change in response to that feedback. This person didn’t just say, “I’m sorry” and go through the motions. They demonstrated how they made that feedback a personal project by signing up for a conflict resolution class. They took ownership of making the needed changes. High performers want to tell you all about their successes; it’s just what high performers do.

Whether you create Answer Guidelines or use some other kind of answer key, learn what high and low performers in your organization sound like when they answer the interview question: “Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from a supervisor or boss?” And then, next round of interviews, go ahead and test your candidates’ by asking the question and listening carefully for the hallmarks of high and low performance in the answers you get.

Mark Murphy is NY Times bestselling author, Founder of Leadership IQ, a sought-after leadership training speaker, and creator of the leadership styles assessment.

Posted by Mark Murphy on 11 October, 2016 Forbes, Hiring for Attitude | 0 comments
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