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 hiring questions that target previous behaviors. Past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior. But there’s a caveat: Behavioral questions are only effective when they prompt a response that reveals the truth about both weaknesses and strengths. And that’s where the 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 question: “We have a very team-based culture here, so you’ve got good teamwork and collaboration 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 teamwork skills. And while we can all laugh at how overtly that teamwork question was “leading” the candidate and tipping-off the correct answer, the questions that started the article are more subtle, but just as problematic.

In 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 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 the question: “Tell me about a conflict with a co-worker and how you resolved it.” This 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: “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 snippets of some 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 an interview question; to reveal the candidate’s true attitude, not their canned, rehearsed interview personality.

When Leadership IQ discovered in a groundbreaking study that 46% of new hires fail within their first 18 months, we wanted to know why. As we dug deeper, it turns out that 89% of them failed for attitudinal reasons, not for the lack of skills. With skills already being one of the easiest things to test in the interview process, we developed a new resource to teach the concept of “Hiring For Attitude.” Download our free white paper,  ”Hiring for Attitude: The Research & Tools to Skyrocket Your Success Rate” now.

Mark Murphy is the New York Times Bestselling author and Founder of Leadership IQ.

Click here to see Mark’s upcoming webinars.

Mark leads one of the world’s largest leadership training and employee engagement studies, and his work has appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Mark has also been a featured guest on programs including CBS News Sunday Morning, ABC’s 20/20, Fox Business News and NPR.

Mark’s leadership training and employee engagement surveys have yielded remarkable results for organizations such as Harvard Business School, Aflac, Charles Schwab, Microsoft, IBM, MasterCard, Merck, MD Anderson Cancer Center, FirstEnergy, Volkswagen and Johns Hopkins.

Mark’s best-selling books included Hiring for Attitude, Hundred Percenters, and HARD Goals.


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