The Art of Behavioural Interviewing: A really short guide

What do interviews at Google, Marriott Hotels and the UK’s largest nursing home company have in common? The short answer is: they focus on attitude at least as much as you do on skills!

Let me start with a couple more questions: What is the first thing you want to uncover during an interview? Better yet, if you had only 5’ with a candidate what do you focus on? Is it their level of technical competence or their blend of energy, humour, team spirit and self-confidence? Before diving into a detailed guide on how to become an interviewing expert, let me first convince you that you should be focusing on attitude at least as much as you do on skills!

Whether you’re hiring your next hourly employee, your next CEO, or someone in between, attitude will be the issue that determines that new hire’s success or failure.

Most new recruits who fail within 18 months fail for reasons of attitude, not lack of skill.

Why, you ask, is attitude the top predictor of success or failure…? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that technical skills aren’t as important. BUT,

  • Technical skills are much easier to assess: Standardized tests exist for virtually every job (from a neurosurgeon to an engineer or a cashier), allowing you to assess technical proficiency with ease and at scale. What is harder to determine is attitude; whether a candidate is motivated to learn new skills, think out of the box, cope with failure, absorb coaching, collaborate with teammates, and so on. So, on average, we do a great job assessing technical skills and a relatively poor job filtering out the candidates with the wrong attitude.
  • What You Know Changes, Who You Are Doesn’t: Many training programs are successful with increasing and improving skills — especially on the technical side. But these same programs are very weak when it comes to creating mindset change.
  • There’s an increasing abundance of skilled professionals:The recent lack of sharp wage increases in most job categories is evidence of the abundant supply of skills. Technical proficiency, once a guarantee of lifetime employment, is a more of a commodity in today’s job market.

In some cases I admit that beggars can’t be choosers. We have all been in a situation where we cannot afford to lose that super expert who is also a blaming, entitled, passive procrastinator -and, by the way, also likes to create drama around the office for attention!

But for the most part, we have to get the best of both worlds! Hold on to your high standards in terms of expertise but also block that drama-queen from moving through your hiring funnel.

So how do you improve your HIRING FOR ATTITUDE?

Highly perceptive and psychologically-savvy interviewers can assess employees’ soft skills. But the majority of managers lack both the training to accurately read candidates as well as the confidence to act when their readings are correct.

As the focus on hiring is shifting away from technical proficiency and onto attitude, it has brought a lot of tactical changes in how job interviews are conducted. For example, the new kinds of interview questions being asked are providing real information about attitude instead of the vague or canned answers hiring managers used to get. Smarter companies shouldn’t rely on the old standby questions like “tell me about yourself” and “what are your weaknesses?” Companies can have answer keys by which to accurately rate candidate’s answers. Interviewers can listen to candidates’ verb tense and other grammar choices and make accurate determinations about someone’s future performance potential.

At Movinhand we’re working with 10 of our largest clients to design a groundbreaking & rigorous interviewing process that uncovers actionable attitudinal data for their screening and selection funnel.

We are conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews to :

  1. research questions and answers that will reveal someone’s attitude most effectively
  2. craft practical and engaging interview questions that can be applied across several skill categories
  3. build guidelines & scoring allowing you to match a candidate’s attitude to your organization as a function of their answers.

So now let’s become a bit more practical. What is attitude exactly? What can you do to better assess mindset, soft skills and culture fit?

Your first task during an interview is to break the ice. There’s no point in keeping your candidate uptight and nervous if your goal is to understand their mindset. You have to help them relax a little…

The key question to avoid is, “So tell me all about yourself…”. That’s because it’s simply too broad an invitation to share information that’s not relevant to the interview. Besides, where would you expect a candidate to start? From his current career backward or from his education forward?

Instead of risking opening a potential can of worms, try something light like this:

“Tell me about your job search up to now. How’s it been going and what have your experiences been?’’

or

“So, before we launch too deeply into your experience and background as well as what we’re looking for in our next hire, tell me what criteria you’re using in selecting your next company or position. What’s really important to you?’’

or

So let me ask you the most important question before we begin: Do you enjoy interviewing, or would you rather stick needles in your eye?’’

or even,

“Most surveys will tell you that there are only two things that people hate more than interviewing — dying and paying taxes. Does that describe you fairly well, or do you actually enjoy interviewing a bit more than that?’’

At the risk of oversimplifying, I would argue that hiring for attitude comes down to 4 key focus areas:

  1. Coachability — Coachability is the number one reason new hires fail. Simply put, this is an inability to accept and act upon feedback. Look for candidates who are open to input and constructive criticism from bosses, peers, and workgroups. These people can make adjustments in their attitudes and work habits for the good of the company as well as their own careers. Coachability is an important trait in candidates and employees because it indicates the ability to be flexible and adaptable to your business needs and the requirements of the job. It also indicates a willingness to learn, take advice, and control emotions.
  2. Emotional intelligence — A close second to lack of coachability is lack of emotional intelligence.
  3. Self-motivation — Necessary drive and resilience to keep going despite setbacks and/or lack of frequent extrinsic validation.
  4. Culture fit — You need to know which characteristics predict failure in your organization, so you can avoid hiring anyone that shares those traits, and which predict success, so you can recruit and hire more folks who have those characteristics.

Start from the most critical attitude for a successful hire:

  1. How to spot coachability?

An enormously effective hack is to focus all of your attention on the candidate’s former boss:

  • What was your boss’s name? Please spell the full name for me. (In doing this, you lead the candidate to believe you’re actually going to call him/her. And having the candidate believe you’re actually going to call a boss for a reference is great motivation to give truthful responses. The common misconception is that because it’s a small step, it’s inconsequential, and because it’s outside what most interviewers do, it’s somewhat uncomfortable. But this will not work if you don’t confirm the spelling of the name. This little psychological twist makes this whole process so much more revealing!
  • Tell me about Tim as a boss. (probing: what’s something you wish Tim had done more/less?) (#4)
  • What’s something that you could have done (or done differently) to enhance your working relationship with Tim? (#21)
  • When I talk to Tim, what will he tell me your strengths are? (#11)
  • Now all people have areas where they can improve, so when I talk to Tim, what will he tell me your weaknesses are? (#7)

2. How to spot Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

EI is another way of saying self-regulation & self-awareness. Watch for candidates who understand their drive, weaknesses, strengths, and emotions, and are willing to discuss themselves frankly and without becoming defensive. Look for individuals who are able to respond to situations “from a place of reason” rather than emotion. They are often thoughtful, reflective, and comfortable with change, the unknown, and the ambiguous.

Interviewing pros approach EI with holistic questioning. Holistic questions assess how individuals see themselves fitting into your corporate team. Holistic queries attempt to measure the whole person — the candidate’s work patterns, career goals, and ability to see the global impact of his or her actions. They are usually very broad, open-ended queries that candidates find challenging to answer on the spot because of their all-encompassing nature. Some examples:

  • How do you think you’ll be different 10 years from now? (#32)
  • If you had a week to live and $10m what would you do? (#36)
  • If you were your friend, what advice would you give yourself? (#22)
  • If you were to write a letter of advise to yourself 10 years ago what would you say? (#42)

3. How to spot self-motivation?

The best way to uncover self-motivation is by looking directly into past behavior.

By linking a candidate’s answers to specific past experiences, you’ll get a better understanding of how the individual will act in the future. Such questions assume that a person’s future behavior will closely reflect past actions even if people learn from their mistakes. The beauty of this questioning methodology is that it can be applied to anything: a candidate’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, his/her supervisory and sales styles, his/her communication skills. In addition, it ensures spontaneity since candidates can’t prepare in advance.

At the same time, look for clues on what they are motivated by. Some people are motivated by competitive spirit, others are driven by an inner need to create, and others desire recognition or reputation. None of the above are inherently good or bad. But identify whether their motivations are complementary to yours and are suited to the role you are judging them for. Most importantly, watch out for people who seemingly don’t have any motivation. They are not showing all their cards or they truly don’t have much drive. Either way, you’ll be dealing with a blackbox and they will prove hard to please. Some examples:

  • Tell me about a time you had too many things to do and had to prioritize. (#44)
  • Describe a situation in which a detail you thought to be unimportant turned out to be very important. (#38)
  • Tell me about the last time you broke the rules. (#22)
  • Tell me about a person who did not get along with. Describe this person. Both negative and positive traits. (#20)

4. How to spot culture fit?

At this point your interview should focus on the candidates values. There’s no way to interview directly for culture fit, but you can uncover cultural patterns through indirect questioning. A common hack from the interviewing greats is to throw dilemmas out there and see where the candidate’s gut takes them. Don’t take the answers at face value but collect the responses and evaluate whether there is a trend. Also, focus on the intensity of each answer. Ideally dilemmas ask your 2–4 top performers the same questions in order to have a benchmark. Some examples:

• Would you prefer to live forever or die in exactly 10 years? narcissism vs moderation (#51)

• Would you kill Hitler as a newborn? nurture vs nature (#49)

• Would you prefer to be smart and unattractive, unintelligent and attractive or mediocre all around? security vs. risk-taking (#71)

• What do you think kids understand that adults don’t? or What daily routine will people 100 years from now think is completely silly or absurd? metacognition vs single-mindedness (#40)

Finally a few general points to keep in mind during your interviews :

• First person pronouns: High performers talk about themselves and what they did. In contrast, typical low performer answers contain more second and third person language. High performers might say something like “I called the customers on Tuesday and I asked them to share their concerns.” A low performer might say “Customers need to be contacted so they can express themselves …” or “You should always call customers and ask them to share their concerns.” High performers have lots of great experiences to draw from. They don’t shy away from using first-person pronouns. But low performers don’t have those great attitudinal experiences and tend to give abstract answers that describe how “you” should handle it.

• Verb tense: In a nutshell, when high performers talk about a past experience, they will actually tell you about that past experience. And, quite logically, they will use the past tense. By contrast, low performers will answer your request with lots of wonderfully spun tales about what they are (present tense) doing, or what they will (future tense) do. Unlike high performers, they can’t tell you about all those past experiences because they don’t have them. So, for instance, when asked to describe a difficult customer situation, high performers will respond with an example in the past tense. “I had a customer who was having issues with her server and was about to miss her deadline.” In contrast, low performers are more likely to express their response in the present or future tense.

• Emotions: High performers do talk about being excited more than low performers. However, the real difference with emotion is how infrequently high performers express negative emotions compared to low performers. In all of our research, we’ve seen that high potentials don’t get quite as angry as lower performers. It’s not that they don’t get mad and frustrated — they do (and it’s often brought on by low performers). But high performers have more constructive outlets for doing something about these negative emotions.

• Qualifiers: Low performers use many more adverbs, absolutes and negation in their answers in an effort to amp their narrative. High performers answers are direct, factual, in the past tense, and personal.

Concluding, I’ve tried to give you a list of categories to help you systematically uncover attitudes and mindset traits during your interviews and hope this has given you some value. Start testing these questions and let me know how it goes! Feel free to reach to me for more if you wish…

I’ll be following up with more interviewing questions and their results as we further analyze them over the next weeks, so stay tuned! At Movinhand, we’ll also be building an answer guideline that gives ‘warning signs’ (poor fit with your culture) and the ‘positive signals’ (good fit with your culture) using a 7 point scale, to be circulated to those interested.

I leave you here with this last point:

If there’s one thing to take away from all of the above, it is to avoid undifferentiating questions! If a question is designed in a way that allows every candidate to give roughly the same answer, it’s like giving a test on which everyone automatically gets the same grade.

I’m the co-founder of Movinhand, a social recruiting service that helps you recruit the finest skilled professionals out there. We help our clients attract, engage, convert and screen great (often passive) candidates in a cost-effective and scalable way. Our service pairs you with a dedicated recruiter and simple, elegant software to do your recruiting on social networks for you.
We are currently serving the Hospitality, Healthcare, Engineering, Construction and Teaching verticals.

(P.S. If you want to be part of this new generation of confident, mobile workers, ready to make the big step overseas you can follow our career & relocation advice here.)