I had a great conversation this week with a recruiting leader about good interview questions to ask and how making simple changes can result in getting more useful responses from a candidate.
While it may seem trivial to obsess over word choice, I happen to think that every word you select when crafting an interview question should have a reason behind it. That reason can often be the difference between gathering the information you need to make a great hiring decision OR getting a false positive response from a below average candidate.
I thought I would share with you an example that I used to convince this recruiting leader just how important the structure of a question can be.
Here’s a summary of the conversation…
Let’s imagine that you’re trying to assess a candidate’s ability to deal with complexity in the workplace. We’ll assume that we’re asking these questions because your work environment is highly complex and anyone you hire will have to be adept at managing through the chaos.
So, rather than asking the candidate…
“Tell me about your current work environment.”
…which is what most managers would do…let’s try to get more specific with the words we choose and the way we structure the question to draw out a more useful response.
Since we’re trying to understand how the person handles complexity, a better way to ask this question would be…
“Tell me about a complex situation you dealt with at work recently.”
This would allow the candidate to tap into their mental inventory of work complexity examples. The example that they choose will tell you something about the environment they work in and what they consider to be complex.
Did they give you an example of a level of complexity that mirrors (or exceeds) your environment? Or did they give you a really weak example that tells you that their environment does not produce complex situations regularly? Also, did they deal with the complexity in a positive fashion? Or did they get frustrated with it?
Let’s go another layer deeper. An even better way to phrase the question would be…
“Tell me about the most complex situation you dealt with at work in the last year.”
When you use a superlative like “the most”, you’re directing the candidate to choose an example that really illustrates just how complex their environment can be at its peak. And you’ll get to hear about a time when they dealt with the apex of complexity in their current role. That information could be more valuable than just asking them for a general example.
Now, besides wanting to simply know what their environment is like, you also want to know how the candidate attempts to resolve complex issues. To do this, you could add to the end of the question like this…
“Tell me about a complex situation you dealt with at work that you were unable to resolve.”
Asking the question in this manner should elicit some deeper behavioral characteristics about how the candidate responds to failure, overcomes obstacles, problem solves, deals with pressure, etc.
Again, we’re nitpicking here over words, but each of the 4 examples that I’ve provided above will lead to a different response with progressively more detailed information.
Now, one type of question that I cautioned this leader against using (or overusing) is what I like to call a “Positive Outcome Question”. You can identify these types of questions because they ask the candidate to provide a story that has a happy ending.
Tacking a phrase like “and how did you resolve it?” to the end of a perfectly good question will lead a candidate to give you an example of a time when they resolved an issue and everything worked out great. But if you only ask for positive outcomes, then you never learn about how a candidate adapts or deals with failure or overcomes adversity, etc.
So, in this situation, you would want to avoid asking…
“Tell me about a complex situation at work and how you resolved it.”
Instead, you should leave the question open-ended and let the candidate choose how the story ends.
When you lead candidates to a positive outcome, you’re telling them what you want to hear and thus, you may falsely think that they’re awesome at dealing with complexity in the workplace. However, you may want to consider that the example you were given could be the one and only time in the last 5 years when they actually dealt with a complex situation positively. Anyone can be great once! So, to hedge against a “one hit wonder”, all you need to do is ask for another example. And then another. And then another…until you feel confident that they’re the real deal.
Frequency of a positive behavior carries more weight than an isolated achievement.
So we just looked at 5 variations of the same question, each of which will capture a different level of information. Hopefully you see how impactful word choice can be and how important it is to stick to the script when someone prepares a thoughtful interview guide for you.
To summarize the learnings:
(1) Be more specific with your questions to target an individual behavior, skill, etc.
(2) Leave questions open-ended. Let the candidate choose how the story ends.
(3) Resist the urge to create a “positive outcome question”.
(4) Go after negative outcomes to identify how a candidate learns from mistakes.
(5) Use superlatives to assess for extreme examples.
(6) Ask for multiple examples to uncover frequency of behavior.
(7) Carefully choose your words when creating interview questions.
Obviously interviewing is much more complex than simply wording your questions correctly, but as in any aspect of work or life — if you’re not asking the right questions…you’re not going to capture useful information.
Want to start asking better interview questions? Download our “How To” guide and start asking better questions today!