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Behavioral Questions: Please Don’t Tell Me About Yourself!

Behavioral Questions: Please Don’t Tell Me About Yourself!

By: Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude (McGraw-Hill, 2011)

A seismic shift from skill to attitude has taken place in the hiring world. Technical proficiency, once a guarantee of lifetime employment, has become commoditized in today’s job market. Between the global labor market and the high unemployment of the Great Recession, there’s a large supply of technically-qualified candidates for almost every available job. 

Job skills are necessary, but they’re not sufficient.  It’s attitude — not skill — that is the best predictor of new hire success. In a Leadership IQ study of 20,000 new hires over a three-year period, 46% failed within their first 18 months.  And 89% of the time they failed because of attitudinal reasons; technical skills barely made the list. 

Hiring for Attitude
How are the best companies hiring for attitude? First, savvy leaders identify the specific attitudes that create success in their unique cultures and environments.

We call these key attitudes “Brown Shorts” — a strange name that pays homage to Southwest Airlines and their culture of fun.

Brown Shorts draws from a story I heard from a former Southwest executive about a round of hiring for new pilots (typically serious folks dressed formally). The Southwest interviewer invited this serious bunch to get comfortable in a pair of Bermuda shorts (brown in our story).  

The shorts were part of the Southwest summer uniform, but it was an invitation that seemed too ridiculous for many of the pilots who immediately declined the shorts. And that told Southwest that these folks may be great pilots, but they just weren’t going to fit a fun-loving culture.

Now, just because you put on the shorts was no guarantee of a job, but it was a good indication that you just might fit their fun attitude. 

Your Brown Shorts probably won’t to be “fun.” But they will be a list of the key attitudes that define your best people and your worst people. And when you model your interview questions around those Brown Shorts, you’ll discover who will (and won’t) succeed in your organization.

To hire for attitude, you’ve also got to interview for attitude. And that means ditching interview questions that don’t help you assess candidates’ attitude. For instance, the best interviewers no longer ask:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?

These questions are too vague, inviting canned answers that don’t reveal attitude. (If every candidate gives the same answers to a question, it’s not worthwhile asking). 

Behavioral Interview Questions
So-called behavioral interview questions are also often ineffective for assessing attitude. Yes, asking about past behavior can work, but most behavioral questions contain a “tip off” that tells candidates how to give you the “right” answer. 

The main issue with behavioral questions is that they rob you of your chance to find out if someone is a ‘problem bringer’ or a ‘problem solver.’ Let’s say you ask a candidate a pretty typical behavioral question: “Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a difficult situation.”

This question may sound fine, but the word “adapt” ruins it. That single word signals that you only want to hear about a time the candidate “adapted” (instead of the hundreds of times they failed to adapt).

In the case of true high-performer candidates, these folks have plenty of examples to share that describe a time when they successfully ‘adapted’ to a difficult situation.

If you asked them about a time they “faced” a difficult situation, they’re naturally going tell you not only about the difficult situation, but also about how they adapted to it. For high performers, it’s practically impossible to even imagine ‘facing’ a difficult situation without also successfully ‘adapting’ to it.

But for problem bringers (low performers), the word ‘adapted’ renders this interview question ineffective. Problem bringers have faced countless difficult situations. But it’s unlikely they’ve successfully adapted to any of them.

In fact, the times they successfully ‘adapted’ probably constitute such a tiny fraction of the times they ‘faced’ difficult situations that it wouldn’t even occur to them to search their mental database and find an instance where it happened. And that’s something you want to know about.

But when you introduce a leading interview question, you’re not giving them the chance to disclose that information.

Just remember that attitude is the key driver of new hire success. And if you’re willing to rethink your hiring process to discover if your candidates have the right attitude, your hiring success will skyrocket.

Author Bio:
Mark Murphy
is the founder and CEO of Leadership IQ, a leadership training firm. Author of Hiring for Attitude  (McGraw-Hill; December 9, 2011) and other books, Murphy has personally provided leadership training to more than 100,000 leaders from virtually every industry and half the Fortune 500. He lives in both Atlanta and Washington, DC.  For more details, visit leadershipiq.com.