Behavior-focused interviewing technique

Are you using this highly effective interview technique?

Question and answer.
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A post by Amanda McPherson, former CMO of the Linux Foundation, about her best interviewing tip got me thinking about an interview technique I was taught while on the GNOME board of directors many years ago: focus on behavior.

In jobs related to product management, business development, sales, marketing, and communications, you have people who are verbally skilled. Ask them anything and you will likely get a good verbal response, but that doesn't mean it's true. Focusing on behavior—how they follow up, how and when they respond to your emails and questions, how they treat you vs. others on the team—yields more accurate data on how they will be on a daily basis.

In her article, McPherson quotes the story of a Charles Schwab executive who would take candidates to breakfast interviews and ask the restaurant to deliberately mix up their orders just to see how that person would react to a stressful event.

A similar technique I learned from former member of the GNOME Foundation board of directors Jonathan Blandford goes one step further. The principle of targeted selection is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So, if you are hiring someone to manage a team, ask about a time that they were a manager in the past. If you need someone who can learn quickly in a new and fast moving domain, ask them about a time that they were in a similar situation. Then, dig deep for the details. What did they do? How did they interact with others? How effective was the outcome of the situation?

How someone reacts under pressure, for instance, is a good thing to know. Ask about a time they were working on a project that ran late. Ask them to describe the moment when they realized that they were not going to make the release date on time, on quality, and as planned. Then ask how they reacted. Did they reduce scope? Fight for a schedule extension? Add people? Get everyone working weekends? Was there a post mortem after the project shipped? Who took the lead on that? How were the lessons applied in the next project? You can use a line of questioning like this to identify people who will power through obstacles regardless of the cost; people who are more consensual, but may lack decisiveness; people who seek help versus taking on too much burden; and so on. This type of insight is gold when you are evaluating a candidate.

What are you looking for?

If you are looking for someone who can ramp up quickly on a new skill, ask about the last technology or tool they discovered and became expert on. Then ask about the early days. Was their instinct to read blogs, books, tutorials? To follow practical labs? To pay for training? Did they seek out people to ask questions and share knowledge? How did they evaluate where they were in the learning process? Have they stayed active and learning, or did they stop once they had enough knowledge to do the job? There is no right answer, but the approach they took will give you an idea of how they would attack a similar challenge on your team.

If interpersonal relationship skills are a key to success for the job, ask about a time they had a significant disagreement (with a boss, with a subordinate, with a colleague, with someone on a community project) with someone on a project or issue that was meaningful and important to them. How did they go about arguing their case? Was winning more important than getting a good solution? How important was the relationship?

If organizational skills are key, ask for an example of a time when they had to clean up after someone else. How did they go about it? Did they make incremental improvements, or did they opt for a "big bang" reorganization? What do they say about the former organizer? How did they balance organizing the existing system with allowing people to interact with the system and continue doing their jobs?

If approach and mentality are key, ask about trade-offs that have to be made, where there is no right answer. For example, when people want two different things and you need to adjudicate or be the intermediary, or when you have to choose between two top priorities, or when you only have enough time to do one of three important things.

Flip the script

Prospective employers aren’t the only ones who can use this technique to conduct better interviews. Candidates can use this method to prepare for an interview.

If you are planning for an interview, look at the job requirements and required experience. When were you in a situation where you were able to show the skills required? What were your actions, and what were the results? You can tell a story about your experience that hits all of the job requirements, even if your interviewer is not asking questions about it. Go one step further and interview your interviewer! Think about the situations in the past where you have been successful and unsuccessful, and come up with your requirements. Then, take that knowledge into the interview, and ask questions to check whether the position is a good match for you. Interviews are a two-way street, and you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. Ask interviewers when they were confronted with situations that are of interest to you, and dig into their experiences as employees of the company. Is this a company that expects you to work weekends to meet unrealistic deadlines? Are you thrown a life buoy and expected to sink or swim? Is there a strict hierarchical structure, or are everyone's perspectives heard and respected? Is there mobility within the company, or do people hit a developmental ceiling?

The great thing about this technique is that it generates more realistic answers and questions. It does not access the hypothetical side of the brain where people answer in idealistic terms given infinite time and resources and everyone's buy-in can be assumed. Instead, you are accessing memory banks, and the more details you get, the closer you are to the truth of how a person reacts and leads their professional life.

About the author

Dave Neary - Dave Neary is a member of the Open Source and Standards team at Red Hat, helping make Open Source projects important to Red Hat be successful. Dave has been around the free and open source software world, wearing many different hats, since sending his first patch to the GIMP in 1999.