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The Fatal Flaw in Behavioral Interviewing

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The other day a woman at a webcast I was leading asked why I didn’t think behavioral-based interviewing is effective for assessing competency, fit and motivation for a specific job. My two-minute response related to the fact that generic behaviors, like motivation and team building, are too generic to draw specific conclusions about a specific job.

For example, while most people can give excellent examples of being motivated, it doesn’t mean the person is always motivated to do any type of work in any situation. That’s why it’s important to understand what caused the motivation to determine if the person is fit for the actual job that needs to be filled. Despite this very severe weakness, a structured behavioral interview has value by increasing objectivity and, as a result, reducing hiring errors due to bias and emotional decision making. In fact, all of the validated evidence to support the use of behavioral interviewing is largely based on eliminating these types of unforced errors in hiring. There is no validation that it improves quality of hire.

In fact, it actually reduces it. The problem is that asking structured and formulistic questions is a turn-off to the highly talented, especially passive candidates, and, as a result, they often voluntarily opt-out of consideration early in the process. In my opinion, the consequences of losing good candidates due to the use of behavioral interviewing minimizes it’s value even if it was a good predictor of performance, which it isn’t.

Start with the task rather than the behavior.

The problem is it takes multiple behaviors to complete any task and some people complete the same task differently. Completing any project successfully typically requires a dose of technical ability, strong project management skills, the ability to persuade others and the motivation to overcome obstacles and setbacks. Asking for examples of each of these behaviors misses the big picture – can the person lead major projects with tight deadlines working with lots of different people on time and on budget? For most people, it might be better to delegate most of the work rather than doing it themselves. But from a behavioral assessment, this might be the wrong answer.

So rather than ask a person to give an example of when he/she used a specific behavior, ask the person to describe in detail a major accomplishment related to a specific job need. As part of the fact-finding to fully understand the accomplishment, ask the person to give examples of when he/she took the initiative, solved a difficult problem, coached others and had to make difficult trade-offs that affected the person’s value system. This type of performance-based question focuses on performance as the focus of the question and the behaviors as a means to achieve the objective. Making the assessment for fit is much easier using this type of question by comparing the scope, scale and complexity of the project to actual job needs.

You first need to define the real job, culture and environment to make the comparison.

While putting the behaviors under the umbrella of the accomplishment is a better means to understand how the person accomplished the task, making the comparison to the real job requires an understanding of the real job.

You can figure this out during the intake meeting with the hiring manager by first putting aside the list of skills, experiences and required competencies. Instead, ask the manager what the person needs to do to be successful. Then have the manager describe the job in terms of tasks or deliverables, the role the new hire will play (e.g., build, lead, design, audit, etc.), and some metrics of success. For example, complete the widget advertising plan in 90 days. This is much more insightful than, “Be results driven, have 3+ years of UX design experience and an MBA.”

To be sure job expectations are fully clarified ask the hiring manager how each requirement on the original job description is actually used on the job. For example, for “Strong Cultural Fit” the response might be, “Complete the XYZ product roadmap quickly with limited resources.” Often these clarifying statements can be embedded in the tasks and projects defined initially.

Without this type of job analysis and understanding of real job needs even the OD experts recognize the weaknesses in the behavioral interview.

Examine the trend of performance over time.

As shown in the graphic, you’ll gain more insight into the candidate’s fit with the job by plotting the scope and scale of the person’s accomplishments over time. You’ll also be able to observe how different behaviors and skills are used to complete critical tasks, if these are growing and improving, and if the person’s accomplishments are a strong fit with the needs of the job. None of this type of assessment is possible by asking traditional behavioral interview questions.

Raise the talent bar rather than just eliminate mistakes.

It doesn’t take much insight to agree that past performance doing comparable work in comparable situations is a far better predictor of future success than using generic behaviors to make this assessment. More important, by using past performance you’ll not only be able to attract stronger talent but you’ll be able to hire those who find the new job both intrinsically motivating and career rewarding. This is a lot better than being satisfied avoiding hiring mistakes.