Current Articles

Why the Behavioral Interview is More About Luck than Science

To access this article you must be a registered user/member of this site. Click the appropriate link below to continue.

As most of you know I’m not a fan of the traditional behavioral interview. Aside from the fact that answers can be faked, there is also no straightforward way to assess the answers. Worse, its one-way mechanical nature sends a message to the best candidates that the interviewer does not understand real job needs. The research also shows that the behavioral interview is only about five percentage points better than the unstructured interview in predicting on-the-job success.

However, by using it as a follow-up questioning technique rather than a leading interview question, it can be turned into an insightful assessment tool. This is  described in my Performance-based Hiring course and summarized in the video.

You need to try this out yourself to understand this rethinking. Start by quickly answering the following common behavioral interview question.

Can you give me an example of something you’ve done that best exhibits when you _____ (describe a behavior)?

Now you need to fill in the blank with each of the following behaviors in sequential fashion and use the STAR follow-up questioning pattern to clarify each behavior, i.e., describe the Situation, Task, Action and Result.

Common Behaviors to Fill in the Blank Above

– Implemented change
– Influenced others
– Showed initiative
– Achieved results
– Demonstrated teamwork
– Solved difficult problems
– Worked under time pressure
– Demonstrated leadership
– Overcame obstacles
– Persisted despite big challenges or naysayers

Modifying the Behavioral Interview to Tie to the Context of the Job

While all of these are important traits, asking them in rapid-fire order and expecting to get a good 1-2 minute meaningful answer is unlikely. However, by putting them in the context of the job they become powerful fact-finding probes rather than leading questions.

This modification begins by defining the job as a series of 5-6 performance objectives rather than a list of skills, experiences and competencies. Here’s a shortened example of this type of performance-based job description for a product manager:

  1. Using our SaaS-based project management system, take the lead on ensuring the ABC project is launched by the end of Q4.
  2. During the first 90 days, work with the engineering, sales, marketing and manufacturing teams and lead the development of an approved ABC product requirements document.
  3. Build and develop a team of direct and indirect marketing and advertising staff personnel to develop a global marketing effort to capture a 20% market share within two years.

With these as the starting point here’s a performance-based question you can ask to determine competency, fit and motivation to do this work:

One of the key performance objectives of this position is (describe one of the above). Given this can you describe something you’ve accomplished that’s most similar?

After the candidate provides a 1-2 minute overview of the example, follow up by asking some of the behavioral questions listed above that best relate to the performance objective. For example, rather than asking a generic question about initiative, ask how the person used initiative and persuasive skills to get the various people on the team to agree to compromise on difficult product requirements. This is how you can turn the generic behavioral question into a more meaningful fact-finding approach.

Behind this shift is recognition that it takes multiple behaviors to accomplish any major task. So while most people can give examples of the behaviors listed, tying them to the successful handling of a comparable task is what should be assessed. And even if the person has successfully accomplished something comparable, some people will use a different mix of behaviors to accomplish the same task. The assessment then focuses on the appropriateness of this mix to determine whether the candidate should be hired or not.

To expand the usefulness of this assessment technique ask the candidate to describe comparable major accomplishments – individual and team – over different periods of time, some more recent and others earlier in the person’s career. This reveals a trend of accomplishments over time like what is shown in the graphic. What you’ll typically discover is that the mix of the person’s behaviors has shifted as the person has grown in his/her specialty. For those progressing into management roles team, organization and persuasive skills become more dominant while individual contributor skills become less important.

While I minimize the usefulness of the traditional behavioral interview for the reasons cited earlier, I believe it’s a powerful technique when tied directly to the performance objectives of the job. Furthermore, by observing the growth and change in mix of behaviors over time this type of hybrid performance-based behavioral interview becomes a powerful tool to better predict on-the-job performance. As important, the best candidates will be impressed by the depth of job knowledge and insight shown by the interviewer. This is often the difference that determines why a top-tier person accepts one job instead of another.