How to Avoid the Interview Trap

There are a lot of ways for hiring managers to foul up their interview process, and the easiest one is to fall into what I call “the interview trap.” It doesn’t have to be that way, and with a little thought, and a little modesty to offset any natural hubris you carry, you can miss that trap and get more accurate data when you interview.

I wish I had better words for interviewees who get trapped. I don’t. The best advice, like getting tumbled body surfing in a giant wave, is relax and try not to get trashed by any rocks. The person interviewing you may not know better, and there’s not much you as the interviewee can do about it.

The trap can snare the best and brightest of managers. I  see people from places like McKinsey and BCG get snared: Mark Suster – no dull tack himself –  showed how he trapped himself Sunday morning in his post Asking Questions More Effectively.

The trap? Simple: thinking that asking a hypothetical question will get you anything but a hypothetical answer. It won’t. Never has, never will. Asking a hypothetical question always gets you a hypothetical answer. Great for technical knowledge: worthless for anything else.

Nvidia CEO and President Jen-Hsun Huang tagged the difficulty – speaking in this case about assessing the ability of candidates to handle adversity – in his New York Times Corner Office interview I’m Prepared for Adversity. I Waited Tables:

“Q. And so, with those three screens, what’s your batting average in hiring?

A. I think hiring great people remains extremely, extremely hard. The reason for that is this: You can never really tell how somebody deals with adversity — whether it’s adversity that’s created by the environment, or adversity that you’re creating for them. When you have a difficult situation and you need somebody to take it and run with it, some people just take it and make it work. They feed on adversity. Some people see adversity and they just cower, as talented as they are.”

You can’t test for how people will respond (which is why I generally disdain personality tests – see Malcolm Gladwell’s similar take in Personality Plus from the New Yorker.) And the vaunted case study method – used by B-School devotees (and Mark Suster too) to see how people think? All you’re seeing is how they think in the interview – which may have no relation to how they think on the job, or more importantly, in the clutch.

I got trained in competency center assessment methodology by Ed Yager, a master of competency assessment, and have run corporate staffing operations for some of the largest firms in the world. My takeaway is pretty simple and consistent with the research. Good behavioral interviewing will get you much of the way. Asking hypothetical (“how would you do this,” and “what do you think”) questions does squat for you in predicting job performance. You can up your interviewing accuracy if you lay in a number of other elements such as simulations, selective personality testing, and the use of outside consultants. Many jobs may not merit that type of added cost, time and resources.

My experience interviewing and selecting for thousands of people is that good, strong behaviorally based interviewing along with strong, similarly behaviorally focused referencing  can avoid the “interview trap” and help you learn a great deal about a prospective hire. As noted in How to Ask a Question: It’s More than Who, What, When, Where, Why and Howyou start with knowing what you’re looking for. Candidates give you lots of data, and in a variety of ways.

What you need to do is avoid the interview trap of the hypothetical / case study method question, and know what you’re seeking to be evidenced.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.