Behavioral Interviews Are Dead – “How Will You Act Today” Is A Better Question

Behavioral interviews describe past behaviors. In our dramatically changed world, new-hires can’t be successful relying on outdated actions. Instead, they need to take actions that fit in today’s dramatically changed environment. So, recruiters and hiring managers need to be aware that behavioral interviews (the most commonly used of all interview tools) may no longer work. The historical actions that have been used for years may now no longer work. 

Yes, for decades, many have supported behavioral interviews, based on the premise that previous successful actions predicted future actions. That would continue to be true if the world that we operate in hadn’t changed dramatically this year. Suddenly, we all operate in a down economy, within a pandemic, and where a large percentage of work is, unexpectedly, done remotely. As a result, hiring managers should be less concerned about how someone acted in the past and more concerned about how they will modify their behavior and act differently in today’s completely changed environment at your company. 

I recommend that those involved in hiring should now use what I call “How will you act today” interview questions. Instead of focusing on past behaviors (that are likely outdated), ask, specifically, how each candidate would handle both existing and emerging problems in today’s dramatically changed environment. Because the two environments (the past and today) are different, the actions that the candidates would take should also be different. In short, behavioral interviews are dead because past behaviors and past practices are often a mismatch for the current environment.

Environmental Changes Mean That Past Actions Are No Longer The Most Appropriate Actions

In a normal business environment, the effectiveness of “best practice actions” doesn’t change much within a one-year timeframe. However, in the last nine months, there have been numerous developments that have changed almost everything related to business operations and people management. The net results from these environmental changes have been that historical “best practice” actions have been replaced by completely different approaches and actions that better fit our new environment. Some of those dramatic environmental changes that are forcing companies and managers to act differently include:

Major bus. pivots are required        Dramatic changes in the physical work environment

Reduced company growth rates      Working at home has become common

A surplus of job candidates            New team communications platforms

Severe budget cuts                          Reductions in government regulations

Increased employee stress levels    Employee concerns over their health

The importance of diversity           No touch interactions with customers (robotics)

Severe global trade restrictions      Constant volatility requires adaptiveness/agility

It now makes sense to ask candidates for all management and professional positions questions that will reveal “how they will act today” because there have been so many dramatic high-impact environmental changes.

Stop Asking About Yesterday, Instead, Ask About Acting Today And In The Future

Please take a moment and mentally take a step back to conceptualize how much the world of work and the skills required to do that work have changed. Gartner’s research found that 33% of the skills that workers needed just three years ago are no longer relevant. Both the skills and the work have changed so much that it would be a mistake to assign a positive value to a candidate’s response that occurred even a few years ago. If those outdated “before new technology” actions were repeated in this current job, the results would be a disaster. 

Instead, I recommend that you use an alternative assessment approach that does not focus on past actions. This approach is called, “How will you act today?”

Add These “How Will You Act Today” Interview Questions

In a down economy and a pandemic, all hiring is severely restricted. So, it becomes even more critical that every new hire becomes a top performer.

You begin this “act today” process by questioning whether relying on previous work experience, degrees, and even references for assessment purposes still makes sense. Historical success in these areas will no longer predict current success. Next, alert top candidates that you will be asking them to describe how they will act when working in your firm’s current changed and evolving environment. The third step is to present each candidate with several likely on-the-job situations (either problems or opportunities). Ask them to outline the steps in the approach they would take under your culture and your business environment. And, if a candidate can’t adjust and “update their previously used approach,” appropriately, you certainly wouldn’t hire them. Over time, only the interview questions with supporting data that closely correlate it with new-hire on-the-job success can be used. These “How will you act today” questions fall into four categories.

1. Substitute “How will you act today” questions for behavioral interview questions – in areas where you expect completely different actions. Instead of behavioral interview questions, ask candidates, “How will you act today.” For example, instead of asking, “Tell me about a time when you successfully lead your team?” Ask them, “You will be leading a hybrid in the office/work at home team. How would you lead a team process pivot with dramatically reduced resources in today’s turbulent economic and social environment?” Or, if you still want to ask behavioral questions. After the answer, immediately pose a “How will you act today?” question. For example, “Thank you for that answer, and by the way, given the same situation again, would you do anything differently today if you were working in this job?” Assess them on how they’ve effectively changed their approach based on your culture and your environment.

2. Assess a candidate’s ability to solve a current problem – by having an applicant do some of the actual work. This is the best way to separate top candidates from the average. But where that is not possible, consider one or more of these three current problem assessment areas:

  • Identifying problems in this job. Ask them to “Please walk us through the steps of the process that you’ll use during your first weeks on-the-job to identify the most important current problems or opportunities in your responsibility areas.” Assess them on whether they have a “problem identification plan” and then on each step’s appropriateness for that team.
  • Solve a current problem. Provide them with a description of an actual problem that they will face on their first day. Let them think for a few minutes. And then, ask them to “Please walk us through the broad steps that you will take to solve this current problem?” Prior to the interview, make a list of what you consider to be your essential steps. Then deduct points if they omit key steps within your team’s culture like gathering data, consulting with the team or customer, and identifying success metrics.
  • Identify the problems in our existing process. Hand them a single-page description of a flawed existing process related to their job. Give them a few minutes to understand the process. Then ask them to “Identify the top three areas in the process where you predict that serious problems are likely to occur?” Assess them on whether they accurately determine the most likely trouble points. Because it’s an existing flawed process, you already know each of the pain points and flaws.

3. Evaluate whether a candidate is forward-looking – in fast-evolving environments, employees must anticipate the future. Consider asking questions in one or more of these 4 forward-looking areas to assess how well the candidate will prepare for the future. Use their future projections as a second-opinion comparison to your own forward projections.

  • Outline your plan for this job. The very best develop a plan before they begin a new job. So, ask them to “Outline the elements of your plan of action for your first three months on-the-job. Please highlight the key components of your onboarding plan. Including goals, who you’ll consult with (by title), what data must be analyzed, how you’ll communicate with your team, critical learning areas, and the metrics for assessing your plan’s success.” Be especially wary of those who don’t see the need for a new hire to develop their own onboarding plan.
  • Forecast the evolution of the job. Anticipating major shifts is critical in a fast-changing world. Ask them to “Forecast at least five ways that your job will likely change and evolve over the next three years as a result of changes in the business environment.” And certainly, never hire anyone that believes that their job won’t change significantly over the next three years.
  • Forecast the evolution of our industry. New-hires must also be able to anticipate changes in our industry. Consider asking them to “Please project ahead 3-5 major emerging trends within our industry and then forecast how the top firms will need to change over the next few years to meet the top projected trend?” Be wary of hiring those that haven’t put significant thought into how our industry will evolve.
  • Highlight the missing capabilities from this job description. The very best clearly understand all the required capabilities and skills that will be necessary for success. Ask each candidate, “Are there any additional skills and capabilities (not mentioned in the job description) that, in your opinion, a candidate must have, or rapidly develop to be successful in this job?” Give added points to those that add new capabilities or skills.

4. Assess a candidate’s likelihood of becoming a game-changer. Across all jobs, game-changer hires have the most impact. Game changers are identified by excelling in one of four areas; rapid learning, adaptability, technology, and innovation. Ask top candidates questions in one or more of the following game-changer categories. For example:

  • Learning – “Prove that you are a self-directed rapid learner by outlining the steps you’d take to quickly and continuously learn and maintain your expert status in one important technical area?”
  • Adaptability – “Prove that you are agile and that you can quickly pivot, by outlining the steps that you will take to adapt when an unexpected dramatic change occurs in either technology or customer expectations.”
  • Technology – ask them a question covering emerging technologies. “What are the top two technologies that will likely directly impact your team over the next year? And explain the steps you will take to learn them?”
  • Innovation – “Outline the steps you will take to increase your own rate of innovation. And, highlight two specific actions you will take to gain team support for your innovation proposals?”

 Be Aware Of The Many Inherent Weaknesses In Behavioral Interviews

It’s important to begin by realizing that behavioral interviews have numerous inherent weaknesses. Starting with the fact that past actions are not always an accurate predictor of future successes. Also, remember that the answers to behavioral interview questions covering jobs that are over five years old would be much less likely to reflect current behavior. Realize that good storytellers will score higher on behavioral questions simply because they present the scenario clearly. In addition, realize that even though this person was present when the action occurred, they could be taking credit for something that they really had very little to do with. Be aware that some behavioral interview questions unwittingly reveal what answer is expected. For example, “Can you tell me about a time where you use nudging to influence others?” And finally, remember that the candidate likely acted the way they did back then because their manager and the culture they operated in required it. If they were in your culture today with more degrees of freedom, they might choose to act completely differently.

Be Aware That All Types Of Interviews Now Have A Lower Predictive Value

I have written extensively on what’s wrong with interviews. The data shows that even structured interviews have a low predictive value. So, it makes sense to look at the entire interview process and become aware that numerous recent factors now make them even less accurate. Those emerging factors include:

Interviewees often know the questions in advance. Knowing the questions in advance permanently changes the accuracy of interviews. A majority of candidates now visit sites like that list interview questions and yes, the ideal answers by company and job. So, when a hiring manager asks common interview questions. They can no longer assume that the questions weren’t known in advance and that the answers that they hear are often not genuine, or even answers that they came directly from the mind of the candidate.

Interview practice produces artificially polished “performances.” Practice makes perfect. With the abundant Internet job search help sites and the proliferation of career coaches, candidates are now advised to thoroughly practice their interviews. There is now even virtual interview practice software that allows a candidate with a video camera to practice interviewing using a library full of thousands of mock interviews. With so much readily available practice, often the candidates are literally acting during the interview, rather than being themselves.

Remote interviews make it easier for a candidate to cheat. During today’s pandemic, remote video interviews have become the norm. However, hiring managers need to realize that candidates act to improve their remote interview performance by posting “cheat sheets” on the wall in front of them (outside the view of the camera). As a result, these remote interviewees appear to be sharper and quicker to respond then they really are.

 Lying on social media has spilled over into interview answers. By now, almost everyone knows that social media and the Internet are full of “alternative facts,” exaggerations, and even lies. Unfortunately, this lack of truthfulness in social media has spilled over into candidate interview answers. It is a mistake to assume that everything you hear during an interview is factually true unless you have secondary verification.

Unconscious bias reduces all interviewing accuracy. We are all aware of the damage that unconscious biases can have on diversity hiring. Unless the company increases awareness through unconscious bias training or by offering anonymous blind interviews, it’s best to assume that interview results will be influenced by biases. So, they will continue to be a weak predictor of on-the-job success.

Final Thoughts

The business impacts of the current pandemic and the resulting business downturn have been the most sudden and dramatic since the stock market crash of the Great Depression. And because all hiring is now severely reduced, it’s even more critical that every new hire turns out to be a top performer. Unfortunately, that positive result is much less likely to happen if those involved in hiring continue to rely so heavily on behavioral interviews that focus on past behaviors. However, times of rapid change require dramatic changes in the way we act. And unless you also ask candidates, “How will you act today?” You may be unknowingly hiring someone into a critical position that will, unfortunately, continue to act precisely as they did in the past… that will be an expensive and avoidable mistake!

Author’s Note: Please pass this article around within your team and network. If it stimulated your thinking and provided actionable tips, please take a minute to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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