Ask Less Dumb Interview Questions By Swapping These 4 In | by John Hartley | Jun, 2022

Let’s face it. You’re probably tired of your stock interview questions. Your interviewers are probably tired of hearing them. Why not make a change to get the most out of the interaction?

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After hundreds of phone screens and virtual/in-person interviews, the four questions below give me the most insight about interviewees and are a great replacement for your current set.

These interview questions are not intended to be “gotcha’s.” It’s on you to help the interviewee expand on their experiences.

Too many times I’ve seen feedback of “the interviewee didn’t expand on X” as a negative, when no attempt was made to help them expand on X. Interviewees are not there to perform, they are there for a two-way conversation.

Try these on yourself and see what you learn.

  1. What was the last piece of feedback you received?
  2. What was the last piece of feedback you gave?
  3. What project are you most proud of?
  4. What’s a project that didn’t go so well?

A few reasons why I really like this question. It gives me a look at:

  1. How the candidate processes feedback?
  2. The type of feedback that is top of mind
  3. What they hear when a colleague offers feedback
  4. General read on how they feel about receiving feedback

How the candidate processes feedback?

Regardless of whether the feedback was positive or critical, this question cuts directly to how someone thinks about feedback after the fact. Is it shrugged off with no additional action taken or do they create an action plan and ensure they either continue the behavior or avoid it altogether?

Some other follow-up questions to get more insight:

  • What behaviors did they change after receiving the feedback?
  • Did they check in with the person who delivered the feedback later down the road?
  • Did receiving feedback change their opinion of the person giving the feedback?

If the interviewee will be your direct report, you will need to give them feedback. Why not learn more about how this person will handle constructive feedback so they can grow within their role?

The type of feedback that is top of mind

An easy trap here is if they note the last positive feedback they received. You might think “well, they’re saying they only get positive feedback,” but don’t be lazy. Ask some follow-up questions.

  • What about this in particular was cause for the positive feedback?
  • Has this individual received positive feedback previously?
  • Did they make a change that was noticed?

Hearing about constructive feedback (or critical/negative feedback) in an interview is a great sign of humility and vulnerability and should be treated with the same amount of curiosity. I’ve found that interviewees tend to learn more from constructive feedback than positive feedback (and honestly the same is true for me).

Checking on behavior change after the feedback was given becomes more important when the feedback was constructive.

What they hear when a colleague offers feedback

Half of communication is on the person receiving the message. When describing the feedback, the interviewee will likely add tone to the voice of the giver.

  • What was the conversation like?
  • How long after the event did you receive the feedback?
  • Did they mention anything else?
  • What was your response?

Some people like compliment sandwiches. Others hate them.

More direct personalities are able to see the feedback for what it is and begin actioning that feedback. Others will take some time to be thoughtful about what was said and consider multiple approaches to resolving.

General read on how they feel about receiving feedback

Some candidates are extremely clear about how they felt when they received feedback. In cases where it “felt bad” it’s good to dig further and ask why.

  • Did they dismiss the feedback because they believed it to be untrue?
  • Was it spot-on criticism but hurt because it was the first major constructive feedback they’d received?

Diving further into how the candidate felt about feedback in the past can usually give you a solid indicator of how they will take feedback in the future.

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Similar to the first, but more focused on how the interviewee views outward feedback. Learnings revealed with this question:

  1. How they process their feelings into feedback
  2. Who do they view as “those that can receive” and “those that can’t”
  3. What was the result of giving the feedback

How they process their feelings into feedback

Ever since Daniel Goleman wrote his book, “Emotional Intelligence,” companies have been able to put words to what previously was just a feeling.

How someone processes events or conversations will vary greatly but can give you a general idea of ​​what their feedback would look like if hired.

  • Do they shoot from the hip and give immediate feedback without much consideration for the feelings of others?
  • Are they direct but thoughtful?
  • Do they take some time to process, consult others and then give feedback?

Shooting from the hip with no consideration of feelings would generally be a red flag, but if it can be channeled into something productive and constructive, the directness can be valuable. Generally, delivering feedback is a coachable skill, but there has to be a foundation to start with.

Who do they view as “those that can receive” and “those that can’t”

Depending on how they respond, you may get a sense that they only feel like they can give feedback to those below them or laterally. If that’s the case, ask follow-up questions or guide them further:

  • Any feedback that you gave a peer?
  • Have you given your manager or boss feedback recently?

These tend to show less about the individual and more about the attitudes toward feedback at the organization they’re coming from.

What was the result of giving the feedback

How did it go? Giving feedback can be tough for various reasons, but what happened afterward can sometimes lay the blueprint for whether an individual will feel comfortable continuing to give feedback.

In case you weren’t sure, passive aggressive feedback is bad. (comic from Dilbert.com)

No two people will answer this question the same way. Even if you stumbled upon two interviewees mentioning the same project, their reasons for being proud will be entirely different.

The success of the project

Commonly an interviewee will bring up a project that succeeded. How they got to that success tends to be why they are proud. Examples:

  • The team rallied together and got it done regardless of the obstacles we faced
  • We were able to deliver the project on time/ahead of schedule and it [insert benefit here]

Whatever the answer, there’s an opening to dig deeper and get to the root of what made this project different or special from others.

  • What was their involvement in the success?
  • What about the team structure or culture helped them rally?
  • What would they do differently next time?
  • What didn’t go well within the successful project?
  • How did the team feel when it was complete?

The hope is they talk about their team and teammates a bit here to give you a sense of how they work with others. If they don’t, be sure to poke at it a bit to give them an opportunity to expand.

The Project Tapped Their Passion

Many times, especially for more technical positions, I’ve seen folks beam when asked this question. Especially when they got to use new technology or a new method, the interviewee will guide you into their thinking as they approached the project and how it differed from their typical work.

Ask curious follow-ups and let the interviewee guide you through their thinking, strategy, general approach, and problem-solving style. For engineering interviews spend some time on the tech aspects and learn more about how they approach technology. Are they using something new because it’s fun and flashy? Or was it the right hammer for the nail that was presented?

The Journey

Many times someone is proud of a project because of all of the work that went into making it successful. The planning, the progress, the demos, sometimes the work itself was more of a joy than the actual completion of the project.

We can sometimes discount everything that went into getting from Point A to Point B, but certain personalities thrive on that aspect. Learn more about why this particular project felt better than others.

I generally don’t trust someone that says they’ve never worked on a project where nothing went wrong. If they don’t have much experience, there’s likely a side project, college project, or even a high school project they can think of where something went wrong.

Give them a moment if needed, but the concept is pretty simple. Are they able to learn from past mistakes to improve their future projects and teams? As I’ve noted before, growth isn’t linear, so there are likely dips they’ve experienced at some point in their career.

When will I faillllllll?! (tomorrow, probably, and that’s okay) Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash

In general, it’s easier to learn from failures than it is from successes, and unless you’ve got the golden touch you will fail in some capacity in the future. If the interviewee seems squeamish about admitting a failure, offer one of your own up. When was the last time you failed? Normalizing failure is a positive, but it should not be tolerated without also learning from that failure.

As they begin to expand on a failure, continue to ask curious questions.

  • What was their role in the failure?
  • Were there early signs they might not succeed?
  • What did they try to do to prevent the failure?
  • Was there any fallout?
  • What did the team have to do to recover?

If you only gave me four questions to ask to appropriately evaluate a candidate, I would choose the four above. You get a chance to analyze their perception of feedback, how they give feedback, and what they value in projects.

As a note, if you just ask the base questions, they are not enough. By following up on each and learning more, you can definitely get what you need.

If you read through this and thought, “ah, so these are just behavioral interview questions?” you’re correct. These are definitely in the same vein, with some additional expansion on what I’ve seen work well for me and my colleagues in the past. If you’re interested in learning more about behavioral interviewing, the Society for Human Management Resource has a great guide to behavioral interviews.

If you are interviewing and curious about how to construct your responses, definitely check out the STAR (situation, task, action, result) response model.

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