In an article written for People Management International Inc. titled A Game Plan for the Interview, Arthur F. Miller provides some great insights into the interviewing process. “After name, rank, and serial number,” writes Miller, “where do you go in an interview? What questions should be asked? What areas explored? Within the time available, what data should you seek that will reveal how this person will perform once on the job?”
Miller’s first rule: “Develop critical requirements of the job(s) to be filled.”
Sounds obvious, I know, but it is surprising how many organizations have not taken the time to talk about the critical elements of the position they are trying to fill. Once you have the critical elements, then break each one down into its major parts. Do you need a strategist on your team? What do you need that strategic person to do? What would it look like if they did it well? How would you know if it were done well? Always break the work down until it can be comfortably measured and then stop. We can err in either direction. We can define the work in too broad of terms and not really know what it means, or we can break it down too far and never get around to recruiting anyone—or micromanaging the ones we do recruit. You must understand what it is you are asking this person to do. You don’t need to be able to do it, but you must know what needs to be done and why it is important.
Now that you have a clear understanding of what the person will do, put it aside. That is right, put it aside. If you focus too soon on the specifics of the position description, you may—and most likely will—miss the most important part of the interview and that is their story. Not their education, not their experience, not even their temperament, but their story. Their story is made up of the behaviors and conditions in their life where they were able to thrive and grow both professionally and personally.
You read it right. Knowing what education a person has is not the most important thing in an interview. “Education does not create abilities,” writes Miller. “It exercises them and provides a vocabulary and tools to express them. A student’s ability to analyze critically, to organize and express thoughts, to evaluate worth, to determine strategies, or to influence others is manifested over many years, and through many occasions prior to college. Of the hundreds of people I have interviewed over a 23-year period, I cannot remember a single case where a student ‘grew’ an ability as a result of academic courses or extra-curricular activities. The ability was manifestly present prior to college.” So, for now, forget about their education.
Not only is education not the most import focus of the interview, experience alone is not that important either. It’s been said that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. And I believe it to be true. However, past performance or experience alone will not tell you how any one person will behave in this place, at this time, with this team. Miller put it this way, “The line of inquiry that seeks information about relevant work experience also lacks a rationale. No correlation exists between length of relevant work experience and job performance—so why ask about it? Yes, hirers ask for it and obviously must be responded to. But the fact or amount of work experience doesn’t always imply a capability and motivation to do the work.” What you need to look for is not just past experience, but what was it about the work that motivated this person to do it, and what were the resulting behaviors?
While I appreciate and have used personality assessment tools for many years, I also know that personality type does not create ability, it is not a measure of ability, and it is not the place to focus the interview. When used well, personality assessments can be predictors of preference but never predictors of strength or weakness. You can have a high preference for “Thinking” in the MBTI®, and still not be a great thinker. You may have a high score on “Judging” and judge poorly. Personality assessments can tell us many things, but they cannot tell us how well a certain person will perform on the job.
Miller’s second rule: “Do not directly explore possession of the critical job requirements.”
He explains, “To find out if candidates will, for example, build relations on the job, do not ask questions that signal, loudly or softly, that you want to know how good they are at building relations. If you do, the responses will indicate data that indicate future job behavior and that do not indicate future job performance, and you won’t be able to tell which is which.” One of the best ways to determine the skills or knowledge a candidate possesses is to let the candidate control the discussion. Ask questions, certainly, but don’t lead them to “your” response. “To the extent that you restrict in interviews (or other assessments) the ability of people to express their unique motivated work behavior, you introduce inaccuracy and distortion in the prediction of how they will perform once on the job,” writes Miller. Know what you are looking for, and let them tell their story in their own way, these are two great keys to effective interviewing.
Rule number three: “Go after data that reveal motivated work behavior.”
As I said earlier, past performance is the best predictor of future performance. What Millers adds to this is a need to focus on a person’s motivated behaviors, or “Why was what they did important to them?” Motivated behaviors are “motivational patterns that control how they perceive and attempt to perform any job.” If all you learn about an individual is what they have done or studied, and not how they perceived the work or their performance of the work, you are missing the point. Knowing what people have done in the past is important, but so is an understanding of why they did it consistently over time. It is only after you have a clear understanding of a person’s motivated work behaviors that you can decide whether or not that behavior includes those key elements critical to the work for which the candidate is being considered.
What a person is capable of doing is not even a relevant inquiry if employers know that what employees are able to do is not what they deliver once on the job, unless the ability is part of their motivated work behavior. (Arthur Miller
Miller’s fourth rule: “The most fruitful source of motivated work behavior is a candidate’s self-reported enjoyable achievement experiences.”
Miller quotes a People Management Inc. study which revealed that “every time individuals do something they enjoy and believe they did well, some or all of the same ingredients of motivated work behavior are present. By the time you interview them, students have a personal retrievable track record of more than 15 years in which they have experienced a number of things that they enjoyed and believe they did well. Go after them!” We often spend too much time asking the candidate to fill in every moment of their work experience, rather than going deeply with the ones they feel were most rewarding. “Recruiters who do get into achievements often fail to probe adequately,” writes Miller. “You are better off spending available time on a few achievements and really exhausting the candidate’s recollection of them. Remember that each achievement reveals some or all of the same motivational elements, so whether you cover three or six achievements is not crucial.”
Finally, Miller’s fifth rule: “Don’t interpret the data—add it up.”
Your job as an interviewer is to determine whether the candidate’s motivated behavior does or does not include the critical requirements for the job. Again from Miller, “Look at the interview for recurring themes or threads. Critical requirements are either present or not. Give words and phrases their reasonable meaning and identify those that recur. Don’t interpret with constructions, implications, assumptions, or especially opinions; stay with what is obvious.” Does what you have heard accurately describe the kinds of behaviors you need from a person in the position you are seeking to fill? Does it all add up? Even though people may not feel they always had a choice, people doing the same work will self-select the different roles they play, the way they spend their time, the elements of the work that get left undone, and the elements they perform well. Listen close, and the candidate will tell you themselves if this is a good match.