During an interviewing workshop I was conducting, one of the participants, a manager named Dan, firmly stated, “It really doesn't matter what people have done in the past—all that matters is what they're willing to do.”
He was taken aback when I told him that I agreed. “You just stated that competency-based questions make the most effective types of questions since they assess an applicant's demonstrated abilities as they relate to the requirements and responsibilities of a particular job,” Dan said. “How can you say you agree with me when I say all that matters is what a person is willing to do?”
“That's simple,” I replied. “But before I answer, let me ask you a question. How can you determine what a person is willing to do?”
Dan thought briefly and then replied, “This is probably a trick question because the answer is so obvious, but here goes: You ask them!” I smiled. That was exactly what I thought he would say. “Dan,” I continued, “suppose you have an opening for a project manager. One of the key qualities is teamwork. What are you going to ask your applicants?” Dan responded, “Well, I could ask them to describe how they work with other members of a team.”
“And what do you think they'll say?” I asked. “I guess they'll say they work well with other members of a team,” Dan replied. “Right,” I said. “What have you learned about how they work with other members of a team?”
“Not much,” Dan confessed. But then he thought some more and said, “All right, then, I would ask a specific question. I'd say, suppose you're working as a member of a team and you hit a snag because one of your coworkers isn't doing his share of the work; what are you going to do?” “That's much better,” I told him, adding, “But don't you think he's likely to tell you what you want to hear?” Dan was becoming frustrated, so I decided to return to his original question.
I agreed with Dan's assertion that all that matters is what a person is willing to do and, at the same time, I maintain that competency-based questions should form the foundation of any interview. The reason these ideas aren't in conflict is that competency-based questions allow you to project, with a high degree of certainty, just what a person is willing or likely to do. Let me illustrate with teamwork. The last question Dan posed is excellent, but it's incomplete; you still don't know if what the applicant says is what he really will do, or if he's just saying what he anticipates