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How to Handle a Behavioral Interview | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

Gary Dumais' employees at Select Human Resources interviewing

I’ve interviewed thousands of job candidates as a Business Psychologist and Human Resource professional.  In this article, I’m going to share some advice about how to prepare for and respond to behavioral job interview questions.

What is a Behavioral Interview?

Behaviorally based interviewing is also known as situation based interviewing or the “STAR” method (Situation, Task, Activity, Result).  Basically, it means the interviewer will ask you to describe examples of things you’ve done on the job, and most of the interview questions will begin with something like, “Tell me about a time when you…”.  The interviewer then listens and probes for details about the who, what, when, where, how, etc. in the examples you provide.

Asking what a person did do in certain job situations is different from traditional interviewing methods that ask people what they would do.  The behavioral method is used because what a person did do tends to be more predictive of what they will do in the future, in comparison to what they say they would do.  For example, if a candidate was asked what he would do if he had a conflict with a colleague, he might say that he would confront his coworker to discuss the matter.  However, when asked to describe what he did do during a recent time he had a conflict with a colleague, the same candidate might share an example in which he ignored the conflict in hopes it would fade with time.

How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

Behavioral interview questions are usually designed to match the competencies needed for success in a role (e.g., problem-solving skills, project management skills, relationship building skills, etc.).  For instance, if a job requires a person to think strategically, an interviewer might ask them to describe a recent time when they had to define a business strategy.

With that in mind, it’s useful to identify what competencies a job requires so you can prepare accordingly for related interview questions:

  • Sometimes formal job descriptions will list the competencies required for a position. If not, Human Resources or the hiring manager for the role will likely share the competencies if asked.  It’s certainly OK to ask about the competencies required for success in a role when applying for a position.
  • You may also be able to discern the required competencies by closely reviewing the job description and “reading between the lines”, so to speak.  In my experience, most job competencies fall into three broad categories: Thinking (e.g., problem-solving, innovating, etc.), Results (e.g., accountability, time management, etc.), and People (e.g., networking, influencing, etc.).  Those categories can be used as a guide for deciphering the competencies underpinning a job description.  For example, while reading the job description, you could ask yourself, “What thinking-related competencies seem needed for this role?”, “What results-related competencies seem needed for this role?”, and so on.

Once you’ve identified the competencies required for a job, the next step is to recall instances from your work experience when you evidenced those competencies:

  • Recall examples that occurred within the last year or less (the more recent, the better). They’ll be easier to remember and share details about.  Further, behavioral interviewers usually require examples to be relatively recent.
  • Avoid getting caught-up in trying to identify the biggest, best, or most elaborate example you can think of. I’ve interviewed many people who had difficulty giving examples because they didn’t feel the example was sophisticated or spectacular enough to share.  Behavioral interviewers tend to focus more on the how than the what in the examples you provide.  For instance, you probably take a similar approach to delegating work whether a project is large or small, but it’d be easier to convey the details of the smaller project when the interviewer asks.
  • Don’t let an undesired outcome keep you from sharing what would otherwise be a good example. I see this often, for example, when asking people to describe a time when they had to influence upward (e.g., gain buy-in from senior leadership, change their boss’s opinion, etc.).  They hesitate to share an example because they were unsuccessful at influencing upward.  However, once they share the example it’s clear (to me as a behavioral interviewer) that their approach to influencing was sound, despite senior leadership choosing not to buy-in.

How to Respond to Behavioral Interview Questions

Now that you’ve identified the competencies required for a job and some examples from your work experience that illustrate those skills, the final step is to refine how you’ll communicate those examples:

  • Answer the question the interviewer asks. Seems intuitive, but I still come across candidates who give examples they believe will make them look good, rather than examples that fit the questions asked.  The behavioral interview method requires clear examples from candidates that match specific competency areas, and so it’s not the time to respond like a politician.  For instance, if the interviewer asks you for an example of how you dealt with a customer complaint, you won’t be able to get by with an example of how you exceeded your sales goals for the year.  Similarly, if you find yourself falling back into the traditional interview habit of responding to questions with guesses about what you would do in a hypothetical scenario, be prepared to be asked again about what you did do in an actual situation.
  • Center your responses on describing your actions and involvement in the examples you provide. Remember, in most instances, the interviewer is seeking to understand what you did so they can draw conclusions about your skills, abilities, and fit for a job.  For instances when you were part of a team, you can start your example with, “As part of a team I… (and then talk specifically about what you did or the role you played on the team)”.
  • Be concise. Interview time is limited, and interviewers typically have several competency areas to cover.  Communicating only the essentials of each example (e.g., the who, what, where, when, and how) will help ensure you don’t run short on time.  Keep in mind that interviewers can ask you for more detail if they need it, but in contrast, it’s difficult to make up for time lost on longwinded examples.  Moreover, interviewers are likely to be gauging how well you communicate, as many jobs require strong verbal communication skills.
  • Practice to ensure examples are fresh in your mind, but do not over-rehearse or read from your notes during an interview. Behaviorally based interviews are not like school exams that can be “passed” by giving certain “right” answers.  As alluded to previously, interviewers will likely be evaluating how you communicate, think on your feet, handle pressure, etc., while you are responding.  Having a few notes (such as bullet points to jog your memory) is usually fine, but coming across as scripted, robotic, or rigid during an interview is not.
  • Finally, don’t be shy about taking time to think before responding (especially if you’re asked a question you weren’t expecting). It’s much better to take a few moments to recall an example that is fitting and straightforward than it is to respond quickly with an example that’s mismatched or convoluted.

I sincerely hope you found this article to be helpful.  Please visit Select Human Resources or my website at garydumais.com for more useful articles and contact information.  You can also connect with me via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/garydumais/

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How to Give Negative Feedback | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

Gary Dumais giving feedback

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback?  Well, to fully experience and understand the tip I’m about to share with you, I invite you to think about a time when somebody really helped you out.  Maybe recall an instance when your car broke down and a friend picked you up, or a team member helped you meet a deadline, or someone gave you support during a difficult time.  Now think back to how you felt when that person helped you out.  Feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and even relief probably come to mind.

Feedback can have a similar impact, even if the feedback is “negative”.  Just like how you’d feel if a friend quietly let you know before attending a big meeting that you had a piece of salad stuck in your teeth; you might be slightly embarrassed initially, but overall, you’d be very thankful for the helpful feedback.

And that is the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback.  Our thoughts have a strong influence on how we behave.  For example, if you’re thinking about the happiest moment in your life, people will likely notice a smile on your face and a spring in your step.  Likewise, if you’re thinking about helping someone with feedback, your tone, choice of words, and mannerisms will reflect that, and the person you’re speaking with is more likely to be open to what you have to say.

It may sound simple, but it’s much easier said than done.  In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve noticed that many managers have difficulty giving negative feedback because they get caught-up in thinking about how others will become upset, disappointed, or even volatile.  Those thoughts are then unconsciously transmitted through the managers’ tone, mannerisms, and so on, and the people receiving the feedback sense it and become defensive.

With all that in mind, before giving negative feedback, I recommend you take a moment to get in the right frame of mind by recalling an instance when someone truly helped you, and remembering how good that felt.  Then, think through how your feedback will be helpful to the person you’re delivering it to (e.g., make them more effective, help them to advance, etc.) so you can be sure to explain and emphasize those points (e.g., by using the “What’s In It For You” principle).

Finally, if you ever find it difficult to identify how a piece of feedback would be helpful to a person, that’s a clear indication to reexamine if the feedback really has merit or is truly worthwhile to share.

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Communication Tip: “The Medium is the Message”

Gary Dumais Select Human Resources Paper and Pen

Surprisingly, the most important part of communication is NOT what you say or write.  For example, imagine you’re walking down a busy city street and see a disheveled man holding a sign saying, “The World Ends Today”.  Most likely, you wouldn’t be too concerned about the world ending.  In contrast, imagine you turned on your favorite news channel and saw the exact same words (“The World Ends Today”) on the screen.  You’d probably be extremely alarmed.  In both instances, the words are the same, yet the resulting message is very different.

This principle is described in the works of professor Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, “The medium is the message”. “Medium” refers to how the message is conveyed, such as through TV, the internet, in a book, or a whisper in your ear from a friend.  And the medium by which a message is conveyed can carry greater meaning than the words the message is comprised of.  For example, imagine you receive a beautifully written poem about love…but it’s written on a used napkin from a public trash can.  It wouldn’t matter how well the poem was written, the resulting message is, well, trash and likely to be considered offensive.  Now imagine the same poem was written on rose petals.  The resulting message would be very different, and much better.  Moreover, the poem itself doesn’t even have to be very good; the fact that someone took the time to write it on rose petals (i.e., the medium) conveys a very positive and powerful message.

So how can you apply this principle at work and in everyday life?  Well, with your understanding of how the medium is the message, I recommend you take a moment to consciously consider and choose the best medium to convey your message (especially if it’s important).  For example, if you’d like to praise an employee for great work, I encourage you to consider what impact you’d like the message to have, and then choose how to convey it accordingly.  Saying, “Great job, I appreciate your effort” via email, or in-person, or through an announcement at a team meeting will have very different impacts.

Finally, I recommend you keep the “The medium is the message” principle in mind when evaluating communications and choosing sources of information.  For example, taking a moment to consider why certain mediums were chosen to convey a message (e.g., Twitter tweets vs. a press conference) can provide you with useful insights about who is communicating and what message they’re really sending.  Similarly, you’d be wise to place greater importance on information published in a credible medium (like Harvard Business Review) rather than to something posted on a questionable website.

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How to Influence and Persuade People: The WIIFY Principle

Gary Dumais gaining agreement

What’s the best way to convince others and gain their buy-in?  Like many, you might believe that providing facts and rationale are the best way to win people over to your point of view.  But even a quick look at recent politics shows that facts and reason do not necessarily sway people.  I’m sure you can also recall instances when you were “right” or had the best solution, but just couldn’t get people to support your idea.  Similarly, as a Business Psychologist, I have seen many meetings where exceptionally smart people just couldn’t get others to agree with them, despite having the “right answer”.

Why do “convincing” facts not convince people?  Well, put simply, as human beings we’re often motivated most by seeing the “what’s in it for me” or how things can benefit us.  For example, listing only facts and figures in a PowerPoint about how an idea is good for your department or the company will likely put your audience to sleep (no matter how “right” you are).  However, your audience will give you their undivided attention the instant you begin to explain how your idea will help them, solve their problems, and so on.  In other words, people are more likely to buy-into your ideas when you leverage the “What’s In It For You” (WIIFY) principle.

So, what steps can you take to utilize the WIIFY principle?  I suggest first making a list of the people you routinely have to influence (e.g., your boss, colleagues, customers).  Then, define in a few words what matters most to each of them (e.g., being seen as an expert, being well-liked, advancing in their career, etc.).  Making the list will cause you to deeply consider who you need to influence and what matters most to them (likely in greater depth then you have before).  While it may sound simple initially, many find making the list to be very challenging. You may even discover that you’re not sure what matters most to certain people, which will hopefully encourage you to get to know them better.  Finally, briefly review the list before meetings as a reminder to emphasize the “what’s in it for you” to win people over.

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The Difference Between Recruiters and Business Psychologists

Gary Duamis Recruiters and Business Psychologists

When I tell people I’m a Business Psychologist that helps companies choose the right people for key roles, many respond with, “Oh, you’re a Recruiter”.  Recruiters can play an important part in the hiring process, but what Business Psychologist do is very different.

To make a simple comparison, Recruiters are like Real Estate Agents, and Business Psychologists are like Home Inspectors:

Anyone who has searched for a home knows about Real Estate Agents.  They’re adept at understanding what’s available on the market and providing properties to choose from.  The best Real Estate Agents understand your needs and find homes that meet your criteria (while the worst agents are “salesy” and try to convince you that whatever homes they have are what you really need).  Recruiters work in a similar way.  They’re usually well-networked and provide a variety of job applicants for you to choose from.

In contrast, Home Inspectors are adept at appraising a property and evaluating if it has any problems (e.g., cracks in the foundation).  They have special training, tools, and techniques for testing the home and objectively assessing its value so you can “know what you’re getting” when making a buying decision.  Business Psychologists work in a similar way.  They use psychological assessments, interview techniques, and other methods (e.g., Assessment Centers) to provide an objective evaluation of a candidate so you can “know what you’re getting” when making a hiring decision.

Finally, it’s important to consider the difference between how Recruiters and Business Psychologists are incentivized.  Recruiters get paid for placing candidates.  Just like Real Estate Agents, they get a commission for getting you to say, “Yes, I’ll take it” (sometimes equal to as much as 20% of a candidate’s starting salary).  However, Business Psychologists get paid for correctly screening candidates.  Just like Home Inspectors, they don’t get paid any more for swaying your decision one way or another.  Rather, Business Psychologist get repeat business by being objective and providing the information you need to make wise hiring and promotion decisions.

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The Costs of Bad Hires; getting senior leadership to take action

Rising costs of a bad hire by Gary Dumais

What’s a company’s greatest expense?  Many might guess it’s the cost of producing products, research and development, or marketing and advertising.  However, for most companies, their greatest expense by far is employees.  Just think about the costs associated with paying salaries, benefits, etc., multiply them across all the employees in a company, and then it’s easy to understand how Human Capital is a company’s greatest investment.

With all that in mind, what’s the best way to quantify the cost of a bad hire?  And how can managers and Human Resource professionals help senior leadership understand the gravity of those costs so they’ll invest in better recruiting and selection processes?

In my experience as a Business Psychologist, I’ve found the following questions to be especially helpful.  First, I ask members of senior leadership teams to think about one of their best employees and one of their worst employees.  Once they have people in mind, I then ask them to describe the impact those employees have had on the company.  -Their responses are usually quick, passionate, and visceral.  People can readily recall the sizable benefits a high-performing employee has brought to the company (e.g., increasing profits, making wise decisions, solving problems, championing change, etc.).  Likewise, senior leaders can also quickly recall the damage a bad employee caused (e.g., costly mistakes, decisions that led the company down the wrong road, low morale, higher employee turnover, etc.).  Recalling those first-hand experiences is often far more powerful and convincing than calculating a specific dollar value associated with the cost of a bad hire.  For example, while it’s impactful to cite that $100,000 was wasted on hiring and training a manager who underperformed anyway, helping senior leadership to recall that the same manger made a decision that botched a new product launch and cost the company millions is even more impactful (and provides deeper insight into the issue).

Once senior leaders fully recognize and “feel” the costs associated with bad hires, it’s much easier for them to see the huge return on investment that can come from improving recruiting and selection processes.

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The Drawbacks of Using “Big” Consulting Firms

Big Consulting Firms by Gary Dumais

Human Resource professionals, executives, and other important decision-makers within companies are often tasked with choosing a consulting firm to help them with pressing Human Capital needs (e.g., recruiting, selecting, and developing people, etc.).  Too often, I see these busy professionals using the “bigger is better” rule-of-thumb, signing expensive contracts with large consulting firms and ending-up very disappointed with the results.

With about fifteen years of Human Capital consulting experience, I have worked for small consulting firms, large consulting firms, and completely on my own.  I’ve also been a Human Resource Manager responsible for choosing consulting service providers.  Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned:

    • Smaller consulting firms cost less.  Those multiple offices around the world that big firms boast are very expensive to keep open, not to mention the huge amounts of staff, advertising, legal expenses, etc. required.  And those hefty expenses get passed down to you as a consumer.  Your company’s money can go farther when it’s paying for service rather than keeping an office’s lights on.  Also, like many large companies, big firms have to consistently show profit increases to keep investors and other stakeholders interested.  However, many smaller firms are content with making enough profit to pay their consultants fairly.
    • “Boutique” consulting firms care more about you as a client.  Consultants at smaller firms are more likely to feel the impact of their success and failures.  -Losing a client can seriously impact their bottom line.  Moreover, much of their new business comes from current customer referrals (e.g., being recommended for doing great work).  With all that in mind, consultants at smaller firms are usually much more customer service oriented and willing to go the extra mile (e.g., complete urgent projects over the weekend and holidays) and ensure you’re satisfied as a client (e.g., customizing processes, giving discounts, etc.).
    • You’re not getting better consultants (or better results) by “going big” and paying more.  Big consulting firms subcontract work to smaller firms.  That’s right, when those big firms get big contracts, they often reach out to independent consultants to help deliver the goods while saving money.  So, that big firm consultant you’re paying top-dollar for may be a small firm consultant anyway.  Moreover, many of the best consultants nowadays start out at large firms, learn they are effective and can do consulting work on their own, and then go off to work independently or start their own small firms.

In sum, choosing a smaller consulting firm can save your company money while getting better results.        

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Interviewing People: The importance of building and maintaining rapport

Gary Dumais explains building rapport

Strike-up a conversation with Human Resource professionals and Psychologists about best practices related to interviewing and you’ll quickly hear discussion about using behaviorally based interview techniques, asking questions about what people did do in business situations rather than what they would do, listening for behavioral anchors that align with company competency models, etc.

However, in contrast, I never hear people mention the importance of building and maintaining rapport with the person being interviewed, and that’s unfortunate because it provides the foundation for whatever interview technique you chose to use.

If you think about it, the person being interviewed has obviously been with themselves their entire life and is most likely to have deep knowledge of their strengths, weaknesses, personality characteristics, likes and dislikes, etc.  With that in mind, a sizable part of being an adept interviewer or assessor is simply making people feel comfortable about speaking about themselves.  While I have nearly a decade of experience working with high-level managers and executives, I am often described as a soft-spoken, introverted, “nice guy”.  While some have suggested that I work on being more assertive, outspoken, or “edgy”, I reserve that kind of approach for instances that truly call for it (e.g., when advocating for adherence to ethical practices).  Otherwise, my gentle and soft-spoken approach makes it easy for people to feel comfortable speaking with me.  Similarly, I act on opportunities to show I’m listening intently and understanding what they are saying (e.g., by paraphrasing, empathizing, and utilizing other active-listening techniques).  Moreover, I continually monitor my interaction with interviewees and adjust in real-time to maintain good rapport (e.g., by asking a person to elaborate about positive things such as their strengths if they begin to show signs of anxiety during the interview).

Bottom line: as an interviewer, it’s important to keep in mind that people tend to share the most useful information when they feel comfortable, and are more likely to become closed-off when they don’t.    

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