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Hiring for Soft Skills: Why Ask Behavioral Interview Questions?

In The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers, we’ve made the business case for building your own soft skills so you can be more effective as a manager. We’re shifting in this post to answer two key questions: When you bring on new team members, why hire for soft skills? And, when hiring, why ask behavioral interview questions as a tool for recognizing the soft skills you’re looking for?

Before we tackle those two questions, there’s one more to answer.

 What Soft Skills Should We Consider When Hiring New Employees?

The World Economic Forum lists 10 skills employees need to succeed in 2020 with the dawning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At a time of technological revolution, these are the soft skills that are absolutely essential for employees at every level:

  1. The ability to solve complex problems.Graphic Showing Interview Question
  2. Critical thinking.
  3. Creativity
  4. Relationship management.
  5. Collaboration
  6. Emotional intelligence.
  7. Judgment and decision-making.
  8. Service orientation.
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility.

All 10 are soft skills! These are the intangibles that make a difference in the careers of equally gifted technical experts.

In Metaskills, design-thinking expert Marty Neumeier explains why we need to hone our skills in feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning. As AI, automation, technology, and outsourcing increase, Neumeier urges humans to use these metaskills to do more creative work that is unique, imaginative, non-routine, and autonomous.

Ultimately, considering these 10 skills and the principles of design thinking in a rapidly advancing technological revolution, employees need the ability to make connections. There are five kinds of connections that employees can make to do great work.

  • Connections between ideas. Connecting two previously unconnected thoughts, says Neumeier, is a form of combinatory play. Mathematician Jacob Bronowski said “A genius is a person who has two great ideas (and brings them together).”
  • Connections between problems and their root causes. Seeing a bigger picture and connecting the dots simplifies what is complex, confusing, or ambiguous. The ability to break down a problem and diagnose its root cause makes employees more efficient and more effective.
  • Connections between people. Human-to-human interactions, both online and offline, enable employees to get things done. This requires emotional intelligence and a genuine interest in forming and sustaining workplace relationships.
  • Connections between competing interests. Managing conflict, collaborating and negotiating all depend on the ability to be assertive. Employees who can get their own needs met while also meeting the needs of their colleagues expand possibilities.
  • Connections between technology and humans. Interacting with technology and creating efficiencies through AI and automation requires employees to be tech savvy and nimble. Change is the only constant, so flexibility is essential. Making smart decisions about what to do and what to let machines do frees up employee time for higher-level, human touch work.

When hiring new employees, look for people who make these kinds of connections and have the soft skills required to make more of these connections in the future.

For employees already on your team or those coming in who need to develop soft skills, find resources that provide this kind of learning and encourage this mindset. Start with this YouTube playlist for a series on critical thinking skills, including skills related to solving complex problems, judgment, decision-making, and cognitive flexibility.

What Are the Benefits of Hiring for Soft Skills?

Soft skills are not optional. Functional skills only take employees so far.

That means you, as a manager, have two choices.

You can train people and work internally to build soft skills. To do so, you’ll need assessment tools and trainers with expertise in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and growth mindset. Individual coaching will also be needed to help employees form new habits and get comfortable with soft skills that don’t come naturally. If you prefer this option, send us an email because we can help! Frankly, though, this isn’t the best option.

Your second choice is a better one. You can hire people who already have strong, well-developed soft skills. The advantages of hiring for soft skills include:

  • Proven ability and willingness to use soft skills vs. discomfort or resistance.
  • No old habits to break.
  • Less time and money will need to be invested in assessment, training and coaching.
  • People with solid soft skills can be examples to others.
  • It’s easier to teach “hard” functional skills than to teach employees soft skills.
  • It takes time for people to master soft skills. Patience and guidance are essential.
  • Setting expectations for soft skills development can be tricky. People may take it personally if it seems like you’re asking them to change their personalities.

Realistically, you’ll probably have to do some work internally to build soft skills with veteran team members. Going forward, though, you’ll want to identify the soft skills that are critical to success in each job role and then hire with those soft skills competencies in mind.   

What Are Competencies?

Competencies include skills, knowledge, and traits that are proven to enhance employee performance and success in a job role. Competencies are objective expressions of what it takes to be effective in a particular job.

There is no universal set of competencies that fits all jobs. Within your organization, different functional roles require different “hard skills” competencies. Each function has a set of competencies that are specific to the work and output required.

No matter what the job role, the employee in that job will need certain skills, knowledge, and traits. The ideal candidate for a job is the one who has ALL the competencies needed to succeed. The candidate you should select is the one who comes closest to the ideal. Here’s an example, of how these functional competencies might be bundled for a sales role.

SKILLS: Making cold calls, conducting discovery meetings, making compelling presentations, etc.

KNOWLEDGE: Business acumen, understanding of the market, sales psychology, buyer industry, etc.

TRAITS: Resilience, perseverance, competitive, empathetic, analytical, etc.

To determine which competencies are the right ones for any role, you start by identifying what it takes for people in that role to be successful. You observe the most successful employees in those roles. What skills enable them to out-perform others? What do they know that makes them more effective? What traits or characteristics do they display? Use this information to select no more than 10 core competencies for each job role.

In addition to considering the hard skills that are functionally specific, you’ll also want to look for soft skills. These are transferable and not linked to a particular type of work. For example, you might have soft skills competencies like these that you consider for all job roles.

SKILLS: Ability to solve complex problems, negotiate and collaborate by looking at a bigger picture.

KNOWLEDGE: Understands how to manage emotions and create strong interpersonal relationships.

TRAITS: Nimble, creative, and open-minded.

You won’t add these to the list of 10 competencies that you’re screening for. Rather, you’ll choose a total of ten that includes both hard skills and soft skills. You’ll use this list of competencies to conduct a behavioral interview. That’s a process for rapidly identifying which candidates come closest to your ideal profile of essential competencies.

Here’s something else to consider. You can, if you choose, develop employees’ skills and knowledge through training, coaching and practice. You cannot, however, build traits in someone else. They either have the traits you’re looking for or they don’t. For this reason, many behavioral interviewers emphasize traits in their selection process. 

What Is Behavioral Interviewing? 

Behavioral Interviewing (BI) is not the same as traditional interviewing. The questions you ask will be different, and the insights you get about your candidates will be more comprehensive and more useful.

BI is a technique for gathering specific information about what a candidate has actually done in the past. By probing real situations, you’ll ascertain whether or not a candidate has the skills, knowledge and traits needed to do the job.

When you ask BI questions, you won’t get pre-scripted answers that fool interviewers. Instead, you’ll get examples and stories that illustrate exactly what the candidate did in a situation. The premise here is that past behaviors are the best indicator of future behaviors.

Here’s what happens in a traditional interview.

You ask questions like “How effective are you at problem solving?” The candidate replies “I like puzzles and trying to figure things out.” You like that answer, hire that candidate, and find out after they’ve started that their problem-solving abilities are lacking. It turns out that they enjoy puzzles but are very slow at putting the pieces together, often belaboring the process. In the interview, they gave you the answer you wanted to hear. It might even have been true. But it gave you no concrete information about what you could expect.

For contrast, here’s what happens in a behavioral interview.

First, you ask situation questions like “In your current job, how much time and attention is needed for solving complex problems?” When the candidate replies, you listen for a situation that is similar to the one you’re hiring for. If you need an experienced and confident problem solver you’ll know it might be a poor fit if the candidate says “I have a lot of ideas to solve problems, but no one ever does anything about it” or “My boss handles it when we have problems.”

No matter what the candidate says about the situation, you’ll follow up to find out about the candidate’s own specific behavior. If the candidate described a situation where problem-solving is required, you still need to know more about what this candidate actually did in that situation. You’d ask “What were your own contributions in solving that specific problem?” You’re looking to hear details that describe what the candidate did – not what was measured, what was ideal, or what others did. You want to hear a response like “First, I…” followed by specific actions. If you hear, instead, descriptions about generic guidelines, you press for specifics. If you hear “we” or “they” instead of “I,” the you press for specifics about the candidate’s own behaviors. If the candidate fumbles to try and give the “right” answer, it will usually be a series of generic ideals without personal, specific behaviors. That’s a clear sign, for you, that the candidate hasn’t mastered this competency or resists prospecting altogether.

Finally, in a behavioral interview, you’ll also ask about results. You need to know if the candidate understands the cause-and-effect between their behaviors and the outcomes produced. A question about results also clues you in on whether the situation and behaviors are being accurately portrayed. With a candidate in a role that demanded problem-soloving describes behaviors that sound like the ones you want to see in your new hire, the results question would be something like “In that situation, what was the outcome over the long term?” Once again, you’re looking for very specific examples and details.    

Using these three questions, you have a BI Question Set. For each competency, you’ll develop a question set with a Situation, Behavior, and Result question (as shown in the table above).

Behavioral interviewing is proven to identify “best fit” candidates more accurately than traditional interviewing. Hiring for specific competencies also boosts the success rate of hiring. BI begins with determining the competencies needed for the job you need to fill.

Why Ask Behavioral Interviewing Questions When Hiring for Soft Skills? 

Soft skills are easy to fake in an interview. Everyone knows you’re supposed to be personable, a team player, someone who works hard and does whatever it takes to succeed. So everyone portrays themselves this way in an interview.

Of course, when you have an open position, you’re eager to fill it. You go into interviews hoping to see a fit. You may be giving candidates a free pass on soft skills so long as they have the bare minimums that everyone knows they need to bring into an interview.

What’s more, the traditional interview process over-relies on functional and hard skills. Resumes get screened for experience and education. Neither reflects soft skills.

With behavioral interviewing, you’ll have a much better shot at getting a true look at candidates’ soft skills and how they leverage them to do their work. 

Putting the Pieces Together for Better Hiring and a Stronger Team

The process of interviewing changes when you have competencies and use BI question sets. Before interviewing begins, you’ll have 5-10 competencies that are essential for success in the job. You’ll have a question set for each of those competencies. You’ll have positive and negative examples to listen for in the interview. Finally, you’ll have a matrix for scoring candidates on each competency.

When interviewing for an open position, you’ll ask exactly the same questions and evaluate candidates based on their past behaviors for each competency. This eliminates the guess work and gut instinct that leads so many interviewers astray.

When it comes time to advance some candidates to the second interview or to make your selection, you’ll have an objective scorecard and rationale for your decisions. It will all be based on what candidates have actually done in situations like the ones they’ll encounter if they are hired by you.

Best of all, you’ll have better fit for the job, less ramp-up time, and more success.

If you’d like more information or training on behavioral interviewing, creating a competency model, or using a full selection process to ensure quality hiring, let us know. Here at People First Productivity Solutions, we consult and coach organizations to build organizational strength by putting PEOPLE first.

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