Behavioral Interviewing: Mastering the Art

Perhaps you’ve heard the old comic bit that has one man asking another for directions: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” he asks. And the well-timed punch line is, of course: practice, practice, practice.

Yes, the joke’s a bit dated – but the concept isn’t. And yet, I’m often surprised at how often companies approach hiring – and, specifically, interviewing – without any formal practice or an approach to developing skills in their key people who are on the front lines for vetting candidates.

I’ll stay with the music theme for a minute to draw an important parallel.

I started taking classical piano lessons when I was six years old. As the years went on, I regularly entered – and often won – competitions across the state. This isn’t to brag or to comment on any of my “natural talent”. Instead, it’s more about my piano teacher, who was adamant about specific methods of practicing. My talent wasn’t natural, per se; it was developed over time and in very specific ways.

Fast forward to recent years, when I decided to “start over” and learn to play the guitar.

In my first lesson, my teacher recommended that I read a book titled The Talent Code. The book explores research into brain physiology that explained perfectly why the approach that my piano teacher took had worked so well.

According to The Talent Code, there is a substance called myelin in our brains that provides an insulating sheath around nerve fibers. As with a copper wire, the more insulated it is, the faster the electrical signal will travel and the stronger it will be when it arrives at its destination.

This works the same way with electrical signals in our brains. And, according to the book, we develop this myelin at the fastest rates through deep practice – which includes things like chunking skills into small pieces and practicing things very slowly with an intense focus.

In essence, the more myelin we have wrapped around our neurons for a particular skill, the faster and better we will do it – whether it’s playing a guitar lick or conducting an effective behavioral interview.

So what’s the parallel to interview training?

People who “wing it” or “go with their gut” consistently make more bad hires than those who follow a process of behavioral interviewing.

But behavioral interviewing also has to be done well to get real impact. Behavioral interviewing is a skill and has to be developed as such. In other words, it has to be practiced.

Here are some ways to get the most out of teaching interview skills:

Use e-learning to cover the fundamentals. Yes, I just talked at length about how interviewing is a skill and needs to be practiced. But you can’t learn to play a piece on the piano before you know what a note is, never mind a treble clef. E-learning is a great option to cover the fundamental knowledge piece of the training, plus it leaves more of your “in-person” time for interactive exercises and practice.
Include as many role plays as possible. In other words, practice, practice, practice. I certainly heard that a lot from my piano teacher and I was expected to practice every day. The only way to move things to the back of the brain and make them intuitive is to actually do them as much as possible. Things that appear easy – like digging for lots of detail and asking good follow-up questions – suddenly seem much harder when you actually do them for the first time. I try to include at least three full role-plays in a one-day training program.
Set the right coach-to-participant ratio. The Talent Code specifically mentions how much myelin you build when you catch yourself making a mistake and then correct it right then and there. My piano teacher never let me make a mistake without stopping me and making sure I played it right before I moved on. You want to have enough expert coaches to watch participants practicing and catching them if they are doing something wrong and advising them on how to improve. Real-time feedback is the most effective feedback.
Practice the complex skill of interviewing in parts. When I practiced piano, I was encouraged to play one phrase – maybe a few bars – of music and get it down before moving on. This leads to quicker skill development than trying to learn the entire piece of music all at once. With behavioral interview training, practicing each part of the interview technique individually, and later putting all the pieces together. For example, we teach getting a brief overview of the situation before teaching how to probe for more detail and ask good follow-up questions. That way, participants don’t get confused trying to master all aspects of this complex skill all at once – instead, they can practice one part of the technique at a time to get it down before moving on to the next.
Use “live candidates” at the end of your training. Right before a recital or competition, my piano teacher had me do a “dress rehearsal” in front of my parents and brother, his wife (also a teacher), and one of her students. Although there were no real stakes involved, it felt different to perform in front of an audience and not just my teacher. In the same way, bringing in someone from outside the class to be interviewed as a final practice provides a test for whether the interview is ready for “prime time.”
Pair newly trained interviewers with skilled veterans. I never learned how to play a difficult piece of music in a day and we can’t expect new interviewers to become great interviewers overnight – even with many opportunities for practice baked into the training. I kept studying with my piano teacher even after my first recital to perfect my skills under the guidance of a master. Interviewing real candidates accompanied by an expert interviewer combines additional practice with this kind of expert guidance. So make sure there’s a “teacher” there to support you in leading the interview and providing feedback and coaching right afterward.

It has often been said that a company’s ability to hire great people is the key to their long-term success. Doesn’t it make sense to have people who are expert at conducting in-depth interviewing be on the front lines in selecting the best? To become a great interviewer, it helps to think of interviewing as “going on stage” with the candidate as your audience. That way, when the candidates you recommend for hire turn out to be great themselves, you can feel fully satisfied with your performance.

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