In hindsight, how could you have improved your performance at your last position?

Why Ask This Question?

Even candidates with stellar performance evaluations would opt to rewrite history in light of their 20/20 hindsight. Improving performance is sometimes a factor of increased personal involvement. Sometimes it's a matter of wishing to change organizational limitations. Whatever the case, look for solutions in the candidate's response that show creativity and ingenuity in reframing problem issues and their outcomes.

Analyzing the Response

The ideal limitation in any employee's work history is time. High-performance job candidates do their jobs exceptionally well but continuously try to increase the impact of their results. Newly opened sales territories could be larger; reductions in departmental operating budgets could be deeper; new program launchings could have had greater market penetration. Accordingly, the hallmark of high achievers' productivity is the desire to cut themselves in half to capitalize on their accomplishments.

In addition, when a candidate provides you with a specific shortcoming in the previous query regarding performance appraisal disappointments, this natural follow-up demands (a) specific actions that reveal how the weaker performance could have been strengthened, and (b) the candidate's willingness to accept responsibility for things gone wrong. For example, you might ask, ''Tell me, Dorothy, about your last performance appraisal. In which area were you most disappointed?'' Dorothy, a human resources manager, responds that her greatest disappointment was in not reaching the goal she set for herself of lowering the company's cost per hire from $1,500 to $1,100. She instituted an internal referral program that she assumed would account for a 20 percent increase in staffing. Because of market conditions and less-than-ideal marketing of her plan to coworkers, the program never really took off.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Your follow-up sounds like this: So tell me then, in hindsight, how could you have improved the results of that program?'' Dorothy then explains:

''I still believe that the internal referral program could have been successful. I was told when I first proposed instituting the plan that it had been tried before and failed miserably. I wanted to prove them wrong because it had worked so well for me at my previous company. Still, my fate was somewhat sealed from the start in that my own boss predicted failure from the get-go. The marketing folks never seemed to get my ad copy into the monthly newsletter, and I consequently let the program drift. Still, I can't blame anyone else for the program's failure—it was my responsibility.

''If I had to do it all again, I wouldn't have given credence to all those naysayers. I would have found ways to publicize the program myself via e-mail, the lunchroom bulletin board, and management training seminars. I learned that I shouldn't sit back and wait for others to do my bidding, especially when those folks aren't initially enthused about the prospects of the program. I got the okay to go ahead with it, and I accept responsibility for not having reached the program's goals.''

Therefore, the two key areas to look for in candidate responses focus on (1) what the candidate learned from the incident, and (2) how willing the person was to accept responsibility for her actions. Both are earmarks of business maturity and reflect well on a candidate's objective self-evaluation skills.

Where do you disagree with your boss most often? How did you handle the last time she or he was wrong and you were right?

Differences in opinion are inevitable; conflict is optional. Still, there are times when conflict is forced on you, and you have no option but to defend yourself. It's certainly difficult evaluating candidates' responses when it comes to addressing disagreements with their bosses. After all, you want someone who can stand up for himself. But you don't want someone who's too eager to draw lines in the sand and prepare for battle. As with all other moot responses that surface in a typical interview situation, if your gut tells you that you're getting less than the whole story, mark down your concerns in your notes so that you can address the issue from the other party's perspective via a reference check.

Candidates obviously feel challenged by such queries because respondents are forced to defend their actions unilaterally and pit themselves against the people to whom they should be most loyal: their bosses. Still, your question will surface extreme issues at the margin of that person's work history: namely, disagreement and disharmony with an immediate supervisor. Although you hope that such conflict is rare, it will inevitably face you one day if you hire this person, so it is useful to find out how the candidate deals with it.

Analyzing the Response

Like many of our queries in this book, the two-pronged questioning pattern forces the candidate being interviewed to logically connect multiple facets of the issue at hand. Your first quest in gauging someone's response is to find out what kinds of issues trip the argument threshold. Next, you want to see how the respondent relates to the supervisor when differences of opinion or outright discord occur. The best way to bring this issue to the surface is to specify situations where the candidate was probably right and the supervisor wrong. That's because such situations will more clearly reveal the candidate's inclination to avoid confrontation, be humble about winning, or to rub the boss's nose in it.''

Disagreements usually occur for several reasons: Perhaps the candidate disagrees with the boss's opinions on how to best reach a predetermined business goal. Such dissension is usually technical in nature. More often, an emotional disparity ignites the struggle. Such interpersonal conflict surfaces when a boss perceives a subordinate as overstepping his or her bounds; when a subordinate senses that a boss is not carrying an appropriate share of the workload; or when personal issues carry over into the work environment and staff members feel resentful of special exceptions made for certain people. Whatever the case, you should note whether there are technical or emotional lightning rods that bring about crisis in the candidate's work life.

Red Flags

Next, you need to examine how the candidate handles the boss's feelings after the conflict resolution. Responses like, ''It turned out I was right after all. I had to be. It was obvious to me that she wasn't thinking the whole thing through'' might leave you feeling a little ill at ease with the candidate's gloating. After all, even the best boss can't be right all the time. And you certainly don't want someone who's going to remind you of the times when you called the shots incorrectly.

Good Answers. If the true nature of the superior-subordinate relationship lies in complementing each others' strengths and supporting each others' weaknesses, then you'll want to find a subordinate who wants to keep the peace and who is able to maintain an objective perspective even in light of an all-out victory. In such cases, candidates' responses will sound much more conciliatory because they see the bigger picture of their actions:

''Oh, I know that my boss would say that my decision, in retrospect, was more appropriate. But that's just because I dealt with that matter more often than she did, and I was better able to project the impact of that decision. But who's right and who's wrong is irrelevant; the point is, we made it through a difficult issue that was building pressure for quite a while. I think we both learned to respect each other's abilities a little more because of that conflict, and our relations since then have become a lot stronger.''

Hiring a peacemaker makes a lot of sense when your goal is to maintain positive interpersonal relations with your staff. People who are at ease with themselves and keep an objective distance from the action will offer you a rational sounding board even when emotions are high. In the final analysis, it's not who's right or wrong: It's how the inevitable conflict gets resolved. The fewer emotional battles and histrionics that occur, the better. After all, you have a business to run!

Is this necessarily a make-or-break interview question? Probably not. Just be aware that you should be prepared to develop and cultivate a greater sense of objectivity in the candidate who's too focused on winning the battle. Because this person tends to focus more on who is right rather than what is right, he or she may have a tendency to divide rather than heal. Forewarned is forearmed, and the insight you gain from this question puts you in a better position for damage control.

How would your supervisor grade your ability to cope with last-minute change without breaking stride?

Why Ask This Question?

One of the greatest attributes of any employee at any level of the organization is the person's ability to be multitask-oriented. Certain people thrive in an environment of last-minute change, whereas others resent having the rug pulled out from underneath them as they attempt to accomplish a particular goal. If your environment necessitates quickly changing priorities and you hire the one-track, one-speed candidate, you might encounter resentment as the new hire interprets your shifting priorities as a poor, reactive management style. In such cases, you will probably end up spending more time counteracting the new hire's need for control, structure, and defined parameters than you would normally deem acceptable.

Analyzing the Response

This query could unnerve candidates who mentally operate on a more linear playing field and who dislike the lateral thinking involved in coordinating multiple tasks. It's difficult for candidates to proffer an encouraging answer when their inner conscience tells them that they need to avoid such situations. Therefore, you'll probably notice some discomfort in their responses and have your question immediately challenged:

''Oh, does this position require a lot of jumping around from task to task? Not that I mind; it's just that I prefer to complete one task before going on to another.''


Careful now! If the candidate feels so strongly about this particular issue, it probably suggests that she worked before in an environment of quickly changing priorities where she was in over her head. Your query simply sparked feelings of gross discomfort and sent up a signal flare in this individual's memory.

Your follow-up query will naturally attempt to probe for details using a behavioral questioning format:

''Tell me about the last time you felt as if you were in over your head. Was it the changing priorities at work that made you uncomfortable, or was there some other reason?''

''How many balls in the air do you have at any given time, and how hectic a pace are you used to working at?''

''Do you prefer to tie together all the loose ends of project A and then move on to project B, or do you typically jump from project A to M, onto Z, and then back to A if time permits? Tell me how a situation like that actually played itself out in the past.''

In these cases, the behavioral interviewing format demands that the candidate weaves a tale of dealing with pressure and setting priorities when few structural systems are in place. As with all series of behavioral questions, inconsistencies may surface in the responses if candidates weave a tall tale with little basis in fact. Furthermore, if you sense a low tolerance for dealing with changing priorities in the person's response, then add this query to your reference-checking activities to gain objective, third-party insights into the matter.

Interviews should be challenging meetings focused on discovering the real person behind the resume. A little discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing. The strategy is to balance your investigation so that candidates feel welcome to share insights with you freely while you gather authentic data about their strengths, weaknesses, inclinations, and dislikes.

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