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Using the One-question Interview to Measure Motivation

by
Lou Adler
Feb 5, 2010, 5:33 am ET

Picture 3When I started out as a recruiter, some 30 years ago, it was pretty clear that you could make more placements if you were a better interviewer than your hiring manager clients. Not only would all of your candidates be interviewed, but your best ones wouldn’t get tossed under the bus by superficial or narrow assessments, or if they possessed less-than-stellar presentation skills. This led to the development of the one-question performance-based interview.

As we started placing more people (typically staff and managerial positions in accounting, engineering, and operations) and tracking their performance, it was clear that a number of traits stood out as the best predictors of on-the-job success. Some of these included technical competency, motivation to do the work, team skills, job-related problem-solving, and trend of past performance over time, among others. (You’ll find the complete list of 10 factors and the assessment grid in my book Hire With Your Head.) To get buy-in from hiring managers we later came up with this short formula for hiring success:

Predicted Performance = (technical competency) times (motivation)2 plus team skills

From our experience of over 1,000 placements, it was evident that motivation or drive to do the work was the most important predictor of success. Daniel Pink’s current hot-seller Drive reconfirms this and provides much of the science behind it. While a minimum threshold of technical competency and team skills were necessary, without personal motivation to deliver timely and consistent results, the person would never be a top performer.

Another critical point we discovered was that personal motivation was not universally transferrable across all jobs. Motivation depended on the manager, the type of work involved, the resources available, the degree of independence, the compensation, the growth opportunity, and the company culture. This is why I’ve always had a problem with traditional behavioral interviewing. While behavioral interviewing helps prevent emotional decisions due to its structural nature, it doesn’t pinpoint whether the candidate would be a top, average, or below-average performer since it doesn’t directly address these critical fit issues. This was especially important for us, since we offered a one-year guarantee as part of our search process.

While hiring managers intellectually adopted the concept, it did require them to do something they didn’t particularly like — define the real job requirements up front. This meant clarifying the critical performance objectives, their management style, the specific team issues, and the company environment before starting the search process. Shifting to this performance-profile approach rather than relying on the traditional job description listing skills, duties, and responsibilities, was a critical step it assessing job fit more accurately. For example, rather than requiring an MBA and 4-6 years in technology product marketing, the candidate would be assessed on his or her ability to launch the new series of 10 iPhone apps during the first year.

The one-question performance-based interview was a logical outgrowth of the performance profile. It’s actually nothing more than asking the candidate to describe an accomplishment comparable to each of the required performance objectives. Since candidates don’t naturally provide all of the required insight, the interviewer needs to peel the onion, probe, and ask numerous follow-up questions getting specific details, facts, dates, and verifiable data. It takes a least 15 minutes per accomplishment to do this, but when done you’ll have all of the evidence needed to defend your candidate from superficial interviewers, emotional biases, and gut feelings.

(Here’s an ERE article I wrote that describes this fact-finding process in more detail.)

To assess motivation to do the actual work required, not generic motivation or drive, we developed a series of additional fact-finding questions and a 1-5 scale to further refine the assessment. For example, as you were asking the candidate to describe her most significant product launch accomplishment, you’d follow-up with these probes to better understand the person’s motivation to do this type of work:

  • Related to this accomplishment, give me a few examples of where you went the extra mile
  • What aspects of this work did you enjoy the most?
  • What did you have to learn to do this work, and how did you do it?
  • Were there any times you had to go 24/7?
  • What did you like least about the work — where you had to struggle to get going?
  • Were there any aspects of the work you didn’t like, but you pushed on through anyway?
  • What aspects of the work gave you the most personal satisfaction?

If you’ve checked-out the other fact-finding questions, you’ll discover they’re behavioral-like questions, but all tied to the specific accomplishments. This way you have evidence of the behavior as it directly relates to a specific performance objective. This is important when it comes to assessing fit. This point is more clear by examining the 1-5 guidance we use for assessing motivation to do the real work required:

Rank the candidate on the following 1-5 scale for motivation to do the work specified in the performance profile:

Level 1 — Not qualified: Passive. There is no evidence the person wants to do this work. The person has no interest in this type of position. The person would need far too much direction and support to meet minimal needs.

Level 2 — Adequate: Will do the work required if urged or pushed. There is no recent evidence that the person has done this work at peak levels. Not a good fit for this type of work. The person avoids issues, makes excuses, or is reactive. There is no recent evidence that the person is self-motivated to get better at performing this type of work.

Level 3 — Strong: There is significant evidence that the person is internally self-motivated to do this type of work at high levels of quality with normal supervision. The person has a track record of consistent performance doing this type of work. The person has proactively sought out and handled key issues related to the type of work required. There is evidence of significant self-improvement related to this type of work.

Level 4 — Great: Significant evidence indicates that the person consistently takes initiative to do more of this type of work, do it faster, or do it better. Seeks out problems to solve before they become disruptive. Strong evidence of constantly self-improving skills related to enhancing ability to do this type of work.

Level 5 — Superb: Evidence is overwhelming that the person is totally committed to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The person wants to excel and will not quit regardless of the challenges. Demonstrates constant self-development in all areas related to improving job performance.

To increase assessment accuracy we suggest that the evidence of each interviewer is shared during a formal debriefing. Furthermore the only assessments that are accepted are those based on the evidence provided, not feelings or beliefs, so it’s not a vote, but an evidence-based evaluation. When done properly, there is little variation among the rankings of the individual interviewers (plus or minus half a point is reasonable). When the rankings are wider than this, it indicates the process is out of control (this is a six sigma point), requiring further evaluation.

The big idea behind this approach is to eliminate the flawed process of adding up a bunch of yes/no votes based on biased and limited evidence. Instead, each of the 10 factors should be discussed with the interviewing team sharing their evidence. This way the collective evidence of the team is used to make the decision across all job needs, rather than adding up a bunch of yes/no biased votes.

While traditional structured behavioral interviewing might minimize big hiring mistakes, it’s somewhat problematic if the person will be a great performer or a good person in the wrong job, since behaviors and competencies aren’t universally transferable. The assessment is further compromised when the hiring decision is made by adding up a bunch of yes/no votes.

Since self-motivation or personal drive is the core predictor of on-the-job performance, you might want to try out the one-question interview technique described above to see how it works. Start by asking your hiring managers what the new employee would need to accomplish in order to be considered a top performer. Then during the interview ask the candidate to describe significant accomplishments related to these job needs. Use the fact-finding ideas presented as part of this, looking for evidence that your candidate has recently gone the extra mile doing comparable work. If so, use this evidence to defend your candidate against any naysayers. Don’t be surprised if these people get hired and perform as expected.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Kristen Tom

    Great blog about how to correctly asses the interview process. I believe that the questions you gave would perfectly evaluate a prospective employee. I can recall being asked some of the questions before like, “Related to this accomplishment, give me a few examples of where you went the extra mile” and “Were there any aspects of the work you didn’t like, but you pushed on through anyway?” I never realized how these employers were determining my level of motivation based on my answers. Thanks for the insightful blog!

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