Interviewing Candidates During Organizational Change

How do you assess candidates who can thrive well during times of change and upheaval?

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Jun 6, 2023

You wouldn’t know from reading the business news that there are, in fact, stable companies out there. But this article isn’t for them; it’s for the leaders whose organizations are experiencing mergers, market shifts, disruptions, or layoffs.

Change is hard enough, but hiring people to join (and survive in) a company in the midst of massive change takes the difficulty to another level. First, change, no matter how necessary or inevitable, entails risk. But a study on change resistance discovered that a meager 24% of frontline employees say they like taking risks.

Second, research shows that there are five primary motivations driving our actions at work: Achievement, Power, Affiliation, Adventure, and Security.

As you might imagine from those labels, people with a high Security drive are often the most likely to find massive change demotivating or even distressing. The nearly a quarter of employees with this motivation prefer stability and predictability in their work environment. They value a clear understanding of their roles, a stable workflow, and consistent expectations. Rapid or significant changes that disrupt stability can quickly sap their engagement and motivation.

If your company is undergoing big or fast changes, you’ll want to ensure that your new hires can survive and thrive in that environment. To do that, use the interview question, “Could you tell me about a time when you experienced change?”

It’s almost painfully open-ended, and that’s by design. The report “6 Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions” makes clear that as soon as you tack on phrases like “and how did you overcome that,” you’ve given away the right answer to the interview question and ruined its effectiveness.

Appended phrases like that guide the candidate toward a specific type of answer, focusing only on their successes. You’re unlikely to hear about their challenges or failures, which are precisely what you need to discover. Plus, when candidates are prompted to share only positive outcomes, they’re more likely to spit out rehearsed answers that don’t accurately reflect their lived experiences.

With your extremely open-ended question, absent any hinting phrases, you’re ready to assess the extent to which someone will succeed in your changing company. Let’s look at two real-life responses to the question, “Could you tell me about a time when you experienced change?”

Candidate One: “First, let me start by saying that I didn’t agree with most of the changes at my last company. But it was not my job to agree. My job was to adapt and overcome changes and challenging situations to make my team the best it could be. I have a lot of flexibility that way. Most of the changes didn’t really work for me, but I did my best as it was what the company wanted. I would have liked to see the company go down a different road. But again, I did my best to make the changes work, or I at least attempted to make them work.”

Candidate Two: “One of my job duties was to create text for blast emails we send to customers. In previous years we’d used the same process for all of our projects on the type of blast email and text to be used. But then I was given the task to fundamentally rethink our blast emails for future projects to generate double the engagement. Although it put more work on my plate, I was happy to do it. I knew in the long run it would help our department greatly. How we executed the change was a group decision, and I enjoyed being part of the discussion on what needed to change and sharing my thoughts and ideas. I understood the company’s motivation behind this change, and even though it required a lot of learning new technologies, I think everyone on the team, not just me, benefited from acquiring all those new skills. And we went from lagging email engagement in our industry to being in the top quartile.”

There are some pretty significant differences in those responses. Candidate One appears to be suffering from an internal struggle of how they really felt (I despised the change, and it was all wrong) and what they know they should say (I’m someone who is flexible around all kinds of change). By contrast, Candidate Two signals their capacity for collaboration and flexibility, key characteristics of someone who will embrace change.

The point of all this is simple: If your company is undertaking massive or fast-paced changes right now, you’ll want to hire people who can take those changes in stride. And one simple question, incorporated into every interview, will help you quickly determine which candidates should make the cut.

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