Use This Interview Question When Hiring for a Social Culture

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Jul 19, 2022

It’s a truism that companies should hire candidates who are best suited to fit their culture. For example, if you hire an ambitious individualist to work in a friendly and collaborative culture, that new hire will quit or get fired in short order. It’s not hard to see why research shows that 46% of new hires typically fail within 18 months.

I chose the example of the friendly and collaborative culture because research also shows that nearly 40% of people work in Social cultures. These are organizations that prioritize collaboration, wellbeing, and keeping the work atmosphere relaxed and casual. Lines may be blurred between professional relationships and friendships, and employees in these environments often say that they have a great friend at work.

If that sounds like your company, it’s essential that your new hires are well-suited for that particular milieu. To that end, here’s an interview question that will reveal a candidate’s likely fit: “Could you tell me about a time you worked with a difficult colleague?”

You might have been expecting a longer and wordier question, but its simplicity and open-endedness are essential to its effectiveness. The report “Six Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions” found that the vast majority of interview questions are ruined when phrases giving away the correct answer are added to the end of questions. 

For instance, adding the phrase, “and how did you overcome that,” to the question tells the candidate that only successful outcomes should be shared. But when you’re hiring for a Social culture, you need to discern the candidates that could not successfully handle working with a difficult colleague.  

With an exceptionally open-ended question, like the one above, you’ll hear answers that are far more revealing than the ones most interviews elicit. Let’s look at two real-life answers to the question, “Could you tell me about a time you worked with a difficult colleague?”

Candidate #1: “One person I worked with at my last job didn’t take the time to listen or care and would just complain about everyone and everything. Sometimes personalities just do not click. You need to ignore people when you can’t find a middle ground.”  

This candidate reveals a problem with a colleague, but they fail to explain how they tried to solve that problem. Someone who’s going to succeed in a Social culture will ask questions to unlock the root cause of the situation, exert effort to build or repair the relationship, and exhaust all possible avenues before resorting to “ignoring people.” And in general, someone with a proactive, problem-solving attitude will excitedly share all the various steps they took to solve the issue.

Candidate #2: “I worked with someone who I felt was very abrasive and bossy. She was loud, had a harsh tone and always had to be right. She felt her way was always the best way. She also liked to ‘stir the pot’ and make trouble and create turmoil.

“On the upside, she was a hard worker who got the job done, but she was difficult to work with. For a long time, I let her get to me. I would get anxious and feel stressed out when I had to work with her. Her negativity really brought me down. I decided to discuss my feelings with management. I was glad to hear that they were already aware of the situation and were trying to coach her, but I realized that I had to take a more proactive role, myself. I decided to no longer allow myself to feed off the negativity and the pot stirring.

“It wasn’t always easy, but from that point on, when she bought up things to get a reaction, I didn’t make a big deal about it or even get upset. After a while she actually became a better person to work with.” 

Notice how this candidate felt just as strongly about their difficult colleague as Candidate #1, but this candidate exerts far more effort to resolve the situation. And it’s worth noting that this candidate, while they are talking about some aspects of a coworker that were difficult, also acknowledges that this coworker was a hard worker. 

High performers generally don’t point the finger of blame at others; instead, they try to understand what motivates and drives others to act as they do, and they look for ways to make a difference. This candidate also shows signs of being flexible and willingness to change to alter the relationship dynamics, a critical skill in a Social culture.

With such an open-ended question, it’s fairly easy to see which candidate is better suited to working in a collaborative and friendly culture. If you apply a similar level of rigor to assessing your candidates, your chances of hiring someone well-suited to your culture will increase dramatically.

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