Using the One-Question Behavioral Interview

A while back, I introduced the best one-question behavioral interview of all time (although I’m often accused of using hyperbole, this wasn’t one of those times). This is an update of the original article. As you’ll soon discover (or recall), the question is great. Used properly, it will accurately predict any candidate’s ability to achieve the desired results, motivation to do the work, and ability to handle conflict and deal with people, as well as their technical ability, potential, true personality, and much more. It’s the “used properly” part, however, where some interviewers fall down. Here’s the single best one-question behavioral interview question of all time. The instructions on how to use it properly follow: Please think about your most significant accomplishment. Now, could you tell me all about it? We’ll try the question out in a moment, but here are the basic requirements needed to make this the only behavioral interview question you ever need to ask.

  1. Before the interview, every interviewer must know and agree to exactly what it takes to be successful on the job.
  2. You must stay a cynic. Don’t trust anything anyone says. You must find detailed proof for everything the candidate says, implies, or doesn’t say.
  3. You must stay emotionally unattached to the candidate. You must ask the same question in the same detail whether you like the person or not.
  4. You must spend at least 10 to 15 minutes getting the answer to this one question by drilling down deeply.
  5. You must ask this same question over again three to five times for different individual and team accomplishments, and then examine the trend lines.
  6. You must take responsibility for getting complete answers from the candidate. You can’t leave it up to the candidate to give you the information you need; otherwise you’re measuring interviewing skills, not job competency. (This is the reason why a traditional behavioral interview isn’t as effective as it could be.)

To see why the basic question is so powerful when used properly, try it out on yourself. Imagine you’re the candidate and have just been asked this one question. What accomplishment would you select? When did it occur? Was it a team or individual accomplishment? Then imagine over the course of the next 15 minutes the interviewer obtained the following further information from you about this accomplishment:

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  • A detailed description of the accomplishment and the business impact
  • The actual results achieved: numbers, facts, changes made, details, amounts
  • When it took place and how long it took
  • The toughest decisions you had to make and why you made them and how they turned out
  • A few examples of the biggest changes and improvements you made
  • The major challenges faced and how they were overcome
  • The environment and resources available and how you made more resources available
  • The technical skills needed to accomplish the objective
  • The technical skills learned and how long it took to learn them
  • The team involved and all of the reporting relationships
  • Some of the biggest mistakes you made
  • How you changed and grew as a person
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again
  • What you liked and what you didn’t
  • How you prepared the budget and plan and how you did against it
  • How you motivated and influenced others, with specific examples to prove your claims
  • How you dealt with conflict with specific examples
  • Anything else you felt was important to the success of the project
  • What recognition you received (everybody gets recognition for a job well done)

If the accomplishment was big enough, and if the answer was detailed enough, it would take 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Assuming you provided all of the details, consider how much the interviewer would know about you. The problem is that few candidates are able to give this type of information without additional prompting from the interviewer. This is what real interviewing is about: getting the detailed answer to this simple behavioral event interview question. The interviewer must take responsibility for getting this information. If you leave it up to the candidate, you’re measuring interviewing skills, not job competency. Most interviewers reject candidates who don’t give enough specifics. This is backwards. All you’re measuring then is the ability to give details. The interviewer needs to get the specific details. If the details aren’t good enough, then reject the candidate. Ask the question over and over and over again in the same level of detail for a variety of different accomplishments. Have the candidate describe two to three different individual and team accomplishments for the past five to ten years. Put them in time order to see the growth and impact over time in different jobs, different teams, and with different companies. This will reveal the trend of team and individual growth and pinpoint work the candidate finds highly motivating. Also ask about accomplishments that directly relate to specific job needs, for example, “Tell me about your most intense efforts prospecting for new business.” Dig deep. This is why knowing the job is so important. If you’ve prepared a performance profile, the question is even more insightful. A performance profile lists the top four to six deliverables essential for job success. With this benchmark, it’s easy to compare a candidate’s actual accomplishments to real job needs. Remain objective. Balance is the key. This is the hardest part about this question. If you like someone, you don’t want to dig too deeply. For one thing, it’s hard work. For another, you might discover the candidate is not as good as you initially thought. There is a natural tendency to assume competency if someone has a decent resume, makes a good first impression, and communicates well. In this case you either don’t look too deeply, or you look for confirming evidence to justify you have a strong candidate. At worst, you ignore evidence that the person is weak. If you don’t like the person, it’s even more important to remain objective. If someone is late, seems nervous, doesn’t give you the information you want in the correct form, or makes a weak first impression, the person is often quickly rejected. This is the time to slow down and take the lead. Typically, interviewers who are initially turned off about a candidate go into a preprogrammed mode of ignoring positive information, looking for reasons to reject the candidates, and figuring out ways to end the interview early. Instead, make the initial assumption that the person is competent, and look for proof using the one-question interview. Dig deep. Force the candidate to give you the details. If there’s nothing there after 15 minutes of evaluating a few different accomplishments, then reject the candidate. Never globalize strengths or weaknesses. Stay a cynic. Look for offsetting strengths or weaknesses. Get detailed facts for a number of accomplishments to prove that the candidate is either as good or as bad as he or she seems. This is the critical piece. Next, make sure all members of the interviewing team conduct their interviews this same way. This will remove another key source of hiring errors: the tendency of most interviewers to talk too much, listen too little and ask a bunch of irrelevant questions. What we’ve discovered is that most candidates aren’t as good or as bad as they initially seemed. By staying objective, and asking just this one question over and over again, the true person begins to emerge. At the end of the interview, you’ll find a different candidate sitting just across the desk from you. Some of these people will even be amazing. Some won’t. But they won’t be the people you initially met. When conducted this way, an interview can be a remarkable journey of discovery. Enjoy the ride. One question is all it takes.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).