Today’s organizations want to hire self-motivated, self-leading and self-sufficient people. Companies want people who are internally driven to give 100% effort at work; not people who require bribes, babysitting or cajoling to give maximum effort.
Of course, that’s a tough attribute to assess in an interview. And there are lots of interview questions that are just useless for measuring that attribute. One such ineffective, but popular, interview question that purports to assess a candidate’s level of self-motivation is “What kind of management/supervision do you prefer?”
The thinking behind this question is that people will just reveal whether they like their boss to do lots of motivating or whether they like to motivate themselves. The problem is that most people will give a canned answer; you’ll hear lots of candidates say something like “Oh, I’m definitely a motivated self-starter. I love individual accountability, but I’m also great at taking direction from my boss.” It sounds nice, if a bit vague, but how do you know for sure that candidate is telling the truth?
There’s a much better question that drills down to the truth and it’s “Could you tell me about a time when your work held little or no interest for you?”
This question is really open-ended, forces the candidate to provide a specific example, and it focuses on a challenging situation. These are 3 hallmarks of great interview questions, and you can more questions that share these characteristics (and how tough they are to answer) in the online quiz “Could You Pass This Job Interview?”
Let me show you why this is an effective question with some real-life candidate responses shared with me by a company that uses this question as part of their Hiring for Attitude strategy.
Here is one candidate’s response that easily tipped off the organization’s interviewers that this was a potential low performer:
After six years working in the same department I had been exposed to and completed all the various tasks that our department was responsible for. This left me with nothing significantly new to learn. I asked my supervisor numerous times for additional assignments and projects to work on, but he couldn’t come up with any ideas. This left me feeling disinterested in the work I was doing as it was all tasks that I had done many times before.
First, I want to point out that you’d never get this level of honesty if you asked the candidate to self-identify a preferred management style. But asking about a time when work held little or no interest got this person to admit that they are more than content to sit and wait to be told what to do next. This is clearly not someone who shows the potential to self-engage.
Let’s look at another potentially poor candidate’s response:
At my last job there were several issues with my boss that led to complete apathy in my job. Business was booming and there wasn’t enough staff to keep up. I was given 40 percent more work than other people in the same job, with no acknowledgement or thanks. Due to the increased workload, I couldn’t meet service standards and was actually penalized on reviews. Whenever I discussed this with my boss, he didn’t listen. All I heard was “Yeah, we’re working it” in an attempt to placate me so I’d get out of his office, but I never saw change. I didn’t see any other option but to seek a new job.
Once again, the question “Could you tell me about a time when your work held little or no interest for you?” results in a jackpot answer. Of course, this is a terrible answer that reveals this candidate’s propensity to blame, but that’s great information to have. I wouldn’t want to manage this person. How about you?
Now let’s look at some examples of potential high-performer responses to our question. Here’s what the first candidate had to say:
“During slower periods throughout the year it I did find it difficult to stay focused on the tasks I had in front of me. Certainly, part of the problem was knowing that I had ample time to complete them. I decided to complete those tasks quickly and accurately so that I could ask my supervisor for special projects or tasks that needed to be completed so I could keep myself busy.
I like how this candidate attacked the boring work. It’s also encouraging that they went to their supervisor in search of special projects or tasks, though I’d give this response even greater points if the candidate had brought their own ideas for special projects and tasks to the manager. But overall, this person demonstrates that they will do something proactive if they feel bored at work.
Here’s another potential high performer response:
We were going through a realignment in my area, aligning consumer and business claims. As part of the process, we had to go through the reports and separate them according to what we use and what we need. Most of the reports I had were old and of little use. It was boring work, but it was a good way to eliminate some old reports. It also inspired me to make requests for reports similar to consumer lines reports that were of much greater use in my area.
Monotonous work happens at some time in most jobs, and self-motivated employees find a way to plow through it and make it bearable. This person found a way to use that monotonous work to make improvements in their area.
If you want self-motivated employees, and of course you do, increase your odds of selecting the best new hires by asking the interview question “Could you tell me about a time when your work held little or no interest for you?”
Mark Murphy is a NY Times bestseller, author of Hiring For Attitude, and founder of the leadership training firm Leadership IQ.
I’m the founder of www.LeadershipIQ.com, a New York Times bestselling author and I teach the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently
I am the author of five books, including “Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your People to Give It Their All and They’ll Give You Even More.” Some of my research studies include “Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” “Why CEO’s Get Fired,” “Why New Hires Fail,” “High Performers Can Be Less Engaged,” and “Don’t Expect Layoff Survivors to Be Grateful.” I’ve lectured at The United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Merck, MasterCard, Charles Schwab and Aflac, among others.