columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am part of the interview team in finding a replacement for our ex-manager. And our department would really like this person to not be another  micromanager.

Any ideas for questions I could ask? Or any red flags in the interviewee's answers or demeanor to watch out for?

Green responds:

Often when this topic comes up, people will advise asking the candidates to describe their management style. The problem with that is that most people are pretty terrible at describing their management style with anything approaching accuracy.

I interview a lot of candidates for jobs where management style is really, really key, and learned early on that I couldn't rely on people's answers to that question. Not only do people not accurately self-assess about what kind of manager they are, but the question also tends to produce a lot of vague talk about about open-door policies and investing in people but very few specifics.

The better route is to get the person talking in concretes about how they actually have operated in the recent past. (In fact, talking about what people have done in real-life situations is nearly always the way to go in interviews, not just for management roles. You'll get much more useful information.)

For example, ask your candidates about a big project their team recently handled that they managed but other people were responsible for carrying out. Then ask a bunch of follow-up questions to really dig into what their management of that project looked like:

  • "What was your role in getting the work done?"
  • "What was your process for assigning the work and making sure people were set up for success?" (You're looking here for someone who takes the time to get aligned at the start about what success would look like, so they're not having to constantly intervene and course-correct as the work plays out.)
  • "How did you interact with your team throughout the process, and at what points?" (You're looking for set check-ins at particular milestones or time markers, rather than someone who just swooped in whenever it occurred to them.)
  • "How did you spot any course corrections that might have needed to be made?"
  • "Was the project a success? What kind of feedback did you give your team?"

That's going to get you the best information about how they really operate, rather than how they think they operate. But here are some other questions you can ask too:

  • "What kind of structures do you use to evaluate people's work and give feedback?"
  • "How often do people get feedback from you?"
  • "Tell us about a time someone's project wasn't going well and how you handled it."
  • "What kind of person do you have trouble managing?"
  • "What kind of person doesn't work well with you?"
  • "How has your approach to managing evolved over time? Are there things you do differently or think about differently now than you used to?" (This can get you much more accurate answers than just "tell me about your management style" because it forces the person to go beyond platitudes and buzzwords.)
  • "Given that everyone has something they'd probably like to change about their boss, what do you think your staff members would want to change about you if they could wave a magic wand over your head?"

Also! Don't get so focused on screening out micromanagers that you forget to screen for all the other things that are important too. Hiring managers tend to be haunted by their last bad hire, meaning that they then focus so heavily on avoiding those things with the next hire that they miss totally different problems that they should also be screening out. So make sure you're looking at the full picture of how candidates operate, and don't get so focused on micromanagement in particular that you miss other points.

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