Many managers find it easier to test for hard skills than soft skills during an interview process. When it comes to technical aptitude, the candidate can either demonstrate the necessary chops, or not. When it comes to self-awareness or empathy, however, the evaluation criteria become far murkier.

I consider self-awareness, honesty, and empathy to be critical qualities in the folks I work with -- arguably more important than their job knowledge. How do I test for these competencies? With a single, powerful question -- one that was once posed to me as a candidate, and easily my favorite of all time. 

Here it is:

Think of someone you didn't jibe with at work. How do you think that person would describe you?

Having asked this question on countless interview panels, I've observed that answers tend to fall into one of three distinct camps.

1. "You're asking how they would describe me? Um ... " 

In some cases, it's clear that the candidate has never considered the other person's perspective and/or has significant difficulty seeing themselves from someone else's point of view. This signifies that empathy might not be the candidate's first response to conflict, for better or worse.

In this category, I credit those who eventually come up with an honest answer, even if they stumble at first -- but it's a serious red flag if the candidate either can't come up with an answer at all, or resorts to bashing the other person (it happens more often than you'd think). 

2. "Oh ... they'd say I'm really smart, a great worker ... "

In these types of answers, the other person would have nothing but good things to say. It's akin to answering "What are your weaknesses?" with a cop out answer like "Well, my standards are too high," or "I'm too hardworking." Even if the other person in this thought exercise would praise the candidate in some regards, failing to offer up even one critical adjective feels dishonest.

When I hear this from candidates, I'm reminded of something Paul English, Lola.com's CEO, once wrote about his hiring process: "I like people who are so confident in their skills that they are openly and instantly humble about things they are not good at." I'm mindful that this is a lot to ask of more junior candidates, so I will often extend a second chance by asking something along the lines of "Wow, they really wouldn't have one critical thing to say about you?" If they still can't or won't say anything negative, this raises questions about their honesty at best and their self-awareness at worst.

3. "They would say I'm brash at times, and can act before thinking ... "

The third type of answer is forthcoming and honest. If the candidate doesn't have any trouble thinking how they might come across to someone else -- or better yet, if they actually asked the person in question for feedback and can provide real adjectives -- this is a positive signal about their ability to empathize. Generally, candidates who answer in this way will also proactively reflect on their areas for opportunity in how they work with others -- revealing a lot about their self-awareness.

Framing the Question

This question has been illuminating to me as an interviewer, which is why I'm so grateful that Joe Chernov, VP of marketing at Pendo, posed it to me many years ago (all credit for this post belongs to him).

If you want to use this question in your own process, some final words of advice on how to frame it most effectively.

  • Consider starting the question with: "We all have people we don't jibe with at work." This normalizes the situation so folks are more apt to give an honest answer -- especially if the candidate is visibly nervous.

  • I often ask, "Do you have someone in mind?" before diving into the second half of the question. This ensures the candidate will use the frame of reference of a real person and not a hypothetical.

  • Allow the candidate some time to think. This is often an unexpected question, and if I can tell the candidate is rushing to get something (anything) out, I'll say "It's OK to take a minute -- I know this is a tricky one."

Honestly, I don't even remember how I answered this question when I was in the candidate's seat years ago. But having asked it in interviews for a variety of departments and levels, I can vouch for its usefulness in evaluating soft skills (I've also observed that it's fairly accurate in predicting performance down the line). 

Published on: Jan 27, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.