Hiring Managers May Prefer Hypothetical Interview Questions but They Don’t Work. Here’s Why.

Written by
Lucas Price
February 8, 2024
A large question mark written on a chalkboard.

Picture this. You’ve put out a job posting, screened several applicants, and have narrowed the candidates to a handful of highly qualified individuals. You’ve prepared your questions and are ready to dive in. You decide to start with a few “get to know you” type questions and then move on to hypothetical ones. These questions are modeled off of potential scenarios these candidates might face in the role (e.g., "What will you do if [you face this problem you are likely to face in this job?”]).

These questions seem to be pretty easy to evaluate. As an interviewer, you might think something like, "I'd solve the problem these three ways, and the candidate mentioned two of the ways plus one other creative solution. That's pretty good." or "They only mentioned one of the ways I'd use to solve it, and they rambled a bit. Not great."

There’s just one problem. As easy as these interview questions are to evaluate, they’re not very effective at telling you whether the candidate is up to the task at hand. Here’s why and how you rework them to help you select the right candidate. 

The Problem with Hypothetical Questions

So, these hypothetical questions might be simple to evaluate on the surface. They’re popular with interviews because they allow you to tell how the candidate breaks down and solves problems. And sure, they may illuminate information about the candidate's intelligence, which is a crucial aspect of most complex jobs.

However, you’re not just looking to hire someone who is book smart and good at answering questions. They might be these things but they may not be good at applying that intelligence in complex, real situations. Hypothetical questions are typically only marginally effective at showing whether the candidate will effectively solve your challenges.

So, what kind of questions can help you truly evaluate a candidate's ability to perform the task at hand? Behavioral questions or questions formulated as, “Tell me about a specific time you [faced this problem you are likely to face in this job]." Here’s the thing about behavioral questions. They help to predict future behavior (which is what you’re really looking for insights into anyway, right?). 86% of hiring managers significantly enhance hiring accuracy when using behavioral questions in the interview process. 

What makes them different from hypothetical questions? They make candidates do more than produce the “correct answer.” Instead, candidates have to produce answers about past behavior and performance, which helps hiring managers predict future results. The secret to formulating these questions is to begin with “tell me about a specific time.” Specificity is key both in the candidate’s answer and your question. Hypothetical questions are easier on the front end because they’re vague. The trick here is to not be vague, but precise. 

But, take care to not accidentally give the answer away in the question. So, avoid saying, “Tell me about a specific time when you overcome a challenge at work.” Try, “Tell me about a specific time you faced a challenge at work.” This allows the candidate to formulate their own response based on past experiences. 

Oh, and avoid the temptation to pepper the candidate with questions. This is one scenario where less is more. Focus on the specificity and precision of your questions, not the amount. Stick with a few questions that suit the role, its responsibilities, and insights. That way, you have time for the candidate to answer as fully as possible, typically in about 10 to 15 minutes per question.

Follow-up Questions Make All the Difference

On the topic of evaluating candidate answers, take care to listen. It isn’t a matter of just checking for the “right answer” (as is often the case with hypothetical questions) and moving on to the next question on the list. Instead, you are listening for detail especially as you ask follow-up questions. When a candidate has not experienced the situation your behavioral questions are asking about, you’ll notice a lack of detail. It’s a lot easier to provide detail about something you’ve actually experienced. 

Those follow-up questions are key. Why? First, they help produce detail (or not if the candidate doesn’t provide it, which is something you’ll want to note). Second, they allow you to better understand the information shared by the candidate, their performance, their reasoning for actions they’ve taken, and what they learned from it. 

What else will you learn? More than just the candidate’s intelligence, which is what a hypothetical question will tell you. You’ll also learn how they manage complex, challenging problems, their experiences, and their level of determination. Above all, you’ll discover how well they solve problems and get results.

Get Insights into a Candidate’s Competencies

Once you feel confident with behavioral questions, try them out with competency interviews. A competency, such as grit, is a trait that a candidate must possess to succeed in a given role. Competency interviews help to evaluate whether a candidate possesses that given competency and the depth of that competency. In sales, core competencies other than grit include ownership, emotional intelligence, and resourcefulness. 

So, where do behavioral questions fit in? They force candidates to share a specific past experience rather than a hypothetical one. That allows hiring managers to get a better idea of the candidate’s capabilities, experiences, and decision-making process. When creating these questions, make sure they relate to the competency you want to evaluate. For example, for grit, you could ask, “Tell me about a specific time you made personal sacrifices to accomplish something important to you.” The candidate’s answer will give you insights into how the candidate makes decisions about what it takes to achieve a goal. 

As with traditional interviews, less is more with competency interview questions. Remember, you want real insights here, not just a rehearsed answer. So, stick to three to give competency-based questions for a 45-minute interview. That will give the interviewer enough time to provide illuminating answers and you enough time to ask follow-up questions to properly evaluate. 

As you ask follow-up questions, focus on the following:

  • The candidate’s past performance, actions they took, and the results they achieved
  • How they identified the need for those actions and how they tracked the impact of their decisions
  • The resources or support they relied on
  • The lessons they learned and how they applied them

The follow-up questions aren’t just a formality. They’re your chance to determine if the candidate is just good at answering questions or if they’ve really experienced the challenges you’re referencing. That will help you evaluate whether the candidate possesses the competency and at what level. 

Finally, take time to structure your interview process along with your questions. A haphazard interview process isn’t just impossible to replicate; it also generates haphazard results. A strong, structured interview process built around best practices makes all the difference in attracting, acquiring, and retaining top sales talent. 

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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