Types of Nontechnical Questions

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Behavioral Questions

Behavioral questions assess nontechnical skills and values alignment by asking candidates about prior experiences and the way in which they handled specific situations. Many behavioral questions aim to extract specific positive or negative examples of the candidate’s performance against the expectations of the organization.

story “To make this anchoring easier, it helped our team to spell out the company values with as specific as possible descriptions of how someone who exhibits the company values behaves or acts, such as: ‘You openly communicate your thoughts, feelings, and concerns and contribute to an environment which allows this.​’ Of course this can also be done by formulating negative behaviors and actions that will not be tolerated. Based on these concrete descriptions, it’s possible to derive situations in which they may arise and then formulate behavioral or situational questions based on these situations. For example, an organization that values feedback-seeking individuals might use the above description for their value of ‘feedback-seeking.’ A possible behavioral question then could be, ‘Tell us about the last time you provided feedback to team members.’” —Benjamin Reitzammer, freelance CTO

Examples of behavioral questions:

  • “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult co-worker.”

  • “Tell me about a time you made a mistake. How did you handle it?”

  • “Give me an example of a goal you didn’t meet and how you handled it.”

  • “Tell me about a time a project you were responsible for was falling behind. What did you do?”

  • “Tell me about a time you had to deliver bad news. How did you handle it?”

  • “Tell me about a time you mentored someone.” Possible follow-up questions include:

    • “What did you learn from it?”

    • “What would you do differently next time?”

    • “What did you think worked particularly well?”

  • “Give an example of a project where you had to convince your peers or boss to take an approach that you suggested, but they were hesitant to try.”

  • “Tell me about a conflict you had with a co-worker.”

  • “Have you ever taken guidance from someone more junior than yourself?”

  • “Tell me about a time you had to take an unpopular position.”

  • “Name some improvements or experiments you made in your most recent position.”

  • “What was the most helpful feedback you received from a colleague or manager?“

  • “Tell me about the last time you provided feedback to team members.”

  • “Tell me about a time you gave a compliment to a team member.”

  • “Tell me about a situation where a first solution wasn’t the right one. How did you find out and how did you iterate on the solution to find the right one?”

caution As with non-coding technical questions, assessing a candidate’s performance in these situations is difficult and requires judgment and experience. There are several common patterns to watch for that can be a negative signal in these interviews:

  • Some candidates will consistently blame others for bad results and not take ownership or acknowledge their own failures. This is generally a concerning pattern of behavior—a red flag.

  • Candidates may avoid getting into specific details. This is often a sign that they’re uncomfortable doing so and may indicate that they realize they mishandled a situation and that getting into detail would reflect poorly on them. They may also be nonspecific about what they personally did vs. what other people did, and this may reflect situations where the candidate contributed less than it appears.

  • Candidates may use “I” rather than “we” when describing the work done by their team. This might be a sign that a candidate is not a team player. However, be careful in judging a candidate harshly for using the first person; they are in an interview to assess their performance, and they’ve likely been asked to focus on the results of their work. The choice of “I” vs. “we” may simply come down to speaking style. This is a place to give some benefit of the doubt until you see a strong pattern backed by additional evidence beyond speaking style.

Finally, new interviewers will often be too trusting of the candidate’s self-assessment about something in their past going well. Instead, interviewers can be digging deep to look for base facts as evidence and can draw their own conclusions about the candidate’s work. It’s a good idea to practice the art of the follow-up to dig deeper into a candidate’s answers.

Behavioral questions have the benefit of focusing on what a candidate actually did in a particular situation. But because there might be candidates who have never experienced the situation you describe, having a hypothetical version of the question can be a great idea.

Situational Questions

Situational questions (or hypothetical questions) ask a candidate to explain how they would approach a specific challenge. The advantages of situational questions matched to job-relevant skills are that they allow an interviewer to evaluate candidates against a more objective rubric than behavioral interviews, and they challenge candidates to make choices in real time.

important Well-designed situational questions avoid scenarios where it’s relatively easy to identify what should be done but not so easy to take the appropriate action when presented with a difficult situation. For example, it’s easy for someone to say that they would own up to a mistake; it’s harder to actually do it. Instead, it’s best to focus on situations where the hard part is identifying the core problem and/or devising a solution. Additionally, incorporating behavioral questions into the interview process will allow you to gauge how the candidate might actually behave.

You can often rephrase a behavioral question as a situational one through a slight change in wording. For example, “How would you deal with a colleague who doesn’t deliver on their commitments?” is the situational form of the behavioral question, “Tell me about a time you worked with a colleague who didn’t deliver on their commitments.” This may make the two types of questions seem interchangeable, but some experts have strong opinions (often backed by data) on which form is more effective at evaluating candidates.

Ultimately, it matters less which you use (a mix is probably fine) and more that your questions are structured and your interviewers are calibrated to give consistent feedback. Adam Grant gives some specific details on situational questions that can help interviewers overcome confirmation bias.

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Topgrading

A topgrading interview is a type of behavioral interview in which the interviewer asks targeted questions about a candidate’s experiences in all prior roles, proceeding chronologically through the candidate’s career. If you make one of the questions about each prior role be the name of the candidate’s boss, the company can confirm the candidate’s description of their experiences through reference checking.

To learn more about topgrading, see “The Art of Interviewing 10x Engineers,” a podcast discussion between Dan Portillo and Wade Foster; the “Topgrading Interview” section of Matt Mochary’s The Great CEO Within; and Who: The A Method for Hiring, by Randy Street and Geoff Smart, who helped coin the term.

Role-Playing Interviews

Role-playing interviews ask candidates to act out specific challenging scenarios, such as interacting with a difficult co-worker. Role-playing interviews give the interviewer a chance to see how a candidate would realistically approach a particular situation.

Role-playing interviews require very well-defined scenarios so that the candidate’s performance can be accurately evaluated. Even with a well-defined scenario, these interviews can be hard to evaluate because of the contextual nature of problem-solving and interpersonal interactions. For example, a candidate who relies on relationships and deep insight into other people may not perform well in a role-playing interview where they’re asked to interact with someone they’ve never met.

Sample Nontechnical Questions

It’s beyond the scope of this Guide to develop a bank of nontechnical questions, especially because these questions depend so heavily on your company’s goals, values, and mission—not to mention the specific details of the role for which you’re hiring. We’ve included a few categories of questions you can consider, however, and resources to help you dive deeper into which questions will work best for your needs. New Relic has an excellent post on evaluating potential managers that covers their approach to designing nontechnical questions and their rubrics for evaluating them.

story “You have to let the candidate surprise you. It makes the process of coming up with these questions easier, because you don’t have to come up with all the possible answers. You can look at who are the super productive and thoughtful people on your team, the very valuable people on your team, seniors, lead people, and then ask something specific about them: ‘What do they excel at?’, ‘In what situation did they do something really great?’ Then try and turn that into a question. One example might be that ‘a senior person stood up for someone else in a daily standup meeting.’ Now come up with a related behavioral question. Identify situations where senior people really shone a positive light on the kind of behaviors you’re looking at. On top of that, look at your company’s values and build questions from there. ‘You are the kind of person who values feedback.’ Ok, now you know you can ask, ‘What kind of feedback cycles do you have in your work? How do you give feedback?’ Determine what you optimize for, and build questions from those behaviors.” —Benjamin Retizammer, freelance CTO

Traits and Values Questions

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