Traditional Interview Questions Versus Behavioral Interview Questions

The modern interview questioning process has evolved from memory tests and cognitive challenges to behavioral interview questions. A well-documented interviewing approach was developed in the 1920s when Thomas Edison composed a series of questions to evaluate the knowledge and experience of the 100s of applicants who wanted to work with the famous inventor. However, Edison’s interview questions—roughly around 150 questions that could cover any number of subjects—may not have provided a good indication of whether an applicant was a good fit for the position. A May 11, 1921, New York Times article described the questions more as a test of a person’s memory and a store of miscellaneous information than a test of his or her knowledge, reasoning power or intelligence.”

We would have to agree based on Edison’s questions such as:

  • What is the first line in the Aeneid?
  • Who was Francis Marion?
  • Which countries supply the most mahogany?

Whether answered correctly or not, they cannot be utilized to assess the suitability of a candidate for an electrical engineering position. While Thomas Edison did succeed in building one of America’s most successful technology companies, we believe he did so in the face of a self-created challenge of a faulty interviewing process that produced a trial and error hiring practice—no one was reportedly ever able to successfully answer all of his given questions.

Today’s interview questions are more relevant to the position

Today’s interview questions tend to be more tailored to assess skills, experience, education, and a wide variety of other competencies that generally indicate whether a candidate is a good fit for a given position. Generally speaking, interview questions today are referred to as either “traditional” or “behavioral.”

Traditional interview questions were undoubtedly around during Edison’s time and he probably included a few himself during his candidate interviewing process. Traditional interview questions tend to be generic, straightforward, and geared towards assessing a candidate’s background and work history. They can also include hypothetical, cognitive, and personality questions that further help evaluate how a candidate might fit into a given position. Some common traditional interview questions include:

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why are you interested in this position?
  • Where do you want to be with your career in five years? 10 years?
  • How do you resolve potential conflicts with your co-workers?
  • What did you enjoy most about your last (or current) position?
  • How would you delegate responsibilities if a key member of your team called in sick prior to an important deadline?

Traditional interview questions can prove limiting because they’re often closed-ended. Hypothetical questions generate hypothetical answers that may not reflect a real-scenario response. Cognitive questions can help uncover how effectively a candidate can problem solve, but don’t necessarily reflect how this competency works in on-the-job practice. Personality questions can help reveal who the person thinks they are, but may not be indicative of what that person will bring to the position.    

The rise of behavioral interview questions

Behavioral interview questions were developed in the mid-1970s by industrial psychologists and, with extensive research into their efficacy, are considered the most effective interview questions in use for recruiting and hiring today. The simple premise behind behavioral interview questions is that past on-the-job behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Thus, behavioral questions are crafted to generate responses that showcase how candidates addressed various work-related challenges during their work history that might be similar to challenges they’ll face in the open position.   

Behavioral questions target competencies

Due in part to their specificity and ability to generate real-scenario responses, behavioral interview questions can be developed to evaluate just about any competency. In fact, there are standard behavioral interview questions to address just about every competency.

Does your candidate need to have superb presentation skills? Try: “Describe the most effective presentation you have made. What was the topic? What difficulties did you face in the presentation? How did you handle them?”

Does your candidate need to be a decision-maker? Try: “What kind of decisions do you make rapidly? What kind takes more time and thought? Please provide examples.”  

Maybe your candidate will be tasked with performance management. This competency can be fleshed out with questions such as: “How do you teach subordinates new skills? or “Describe the most difficult performance review you’ve had to give.”

Behavioral questions easy to customize for any position

The pointed nature of behavioral interview questions also means that they can be much more closely tailored for a given position than can traditionally interview questions. While traditional interview questions would likely be similar for any number of engineering positions, behavioral questions can be customized according to skill sets needed for any of the industry’s verticals.

This can be seen in Amtec’s Behavioral Interview Questions Generator, which lets you pick the candidate competencies you need to examine based on what’s required to fill the position no matter what the industry or sector.      

Potential limitations of behavioral interview questions

While behavioral questions can provide a more defined picture of a candidate’s competencies, they do have limitations. Because behavioral interview questions are more formal they can make an interview awkward and disrupt its flow. This may make it difficult for the interviewer to establish and maintain a smooth rapport with the candidate. Additionally, a candidate may not have an answer for every behavioral question asked. While this may reflect negatively on the candidate, it may not necessarily mean that the candidate lacks in the targeted competency; only that the question wasn’t able to pinpoint it. The focus on some distinct competencies may also obscure other competencies that might make the candidate a good fit for the position.

To get around these limitations some recruiters and HR departments are utilizing blended interviews that weave in some traditional interview questions with the behavioral questions. This maintains the competency finding benefits of the behavioral questions while improving interview flow and providing a more complete understanding of the candidate.  

Learn more about behavioral interview questions from Amtec

If you would like to learn more about how behavioral interview questions can help you uncover the competencies you need in your candidates, contact Amtec today. Or explore how you can customize your own behavioral questions with our Behavioral Interview Questions Generator.  

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