I used to think this was the best type of  Job Interview Question: “What skill do you possess that will most impact our bottom line?”

The answer tells you whether the candidate knows anything about your company. (It’s hard to say how you will impact a company’s bottom line when you don’t understand what truly drives value for that business.)

More important — especially if you listen, and ask follow-up questions based on what the candidate says, not the next question on your list — it lets you get to the heart of that person’s skills, experience, and accomplishments.

But now I’ve found a better type of question. As peak performance coach Greg Harden writes in his new book, Stay Sane in an Insane World, the key to interviewing is this:

“Let them tell you who they are.”

How?

  • Ask them to describe the best experience they had at their current/former job, and then their worst experience. Or,
  • Ask them about the best boss they ever had, and then the worst.

(Then) listen very carefully, because they’re about to tell you everything you need to know about them.

Anyone can have a bad experience or a bad boss, but listen to how they describe the situation or person. Do they take any ownership or responsibility for whatever was negative? Can they see more than just their own narrow perspective?

It was a bad match. To be fair, I was not the right person at the right time. They needed someone with different skills.

Or was it just a parade of whining and complaining? My boss was such an asshole. He was totally unreasonable about everything. I swear, I think I’m cursed, because I always end up working for peple like this.

The way someone treats the other people in their life will tell you what kind of person they are. So when someone tells you who they are, in the interview room or anywhere else, listen.

The candidate who will bash his last employer will, after the new-hire honeymoon period is over, inevitably start to criticize you. A candidate who finds fault with most of their current co-workers probably won’t get along with your team. A candidate who thinks their last job had too many rules, guidelines, and restrictions (a candidate once told me that, and I didn’t listen) will quickly start to chafe under yours. (Boy, did he.)

Seem too simple? It’s not, as long as you turn the interview into a conversation, not an interrogation.

Harden’s question creates an opportunity for self-analysis and introspection — or for an apparent lack of any self-awareness at all. So ask. Then listen. And don’t jump in immediately; wait a couple of seconds before you speak. Most people will fill that silence with an additional example, or a more detailed explanation.

Then ask a follow-up question. Something simple, like, “What did you do?” Or, “How did that work out?”  Ask a follow-up question that doesn’t pre-judge or lead, and allows the candidate to go wherever they wish to go.

Given the time and opportunity — especially when you make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation — most people will tell you who they are.

Then all you have to do is listen.