The purpose of any job interview question is to gauge whether the candidate is right for the job and vice versa. To accomplish this, job interviewers tend to ask three types of questions:

  1. Fishing for platitudes. The classic example is "What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?" Such questions are useful only insofar as they flush out candidates too lazy to do some research. Those who did their homework have carefully prepared answers. Those who didn't just wing it and whiff.
  2. Brainteasers. The classic example is "Why are manhole covers round?" (Note: The classic answer "Because a round cover won't fall down the hole" is wrong. I'll give the correct answer at the end of this column.) The idea behind this type of question is to discover whether the candidate is a problem solver. Opinions are mixed on whether this technique is useful.
  3. Job-specific open-enders. The classic example is "How would you handle [situation specific to the job being sought]?" This type of question is the most valuable of the three because it can't be gamed and really does allow the interviewer to gauge whether the candidate is up to the job.

There is a job interview question, however, that doesn't really fit into any of these three categories but which reveals massively valuable information:

"To do your best work, how do you need to be managed? Feel free to use an example."

This question uncovers three important perspectives:

  1. Is the candidate self-aware about their emotional processes, sources of motivation, and personal insecurities? Self-aware candidates will answer immediately and cogently. Clueless candidates will probably describe something that THEY did rather than something that their manager/teacher/mentor did.
  2. Is there a match between the candidate's needs and the style of the manager for whom they'll be working? For example, a candidate who thrives from hands-on mentorship will be rudderless if working for a hands-off manager. Conversely, a candidate who does best when left alone will chaff under a manager who's picayune about details.
  3. How can we best adapt our range of management techniques to this candidate? The best managers don't use a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they figure out what each individual needs in order to perform at their best. They then find a way to fit their management style to get the best from the individual.

A big advantage to this question is that it can't be gamed with a pat answer because the candidate won't know the management style of the person for whom they'll be working. A pat answer thus might easily misfire.

Note: Here is the correct answer to the "manhole cover" question: "Because human bodies aren't shaped like prisms." Ten points to anybody who can tell me why this answer is correct.

Published on: Feb 10, 2020
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