The Problem With Hypothetical Job Interview Questions

July 23, 2015

Most hypothetical job interview questions begin by asking: "What would you do if...." followed by some kind of situation, such as "you had to make a big decision?" or “you had a conflict with a colleague?” So why are these types of questions so problematic? The answers they inspire are usually idealized.

You'll probably get a lot of responses that sound like something a high performer would do, but those answers will not reflect reality. That's because, despite what we each might like to believe about ourselves, there's a huge gap between our hypothetical selves and our real selves.

For instance, let's say I selected a few random people off the street and asked them: "What would you do if you saw a complete stranger being assaulted in a public place?" I can guarantee that virtually every person I asked would give one of two possible answers: a) "I'd rush right in to help," or b) "I'd immediately call 911." Isn't that how you would respond?

Both responses sound great - like true high performers. The problem is that these responses are nothing more than conjecture. Put those same folks in the real-life position of witnessing a public assault, and there's no telling what they might do.

For example, there was a news story a while back about a Kansas woman who was stabbed during the robbery of a convenience store. The entire incident was caught on the store's surveillance cameras. The stabbing was brutal, but almost as disturbing was that footage from the surveillance camera showed five patrons stepping over the woman's prone and bleeding body to exit; not one of them stopped or did anything to help. One of them even paused to take a picture of her with a cell phone. Bottom line, our hypothetical and real selves are rarely the same.

Hypothetical job interview questions don’t require any experience to answer. I don’t need to have done any of the things I’m talking about, because the interviewer didn’t ask for my experience, they asked what I would do in some future situation.

It's too easy to fake answers

Another problem with most hypothetical job interview questions is that it's not difficult to discern what the interviewer wants in response - it's easy to come up with the "correct" answer. For example, take the popular hypothetical interview question: "How would you deal with personality clashes among team members?"

For instance, if I were asked the personality clash question, I'd probably shape my answer something like this:

"I've found that there can be four different root causes of personality clashes among team members, and each one requires a different response. First, there can be clashes when the team doesn't have a clearly articulated goal that collectively binds and bonds the group. So, this kind of situation requires some work to align the group with a collective strategy. Second, there might be a long and troubled history between two or more members. In this case, I'd take a very different approach..." And so on.

Now, my answer is sufficient to get me through most interviews, but it really doesn't say anything about what I'd do in real life, let alone provide any clues about my attitude.

The answer I gave reflects the fact that I know how to manage team conflict. But, just because I know what to do, that doesn't preclude me from yelling and screaming at the team to get their act together because I can't control my temper. Or simply ignoring the problem and letting it fester and destroy the team because I'm too scared to deal with it, or whatever. As Sayeth Morpheus in the movie The Matrix said, "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."

And sadly, oftentimes I don’t even need to know all that much to answer a hypothetical job interview question. Here’s why: Most interviewers ask way too many questions. If the median job interview time is 60 minutes, probably the first 10 minutes of that is spent on welcoming and rapport building and the last 10 minutes is spent on any questions the candidate has about our company (or whatever). That means there’s 40 minutes of real interviewing.

Now, if the interviewer has 10-20 questions to get through, I can probably get away with giving 1-2 minute answers. And lots of people can fake their way through an answer for 1-2 minutes. In fact, I’ve found that it often takes 3 minutes of talking for a candidate to run out of fluff, and thus for you to discover that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

A much better approach to interview questions

Instead of hypothetical questions, force the candidate to tell you about specific situations they’ve actually experienced. For example, take the following two questions:

  1. Could you tell me about a time you were given an assignment and you lacked the necessary skills or knowledge?
  2. Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from a supervisor or boss?

These interview questions might seem innocuous enough, but because they hone in on real-life situations, they’re quite tough to answer. It’s difficult to fake real-life experiences, and even if a candidate tries, it becomes obvious quickly.

In fact, to see just how hard it is to answer these questions successfully and see more examples of good interview questions, take this free quiz: “Could You Pass This Job Interview?”

At their best, hypothetical job interview questions test whether applicants understand the theory. But they fail completely when it comes to assessing whether candidates will actually implement that theory in the real world.


Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

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