The Tactic This Expert Uses to Assess Soft-Skills (Hint: It Doesn’t Involve Behavioral Questions)

March 4, 2019

Eight in 10 talent professionals say soft skills (like creativity, collaboration, and adaptability) are increasingly important to their company’s success. And, 92% say these skills matter as much or more than hard skills.

This data comes from LinkedIn’s annual Global Talent Trends 2019 report, which identified soft skills as the biggest trend transforming the talent landscape this year. As automation and artificial intelligence continue to reshape the modern workplace, these hard-to-replicate skills are only going to grow in demand.

The report also found that the number one way companies assess soft skills is by using behavioral questions, with 75% of talent acquisition professionals reporting that their company currently uses this method.

But while behavioral questions about previous events can be useful, they do have limitations. By nature, they’re more about recalling the past than demonstrating skills in real time. That’s why John Vlastelica, founder of talent acquisition-focused consulting and training firm Recruiting Toolbox, who’s team has trained thousands of hiring managers and interviewers around the world, often prefers using situational questions —a hybrid between demonstration and problem-solving questions.

“While the past can predict the future, the present can also help predict the future,” says John. “As an alternative to ‘tell me about a time you collaborated with a teammate,’ why not try sitting next to the candidate in the interview and collaborating on something. See if they can receive and incorporate feedback without getting defensive, see if they naturally engage you when working through a problem, see if they ask for help.”

Don’t get stuck in the past. Here are steps to asking effective situational questions that will help you suss out candidates’ soft skills.

Step 1: Ask the candidate to solve a problem using their hard skills

The first step to assessing a candidate’s soft skills might sound contradictory: ask them to demonstrate their hard skills.

John recommends creating a realistic challenge based on the kind of work the role requires. It should be achievable using the candidate’s relevant technical skills—not a baffling brain teaser that will never come up on the job—and it should have an open-ended solution.

“I think the kind of challenge you'd want to give them doesn't just have one approach or solution,” John says. “It's not like multiplication, where there is only one correct answer.”

Let’s say you’re hiring for a senior marketing role. You might ask your candidate to sketch out a 90-day plan for a new product launching in Germany, then watch them as they work.

“Say, here's the set of assumptions you can start with,” John explains. “The candidate builds out the plan—this is maybe at the whiteboard, on a piece of paper, on a computer—and then they're showing it to you and they are walking you through it.”

This shows you whether the candidate has some of the essential hard skills needed to do the job. You might be able to pick up on a few soft skills here, too—but it’s only once you add a few surprises into the mix that these really come into sharp focus.

Step 2: Introduce new constraints and conditions to see how the candidate adapts to change

Once the candidate has drafted their initial plan and talked you through it, it’s time to shake things up a little. Add a real-world constraint to the challenge—like a shorter time frame or significantly lower budget—and ask the candidate to adapt their solution accordingly. Then, after they solve this roadblock, throw them another.

This is a useful way to test how well a candidate can think on their feet, adapt to unexpected changes, and keep their cool in a crisis.

The candidate is still using their hard skills to solve the underlying challenge. But their soft skills will come across in the way they solve it, and how they talk and act while they’re doing it. Some may relish the twists and turns of the challenge, while others can become quickly frustrated and uncooperative. And if a candidate is unwilling or unable to adapt their approach, they probably won’t handle on-the-job pivots well, either.

“By giving candidates real-world things to work on and then introducing the kind of things that actually show up in our culture, I can see if this behavior naturally comes out, without asking a leading question,” John says.

But while the goal is to test the person’s adaptability, there’s no need to make them think you’re cruelly trying to trip them up. Instead, let them know up front that you’re doing this to simulate the kind of surprises that can crop up on the job.

“If you’d like, you can tell them at the start of the exercise that you’re going to introduce roadblocks and constraints that are going to help you see how well they can adapt to change and adapt to new requirements,” John says. “We want to see them work through a challenge that gets progressively harder. Not in some weird Jack Bauer, I’m-trying-to-break-you kind of way, but on a realistic problem with real-world constraints.”

Step 3: Collaborate with the candidate to see their soft skills in action

While you can certainly learn a lot just by watching a candidate work, you can learn even more by working with them in the moment.

“When I only ask behavioral questions, so many candidates have these canned stories and examples, ready to regurgitate—versus, say, jumping into a roleplay or problem solving exercise with me, where I get to actually to see them in action, hearing the real words, ideas, and approach they’d use to work through something that resembles our real-world leadership or technical challenges,” says John.

“If you’ve been a people manager for 10 years, and we role-play a situation where I’m the employee and you’re the manager, and you can’t find the words to directly communicate a concern you have with my performance, struggle to diagnose my performance issue, and don’t know how to coach me to improve my behavior, I’d find it harder to believe that you’re skilled as a people manager,” says John.

You can also collaborate with the candidate on a more practical level, asking pragmatic questions, offering feedback, and suggesting different ideas as they share their approach and solution. If they’re excited to listen to your ideas and try to build on them, they’re probably great at working in a team. “But if they get defensive, fail to acknowledge your feedback or questions, or struggle to see how they can incorporate your ideas into their solution,” says John, “you might be justifiably concerned.” There’s a big difference between being confident in your approach and being unwilling to hear different opinions.

Situational questions are only one piece of the soft skills puzzle

John is a big believer in using problem-solving questions to sleuth out a candidate’s soft skills. But he doesn’t solely rely on them. He says take-home assessments and behavioral questions also have their place in the hiring process, although they do involve a higher risk of candidate’s rehearsing or getting outside help.

“Our team has built custom interview training for leading companies around the world—PepsiCo, Booking, EA, Starbucks, Target, etc., so we’re in the room with thousands of interviewers every year,” says John.  “We see the best hiring managers and interviewers leveraging a mix of behavioral and situational questions to get the clearest picture of the candidate’s skills and behaviors and—ultimately—predict on-the-job success.”

For more tips on assessing soft skills, along with real-world case studies from companies like Citi, download LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report.

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