For years, I have been preaching in my Selecting Winners workshops that you should never ask an interview question that begins with “why”. This goes against the grain of so much of the common wisdom on the subject. That alone should tell you it makes sense! Just kidding.
But seriously, there are a number of important reasons supporting the ineffectiveness of “why” questions. In this article, you will learn the pitfalls of “why” questions and how to ask much more effective alternates.
Let’s begin by looking at the reasoning people use to support “why” questions. The typical justification is that the answers give you a view into the person’s head. It shows you how they think. You will learn what makes them tick. You gain insight into their decision-making process.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all noble objectives and certainly good things to know before you hire a person. But asking “why” in an interview is not the way to get there. Starting your questions with “why” opens a can of worms and leads to a number of problems. Let’s look at each problem individually.
You are not qualified
As soon as you ask “why”, you put yourself in a position you are not qualified to be in. The answer to your “why” forces you to interpret the answer. You have to figure what they meant. The answer could be the person’s opinion or a theory. You are not dealing with facts. And since you are not a trained behavioral scientist, your conclusions may not be accurate.
Open the door for the “book” answer
The first thing a person does when you ask “why” is to try and figure out what they think you want to hear (the book answer). Isn’t this what you would do? They are not necessarily responding with facts. Isn’t it possible their answer is the possible one they can imagine? You really want to know what they did, not what they think you want to hear.
The answer is no prediction of future behavior
You have no guarantee the person will do the same thing or something different as a result of their answer to a “why” question. You will never know if the answer represents true beliefs or just a good sounding answer.
Your goal in the interview is to predict the person’s behavior on your job. Asking “why” questions doesn’t get the hard behavioral data to predict future behavior. The best strategy is to focus on past behavior. Ask questions that require the person to describe what they have done.
Here is an example to show you how to avoid “why” questions:
Let’s say you wanted to know how a person goes about making important decisions. You could just ask “Why did you make that decision?” But now you fall into all the traps we discussed above.
Instead, try, “What research did you do before you made the decision? What alternatives did you consider? Who else did you consult with? What contingencies did you build into your decision? What impact did the decision have on you operation?”
Just imagine the quality information you get as result of this series of questions. Each question is focused on getting specific, behavioral data. The questions are not focused on why the did what they did.
A great piece of advice is to stay out of other people’s heads.