I am sure everyone has at some point been cautioned about using leading questions in interviews. You know the types of questions…’Tell me about the problems you have had with your boss’, or ‘I suppose you got along with your current boss’. Such questions are said to sometimes telegraph the desired answer or skew the response based on how they are asked. This contaminates the responses. Interviewers are instead advised to use more neutral questions, which, in the example above, would be a question such as ‘tell me about your relationship with your boss’.
A recent study says not so fast. It suggests that a specific type of leading question is actually very useful for getting honest responses. The logic goes like this…. while interview questions solicit information, they also communicate information about the question asker’s assumptions. Thus, the question ‘how are the neighbors’ suggests that the asker does not know the answer which is why he, or she, is asking. Meanwhile, the question, ‘the neighbors are quiet, right?’ implies that noise is the relevant variable but that the question asker doesn’t consider it to be problematic. Finally, the question, ‘How noisy are the neighbors’ has an implicit message that there is a problem with noise, and the question asker wants to quantify it.
The study goes on to argue that while neutral questions suggest that the question asker has no information on the issue at hand, positive assumption questions suggest that the question asker has some relevant information ‘but is unlikely to pursue an assertive line of questioning’. Negative leading questions however suggest to the respondent that the question asker has relevant information and is more likely to pursue an assertive line of questioning. If the respondent believes the question asker is knowledgeable enough to detect a lie, the respondent is more likely to tell the truth. Testing this hypothesis, the study found that the negative and positive assumption questions solicit more information overall than neutral questions AND that the negative assumption questions elicit far more truthful disclosure about an underlying problem than positive questions.
So, next time you want to really understand how a candidate performed in his or her last role as say a project manager, the question ‘how did the project go’ is likely to produce the least information overall and with little acknowledgement of problems. On the other hand, the questions ‘what were the problems with the project’? or ‘how overbudget was the project’ are far more likely to reveal the full picture, good and bad.
To be fair, the study does not make the case for aggressive, negative assumptions questions as the default approach to interviews. Instead, it suggests that in certain circumstances leading questions can be a useful tool in an interviewer’s tool kit.
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About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.