Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Developing a Values Interview Question

At a previous job, we had a core value we described as “bias towards action”. This meant a few things to us:

  • We felt okay making decisions without having full information.
  • We tried not to spend much time debating differences, preferring to pick an approach and try it out (we even once flipped a coin to cut off debate!)
  • If we weren’t sure if something was the correct approach, we’d try it anyway and find out.
  • When we found an option that was “good enough”, we’d start; we wouldn’t spend time trying to find something perfect.
  • When it turned out we’d made a mistake, we didn’t beat ourselves up over it. We’d ask “what did we learn?” and then move on.

“Bias towards action” wasn’t something cute-sounding that we put on the company website (you won’t find it on the company site); it was a real value that guided our day-to-day work.

So when it came time to hire, we knew we needed to select people who’d align with this value. It was central enough to our way of working that someone who had a different way of working wouldn’t have worked out. We wouldn’t have been happy with someone who needed to find optimal solutions; they would have been miserable being asked to implement something that was merely okay. It’s not that this value is “right” and that people who felt differently were “wrong” in some way. Other organizations – other successful organizations – work differently. But it was “right for us” at the time, and we needed to hire people who wanted to work this way.

This is a common challenge for organizations with a deeply-ingrained value like this. Other skills are easier to look for in interviews. You can assign work sample tests to assess job skills. You can ask questions about communication, collaboration, teamwork, conflict resolution, etc. But how do you develop an interview question that measures values?

Here’s how:

1. Describe how the value influences action

First, you have to get very specific about what the value means in action. What does it look like when people at your organization show this value? Values can mean different things at different organizations. Take “transparency”, something many organizations list among their values. At some organizations “transparency” means “teams, even the executive team, are open about their deliberations and issues, and people from across the organization can participate in those decisions.” At other organizations, “transparency” means “once someone makes a decision they’ll share their reasoning (but you don’t get a say unless you’re the decider).” Neither of these interpretations is “right” or “wrong”, but they are quite different. So you have to translate the short pithy value into a longer explication of what actions and decisions are shaped by this value1.

In the case of “bias towards action”, I listed some of the ramifications above. In short, “bias towards action” meant:

  • We made decisions quickly, sometimes without full information.
  • We cut off debate early and picked a direction.
  • We preferred “good enough” to perfect.
  • We expected to be wrong a lot and were gentle to ourselves and each other when we were.

2. Figure out what behaviors are behind the value

This describes how the team behaved, but we’re interviewing an individual. So, next, you have to look at these outcomes and consider what behaviors each individual in that system is demonstrating. What are people saying and doing that lead to these outcomes?

In our case, “bias towards action” on an individual level meant:

  • Moving quickly towards a decision: once someone felt like they had enough information to make a reasonable hypothesis, they’d make it.
  • Instead of calling a meeting or writing up a decision document, a person would usually experiment first.
  • “Asking for forgiveness rather than permission” - each individual would default towards motion rather than stopping to ask.
  • If someone else made a decision you didn’t agree with, you’d generally wait to see how it played out instead of trying to stop it.
  • We were kind to ourselves and each other about mistakes: no finger-pointing or self-flagellation.

At this point, some common factors will start to emerge: words that come up a lot; actions that repeat; themes that emerge in the desired behaviors. In our case, these things are:

  • Speed: I keep writing “quickly” or words like it, so clear speed of activity is important.
  • Decisiveness: making a call quickly (there it is again) and moving along.
  • Agreeableness: willingness to try things with an open mind; less attachment to being “right”.
  • Blamelessness, both at others and at ourselves.

3. Find a situation where this value would influence behavior

Now, with a solid idea of behaviors and themes, we can start thinking about situations where candidates might have demonstrated some of these behaviors.

We’re moving towards producing a behavioral interview question – a “tell me about a time when…” type of question. The idea is that by seeing how candidates behaved in the past, we can predict that they’d behave similarly in the future. For more on behavioral interview questions, see Types of Interview Questions from my series unpacking interview questions.

In the case of “bias towards action”, it seems like the key attributes to get at in an interview question are speed and decisiveness. The others I mentioned, what I called agreeableness and blamelessness, are also important, but it’ll be hard to squeeze all of these things out of a single question. So I might table those, and ask about them in a later question.

So, at this point, there are quite a few questions that come to mind for me – and I expect if you’re working through this on your own value, you’ll have some strong ideas at this point to. A few of the questions I’m thinking about are:

  • “Tell me about a time you needed to make a decision …” is a fertile ground. I could ask about all sorts of kinds of decisions: technology choices or leadership/management choices, decisions made individually or part of team, etc. Hearing how someone worked through a decision could really reveal if someone tends towards moving quickly, or if they’re more slow and deliberate.
  • If I wanted to get even closer to the kinds of decisions we cared about, I could add to that question and make it “tell me about a time you needed to make a decision with incomplete information” – that would more directly capture the kinds of decisions where “bias towards action” informed our approach.
  • “Tell me about a time when you were stuck and didn’t know how to proceed; how did you get out of it?” This approaches the problem from a different angle, focusing more on the individual. I might ask this if I were more interested in someone’s behavior in individual contexts; the prior versions tend to imply team settings.

I could brainstorm further, but you get the point.

The next step is simple: pick one! In my case I chose “tell me about a time you needed to make a decision…” – it seemed like a great starting point.

Now, this isn’t the end; you still need to flesh out the question into its final form, develop any follow-ups you’ll want to ask, lists of positive signs and red flags, and so forth. But that’s another article.

I hope this helps you develop interview questions for your own values. If you use this technique, get in touch and let me know how it goes!

  1. In doing so, you might discover that the value … isn’t really something that shapes work day-to-day. It’s something nice-sounding that you put on your company website under a “Values” header, but it isn’t something you think about at work. If that happens, you’ve just discovered that it’s not really one of your values. Values drive decisions, or otherwise shape work; if it doesn’t, then it’s not a value. And if it’s not a value, don’t let it drive your hiring decisions! ↩︎