How to Hire for Soft Skills

A technique called Behavioral Event Interviewing (BEI) combined with targeted questions can help determine how a candidate has handled pressure situations in the past and allow a hiring manager to observe them under pressure.

The term, “soft skills,” is a misnomer. Research has made it clear these are competencies that have a “hard” return on investment in terms of retention, engagement, dealing with change, innovation, and performance. But that’s a whole other article!

This article is focused on the why and how of hiring for these soft-hard skills. In today’s tight labor market, there is a tendency to “take whatever we can get” with candidates, but that’s folly that can lead to a poor hire. It’s more critical than ever to hire for soft skills, given the pressure people are under today.

The Case for “Hard-Soft” Skills

The Wall Street Journal cites a LinkedIn study that revealed 68 percent of hiring managers believe the dearth of soft skills in the job market is hindering their firms’ productivity. My personal opinion: The same thing is happening to the other 46 percent—they just don’t know it! Meanwhile, 89 percent of 900 executives polled by the Journal said finding candidates with soft skills has proven very or somewhat difficult.

LinkedIn crunched data from its users’ professional profiles to find out which “soft” skills were most prevalent among users who successfully landed jobs they’d applied for. Here are a few of the leading attributes:

  • Communication
  • Capacity for teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Adaptability

Now Add Pressure in!

With the last two years and the uncertainty ahead, people are feeling more pressure and stress than ever. In The New York Times bestselling book, “Performing Under Pressure,” we make both the research and neurological case that our brains are wired such that exhibiting soft skills such as creativity, adaptability, teamwork, managing relationships, etc., is extremely difficult to do during pressure situations. Ironically, those pressure situations are the most important times when one needs to be creative and agile, demonstrate empathy, be a good listener, and remain calm.

Interviewing for Soft Skills

How do you determine if a candidate excels at exhibiting soft skills under pressure? The best way, of course, would be to put them under pressure through some sort of work simulation and observe them. That can be done, but is an expensive and time-consuming process. What other options are there? You could try to do something dramatic in the interview to cause people to feel pressure, but that has moral and legal implications written all over it, not to mention possibly alienating a really good candidate if it’s not done well.

At the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), we use a technique called Behavioral Event Interviewing (BEI) combined with targeted questions to determine how a candidate has handled pressure situations in the past and to observe them under pressure.

The advantage of using BEI questions to determine soft skills is that when people are asked to recollect a time in the past, it’s much harder for them to describe what they would do vs. describe what they actually did do, giving you much better insight into how they have handled pressure situations in the past. In addition, the brain is wired to cause people to start feeling the tension and emotions of the pressure situation just by recalling it (just start thinking about the last nasty e-mail you got or difficult feedback someone gave you and you’ll know what we mean). This allows you to actually observe how the candidate responds to feeling pressure.

Here is the approach we use:

  1. Explain to the candidate that you are going to use a series of questions that will ask them to recall specific situations in the past. Tell them you want them to describe that situation, what thoughts and feelings they had, and what actions they took.
  2. Let them know it’s OK to take a little time to think of a situation (the buildup actually adds to the pressure).
  3. Then begin asking questions. But what are good questions? You can start with some that are specific to your industry or the position—for example, a medical professional dealing with an upset patient or a salesperson who has to give a presentation to large groups. Questions you can use that apply to any candidate:
  • Describe a time when you were given critical feedback.
  • Describe a time when you had to have a difficult conversation.
  • Describe a time when there was tension or conflict on a team.
  • Describe a time a change was instituted that you didn’t agree with.
  • Describe a time when you had to come up with a creative solution under pressure.
  • Describe a time you made a mistake.

There are many other great questions you can ask; this should is just a template.

  1. For each question, after the candidate has described the situation, ask them what thoughts and feelings they had and what actions they took. Here is what to look for:
  • If they are unable to think of a situation, then that tells you something—maybe they shy away from tough conversations or don’t like to admit mistakes.
  • Look for how much self-awareness they have of their emotions and thoughts—if they struggle to describe this, they may lack self-awareness.
  • Did the actions they took demonstrate the ability to take ownership, personal accountability, and step into pressure situations? Or were their responses more defensive or did they avoid difficult situations?
  1. As mentioned above, when someone starts describing a pressure situation and the thoughts and feelings they had, they actually can start to experience the pressure—their brain literally will begin releasing their stress response chemicals. Observe to see if they get fidgety, start stuttering, look away, and even start to lose energy and confidence during the process. Those are signs the pressure is getting to them. If that happens, how do they handle it? Do they pause, take a deep breath, and ask for additional time, or do they continue to muddle through and give not very good answers or struggle to answer at all?

We are not suggesting you don’t ask questions related to things such as education, experience, and technical skills, but those are now the tablestakes to get a job. What differentiates people who excel and become top performers is their soft skills, and their ability to demonstrate those skills under pressure. Now that you have an approach for hiring for soft kills, if you ever interview for a job at IHHP, you now know some of the questions we ask—but, alas, I didn’t give them all away!

Bill Benjamin is a training and leadership expert; a partner at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (www.ihhp.com); and a contributor to The New York Times best-selling book, “Performing Under Pressure.”