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How to gauge soft skills in an interview

Author: SARA MCCORD, Mashable Australia

Some skill sets are easier to screen for than others. A writing sample will highlight communication skills; extremely tough questions will test a candidate’s ability to think on his or her feet; and asking the applicant to discuss previous roles will provide information about his or her experience.

But how can you test for “soft skills,” such as teamwork and empathy, during the interview?

There’s no magic formula, but essentially you need to look for two things: self-awareness (because you want a candidate who can make the connection between his or her actions and professional outcomes) and instincts (because you want someone who would intuitively take the empathetic, team-oriented and optimistic approach).

To that end, read on for two questions you can ask in future interviews that will help you sniff out the perfect people to add to your team.

1. “Can you tell me about a time when you worked as part of a group?”

To start with, red-flag a candidate who tells a story about how the group was useless until he or she rode in on a white horse and saved the day. First, this person hasn’t done the interview prep necessary to know you shouldn’t speak poorly of others. Second, it’s not a good sign if the story that comes to mind is one where he or she personally succeeded and the team failed. The “I’m smarter than everyone else” response indicates both low self-awareness and poor propensity for teamwork.

But what if the candidate is exceptional because the team was flailing and he or she saved the day? A candidate who works well with others will tell the story differently. He or she will include the merits of the other approaches and frame it more as a story that shows initiative, leadership and creative thinking, rather than one about being the smartest person on the team. This time, the “I had the solution” answer works.

Of course, the best answer is one about a time when a team successfully worked together. The candidate would discuss the other members’ contributions as well as his or her own and include what it taught him or her about working well with others. You know this candidate will bring strong teamwork skills to the table (and that his or her first instinct is to discuss working with others positively).

2. “Can you tell me about a time when you had to ask for help?”

This is one of my all-time favorite interview questions. Why? Because smart candidates know that every answer should make them look like the best choice. So, seeing how an applicant approaches this question will let you know if he can describe (and view) himself as an asset, even when discussing a failure.

The red-flag answer here is, “I can’t really remember the last time I had to ask for help.” This person thinks the only way to make a good impression is to be perfect. He not only lacks self-awareness, but he could be a dangerous hire, because when he makes a mistake (and who hasn’t?) he may not be comfortable telling anyone.

A second-rate answer would be one that includes a “fake” example (similar to the cop-out answers to “What’s your biggest weakness?”). An example of this would be something along the lines of: “I thought I had the best solution to a problem, and then I hit an obstacle and reached out to someone, and then I realized I did have the best answer all along.” This candidate gets points for reaching out to someone else when she needed a sounding board, as well as having the ability to take a step back and reassess when things weren’t working, but she still isn’t comfortable admitting to making a true mistake.

The best answer is one in which the candidate identifies a mistake she made and how she learned from someone else. Why? Because it takes learning experiences in prior roles to apply the lessons learned to a future position. Moreover, an answer like this gives a candidate the chance to speak sincerely about mentorship and growth — which is great for her to share and for you to hear. An ideal answer might sound something like:

I remember a time at my first job when a disgruntled customer called, and no matter what I said, I couldn’t seem to make her feel any better. Even though she didn’t ask to speak to a manager, I asked my supervisor to speak to her and listened as he ably addressed her concerns. There were some key phrases he used to defuse the situation that I simply hadn’t heard before. I paid attention to what he said so that I was prepared the next time I had to handle a situation like that for myself.

Oh, and it should go without saying that this is still an interview. So a candidate who admits to doing anything negligent, illegal or mean-spirited automatically fails this question, regardless of whether he demonstrates exceptional honesty and self-awareness when relaying the story.

Screening for soft skills is just as important as testing for technical abilities. Use the questions above to make sure your new hire has the emotional aptitude to handle the job.