How I/O Psychologists Interview

Gestalt Interviewing – Going Beyond Behavioural Interviewing
An abstracted photo of a colouful rorschach

An interview is a conversation with a purpose.  Sometimes it is technical in nature, but often it is an attempt to determine the candidate’s approach to his/her environment––work, other people, and fit for a particular organizational role or position.  As a boutique firm of I/O psychologists (industrial/organizational psychologists) who have conducted thousands of interviews of all types over three decades, we have come to appreciate the insights that can be gained in a well-conducted job interview.  We also have come to recognize the limitations of both interviewers in general and the restrictiveness of the behavioural competency approach to interviewing.  As a result, we have evolved, through professional experience and research, our interviewing practices into what we call ‘gestalt interviewing’.  Although we always interview with an array of psychometric test results ranging from intellect, to various management measures, to personality factors, we believe all professional interviewers can enhance their predictive accuracy by taking a gestalt approach to interviewing.

Gestalt psychology is a century old and originated as a counter movement to the reductionists or so-called molecular psychology that attempted to understand behaviour by breaking it down into small units or elements.  The Gestaltists argued that we perceive things as a whole and that the whole has much more meaning and information than the sum of its parts.  The Gestaltists backed their claims with rigorous science.  Viewing the candidate as a whole and being rigorous in approach are the hallmarks of what we call gestalt interview.

The zeitgeist in management selection for the last 20 years is competency-based behavioural interviewing.  Typically, clusters of desired job-related behaviours are grouped into competencies and a candidate’s skills in these competencies are explored and evaluated through behavioural interviewing.  The essence of behavioural interviewing is that past behaviour is a reliable predictor of future behaviour, and by asking candidates to carefully describe how they handled past events (e.g., What was the situation?  What did you do?  What was the outcome?), a reasonable prediction of their ability to perform in a similar situation is obtained.  Nevertheless, the science of competencies and behavioural interviewing is imperfect.  Competencies are often vaguely defined; a mixed bag of skills, abilities, aptitudes, and personality traits are often lumped into a competency and rarely do two so-called experts analyzing a job come up with the same list of competencies.  The measurement of competencies is another weak link and whether a single interviewer or a group of interviewers are involved, human judgment, with all its pratfalls, comes into play.  Often, behavioural interviewers are overly confident of their methodology and easily miss important findings because they did not lie on the Procrustean competency bed.

A gestalt interview is not the opposite of or incompatible with a competency-based behavioural interview.  In fact, a gestalt interview may employ many behavioural questions and, to the uninitiated, may look like a behavioural interview but with a lot of extra, seemingly wide-ranging and superfluous questions thrown in.  Moreover, an astute observer will accurately note that the gestalt interviewer went out of his/her way to understand the candidate, to see the person as an individual with a history, a family, an unfolding (or stalled) career, and hopes and fears, how all this information contributes to the whole––the gestalt––of that individual, how it can be used to assist in measuring their potential, and ultimately make an accurate prediction of their chances of success in a specific position.  The goal of gestalt interviewing is to form an accurate holistic understanding of the candidate.  To check if the gestalt is accurate, at the end of the interview the interviewer typically shares their constructed representation with the candidate, which can lead to another round of questions and discussion to further refine the findings.

Preliminaries to Gestalt Interviewing

Gestalt interviews are typically done one on one as opposed to a group making it easier to build trust and openness between the candidate and the interviewer.  Developing an open and trusting dialogue is key to being able to conduct a gestalt interview.  However, this is often easier said than done.  One roadblock that often prevents openness on the part of candidates is the mindset that involves trying to put their best foot forward and giving perfect or ideal answers to questions.  We call this ‘interview omnipotence’ – the tendency of an interview candidate to present as they can do anything.  Many candidates study up on the organization they are applying to, may receive interview coaching, and often spend hours rehearsing answers to possible interview questions.  The candidate perceives the stakes as high; a promotion, a new job, a new career, more money, status, and/or other things he/she, rightly or wrongly, believes relates to success in our society are all up for grabs.  The possibility of failure in the role, poor job fit, stress, and an endless list of why the person should not be considered for the role are typically far from his/her awareness.

Somewhat ironically, the behavioural interview can encourage ‘interview omnipotence’ because candidates are typically asked to draw from the past and provide the best example of how a particular situation was handled, the details of the situation, their role, and the outcome.  Answers are often exaggerated, modest successes are elevated, and past leadership or interpersonal challenges are presented from a very egocentric perspective.  The candidate paints a picture of a high-energy superhuman who climbs mountains, builds award-winning teams, and solves the unsolvable.  When ‘candidate omnipotence’ becomes too much, the challenge for the interviewer is two-fold.  The first is not to write off a candidate who, in spite of trying to present as superhuman, may make a competent employee.  The second, harder challenge, though, is to lead the candidate to stop any further self-aggrandizing answers to questions and to talk openly and authentically.  The latter requires skill and patience from the interviewer, and the tactics needed to be effective at this can vary from candidate to candidate.  We have found that simply explaining to candidates at the very onset what type of interview you are conducting and asking them to try to see themselves objectively is what is desired.  We may also indicate that one’s ability to do this is a typical sign of maturity––because it is.  So, when the candidate starts wandering into candidate-omnipotence mode, we gently point it out and encourage a more objective answer.

Another potential obstacle to establishing rapport in a gestalt interview is the interviewers themselves: their own intelligence, maturity, ability to listen, and skills at expressing themselves in a manner that develops trust and rapport.  Effective interviewers earn their stripes slowly, and maturity and wisdom are their greatest assets in being perceived as credible.  Candidates will be more open to taking guidance through the interview if they view the interviewer as non-judgmental, intelligent, and experienced rather than someone trying to trip them up and an arbitrator of their future.  An intelligent interviewer who is trained in effective interviewing and listening is able to understand what is heard and is capable of leading the interview into areas that need exploring to develop a better understanding of a candidate’s capacity.  An interviewer of average intellect is at risk for missing important information and not connecting the proverbial dots into a composite whole of the candidate.

Interviewing the Gestalt Way

The goal of a gestalt interview is to understand the candidate in a broad, holistic manner; that is, how all the parts and pieces of a person’s life, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities come together to form the whole of that individual.  By combining the parts and pieces of the person, the resulting gestalt provides information greater than the sum of its parts and is rich with information for predicting future behaviour.  The more the interviewer’s gestalt matches the real gestalt of the candidate, the better the interviewer will be able to make predictions about the candidate’s behaviour. 

Developing a gestalt of an individual in a short period of time, i.e., in a typical interview of less than two hours, requires certain skills and much experience.  The conversation must have a distinct purpose.  It is not to get to know the candidate as a neighbour or friend, but to understand the person in terms of his/her past achievements and failures, current situation, career trajectory, hopes and dreams, interpersonal style and skills, decision-making style and abilities, resilience and energy, responsibility and conscientiousness, moral compass, interests, emotional life, temperament, family stress and support, sense of humour, and on and on.  A strictly behaviour-based interview designed to explore all these areas would involve scores of questions and consume hours.  This is an enormous waste of time for all and would eventually result in both candidate- and interviewer-fatigue.

A gestalt interview is not difficult for the candidate, although a great deal of ground is covered in a short period of time, and the path from start to finish may zig and zag, backtrack, and go off in unpredictable tangents.  As mentioned previously, the interviewer needs to calm the candidate and steer him/her quickly from any signs of ‘candidate omnipotence’ into talking openly and authentically.  The interviewer’s tone and demeanour are professional but friendly.  A good place to start is to provide candidates with an overview of the objectives of the interview and to state directly that the interview requires nothing special of them at all, that the interviewer’s goal is simply to understand who they are, how they do things, and where they are going.  Opening questions relate to the job they applied to: how did they hear about it, why are they interested, how does the position fit into their perceived career path and ambition?  Once some basic housekeeping is completed, the interview proper can begin.  First, ask for a quick overview of the person’s past, trying to understand developments at each step of the way.  This guided tell-me-about-yourself process is usually a good way to get candidates to relax and talk about themselves.  From here the interview can go in many directions but should follow a fairly prescribed route, one that allows the exploration of uncharted territories yet finds the way back home.  Basic questions are followed up, where and when needed, with more in-depth questions and may even require the interviewer to do some on-the-spot analysis and provide feedback regarding how certain events or behaviours connect to the overall forming gestalt.  The process is not didactic, only for clarification and perhaps an evaluation of how much self-insight the candidate possesses.

A gestalt interview is not akin to a clinical interview (used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists) either.  In a classic clinical interview, the interviewer is constantly forming hypotheses, testing them, and further narrowing the scope of inquiry to provide a definitive diagnosis that will lead to an appropriate treatment program.  Trying to learn the overall gestalt of the individual is not the goal.  In contrast, an employment interview is not, or at least should not be, an exercise in trying to diagnose or categorize people.  An employment interview is trying to get a ‘measure of the person’ and their potential to do a specific job. 

The gestalt interview overlaps with a behavioural interview in that often specific examples of behaviour may be asked for, but it goes beyond the behavioural interview by having a thoughtful, experienced, and intelligent interviewer connecting the dots to form a composite of the individual.  Strict behavioural interviewers will argue that this is dangerous territory, and we agree that it is, but only for the average interviewer whose personal biases and lack of experience can counter their efforts.  Behavioural interviewers have to evaluate an answer, and no matter how behaviourally anchored their rating scale may be, it still requires judgment on the part of the interviewer.  Interviewers confidently asking a prepared list of behavioural questions tied to vague definitions and concepts of competencies are at risk for not asking the one, single question that may change their whole understanding of a candidate.  Questions that are highly dependent on the uniqueness of the candidate and focused on building an accurate composite of the candidate are what separates a gestalt interview from the almost mechanical (and boring) behavioural interview.

The Gestalt Interview

Doing a gestalt interview is not necessarily difficult, but it can be demanding of the interviewer.  The main thing to remember is that the interviewer is a thinking and highly observant individual who is curious about the person in front of him or her.  The following steps and questions can be used to develop a gestalt of the candidate:

  1. Establish rapport
  2. Control ‘candidate omnipotence’ (ask for openness and objectivity, give feedback when candidate goes off course in content or begins to sell or promote self)
  3. Explore the following areas through open-ended or behaviour-based questions:
    1. Background, education, and work history
    2. Current work situation: how long in role, next step, and long-term career goal; career successes and failures to date, relationship with company and superior
    3. Self-Perception: strengths and weaknesses (in some depth with behavioural examples), superior’s feedback on weaknesses or developmental needs (again, in depth with behavioural examples), current self-development behaviours (what and why)
    4. Work Style: organizational skills (tactics used to keep on top of things), decision-making style (impulsive? methodical? analysis paralysis?), approach to large project (examples of current projects, role, progress), creativity (innovative or refiner of what is there?), tactician or strategist
    5. Interpersonal skills: relationship with others in general, specifically peers, superior, subordinate, ability and approach to handling conflicts, sensitivity to others (emotional intelligence), trust (able to develop)
    6. Leadership style: people vs. task-focused, success as a leader, developmental needs, ability to develop a team, motivation
    7. Communication: (observed directly in interview) public speaking skills, ability to express self logically, conceptual or concrete (if concrete, may be an indication of low intelligence)
    8. Energy: hours worked per week, general energy level, early riser or late nighter, hours of sleep, exercise program, general fitness
    9. Personality: extroverted or introverted; curious and open or ‘black and white’; flexible and spontaneous or systematic, precise, and rigid; integrity, sense of responsibility
    10. Personal: health, general mood and sense of well-being, family situation and stresses, alcohol consumption, financial situation
    11. Self-awareness: genuine and open or closed and defensive; objective and accurate in perceiving strengths, weaknesses, and limitations

Listen intelligently

The most important thing that a gestalt interviewer can do is to listen intelligently.  Not only does the interviewer need to evaluate how each piece of new information fits into the overall gestalt, but also how each answer to a question is approached or answered, which can provide important clues for what needs further exploration.  Is there a pause or a change in voice pitch to a question?  Does the candidate actually answer the question or attempt to skirt around an issue?  Does the candidate’s answers come across as genuine and authentic or do they come across as excuses masquerading in long, self-justifying explanations?  The interviewer needs to be constantly evaluating what is consistent to the developing gestalt and what is different and leads to modifying the gestalt.  There is no need to bend data so that it fits into existing gestalt.  When a mole or wart is evident, it needs to be incorporated into the gestalt and any resulting implications for behaviour fully understood.

Give feedback

The questions eventually come to an end, but the interview does not.  Although it may seem unusual for an interviewer to give feedback, there are important reasons for doing so.  In our profession, test and interview results are always shared with the candidate, given openly and without an indication of whether the candidate is a good or bad fit for the position under consideration.  Even without test results, we believe there is value in giving feedback to candidates on interview results alone.  The rationale for this is two-fold.  Feedback provides candidates with the opportunity to correct, expand, or clarify the interviewer’s gestalt.  Sometimes certain parts may be ambiguous to the interviewer, and providing good feedback will elicit the necessary information from a candidate to place the appropriate twist or facet on some fundamental behaviour.  In addition, how the person reacts to the feedback provides an important observation about how the candidate handles feedback, especially if it is challenging.  Is there acceptance of weaknesses, humility in strengths, openness to exploring and understanding self, or is there defensiveness and justification?  Indeed, the interview itself is a directly observable microcosm of how the candidate deals with his/her world.

Evaluate

As the interview proceeds, the gestalt should become clearer, and with each new established data point, the task of drawing a line to connect all the dots is made easier.  Once the gestalt is formed and understood by the interviewer, answers to many behaviour-based questions and competencies can be reliably measured without directly assessing them.  This is the distinct advantage a gestalt interview has over a behavioural interview.  Two points of data can provide a straight line; 50 points of data can provide a very good three-dimensional outline of a candidate, a gestalt, allowing for some seemingly uncanny, but accurate predictions of human behaviour or ability in specific competencies without having to directly measure them.  For example, if you know that the candidate has a very methodical and rigid work/decision-making style, low emotional intelligence, and a fairly dominating conflict-resolution style, it is not much of a leap to predict that the candidate is likely to be more of a task-focused than people-oriented leader. 

Quantifying what the interviewer has learned in an interview is equally important in a gestalt interview as it is in behavioural interviewing.  This is particularly important if numerous candidates are to be interviewed for a particular role.  However, the gestalt of a candidate is sometimes difficult to express in numbers.  We have developed a number of metrics for our various interview and testing processes that provided what we believed were accurate numerical scores for candidates, only to discover later that a candidate succeeded beyond expectations because of some key strength, or failed because of some seemingly minor Achilles’ heel.  Over time, we have learned to capture extraordinary strengths in a global, open-ended metric we describe as ‘signature strengths,’ things that the candidate does or possesses well beyond their peers.  We also quantify ‘limiting weaknesses’ and put metrics on this watching carefully for so-called fatal flaws.  One fatal flaw can derail the best of candidates.  Capturing these two broad dimensions, in combination with basic competencies of leadership, decision-making, intellect, interpersonal skills, and motivation, can assist you in evaluating a candidate’s fit for a specific role in an organization but also provide you with their overall potential, likely career path, and experiences and skills needed to develop their potential.

Summary

The distinct advantage of a gestalt interview over a behavioural interview is the ability to accurately measure the potential of candidate.  Sometimes this can result in making predictions that are in complete opposition to what a behavioural interview would yield.  A candidate may have limited experience in certain competencies but have enormous potential to quickly develop in these areas and to advance rapidly in an organization.  High-potential individuals are significantly less likely to be overlooked through gestalt interviews but can fair poorly in a behavioural interview.  The opposite also occurs.  A candidate who may be rated highly in a behaviour interview may be rated significantly lower in a gestalt interview.  Even though the candidate may have strengths in each of the core competencies needed for a position, the gestalt interviewer is able to see serious limitations to the candidate and, in some cases, accurately predict the imminent decline of that person’s performance.  Sometimes a gestalt and behavioural interview will yield very similar results, but the gestalt interviewer can answer more questions about potential and career direction.  From the candidate’s perspective, the gestalt interview is an enriching exercise in self-exploration and disclosure, whereas a behavioural interview is likely to leave the candidate feeling drained and wishing he/she had thought of different examples that would best highlight his/her skills and abilities.

A gestalt interview requires a skilled, intelligent interviewer who is able to guide individuals from ‘candidate omnipotence’ to talk openly, authentically, and objectively about themselves.  The gestalt interview is not incompatible with a behavioural interview and may be interspersed with requests for examples of past behaviours, but it goes beyond a behavioural interview in seeing the candidate in broader and more in-depth terms to capture the individual’s uniqueness and overall potential.  The gestalt interview is dynamic and tries to cover the whole person as opposed to a few dimensions or so-called competencies of the wide spectrum of human behaviour.  Knowing the candidate’s signature strengths, weaknesses, and overall potential provides critical information that can significantly increase the predictive accuracy of an interview’s findings.  Once a comprehensive gestalt of the candidate is made, rating the person’s fit for a specific position can be done with confidence.  The gestalt interview should be enriching for both the candidate and the interviewer, with the former feeling that he/she has been understood in an accurate, integrative, and honest manner and received meaningful feedback to enhance self and career.

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