Whether you’re hiring for a developer, coder, or department manager, self-awareness has emerged as a crucial ability many potential candidates need to have. Evaluating this on paper can be difficult, although not impossible. However, the true determining factor in whether this capability is present lies in an interviewee’s answers to questions that prompt self-awareness.

This is the first blog in our Tech Interview Guide series. Interviewing represents a key turning point in the hiring process, and ensuring someone has the right soft skills for the job is part and parcel of a hiring manager’s responsibilities. That said, let’s dive into what self-awareness is and the right questions to ask to uncover it.

How to Formulate Soft Skill Questions

The sought-after soft skills needed for a role can vary depending on the values of the company and the nature of the position. This means an enterprise must constantly refine and adjust its priorities related to these characteristics. While this can be challenging, there’s a simple recipe for developing a compelling soft skill question: Envision a scenario where the skill in question would have a notable impact, whether beneficial or detrimental and frame the question accordingly.

Definition of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself and how your actions, thoughts, or emotions do or don’t align with your internal standards. Candidates with this attribute can accurately speak to their strengths and weaknesses and are comfortable receiving constructive feedback for better performance.

Job Role Examples

  • Business Analyst: Self-awareness is critical to building rapport with stakeholders, gathering requirements, and participating productively in meetings.
  • People Managers: Anyone in a leadership role requires self-awareness to be able to take constructive feedback from their team members.
  • Technical Sales: Anyone in a sales role needs self-awareness to build durable relationships with clients and communicate effectively with stakeholders.
  • Senior Software Engineer: Engineers must possess self-awareness regarding their strengths and weaknesses when committing to deadlines or workload allocation within a development team.

Potential Self-Awareness Questions and Responses

1. “Consider a scenario where a customer is dissatisfied with a recent project delivery. How would you handle this situation?”

Strong Responses

  • The candidate adopts a solution-oriented approach.
  • Efforts are made to understand and empathize with the customer’s view.
  • The candidate displays empathy and seeks to address the customer’s emotional state.
  • The candidate views the situation as a learning opportunity, perhaps suggesting modifications to procedures like the customer onboarding process to prevent future issues.

Poor Responses

  • Candidates who deflect blame onto others or external circumstances rather than focusing on solutions.
  • Instances where candidates claim inability to foresee such a scenario occurring to them, indicating avoidance.
  • Answers that center more on the candidate’s own feelings rather than prioritizing the customer’s emotions and experience.

2. “What do you wish to approach differently in your next role?”

This question is not designed to lead candidates in any specific direction, making their choice of focus as revealing as the substance of their reply. You may be able to find secondary value in responses for other areas like motivations, ambition, engagement and priorities. 

Strong Responses

  • Answers where candidates cite specific examples or scenarios that reflect a genuine opportunity for personal growth.
  • Demonstrations of self-accountability, such as a desire to proactively offer ideas in meetings or accept new projects with confidence.

Poor Responses

  • Vague or generic statements like “I would love to be more productive” or “Learn more new skills” without concrete examples.
  • Information that is unrealistic or irrelevant to their chosen profession.
  • Any external answers that avoid displaying self-awareness. For example, “I would like to work for a company with a different culture or approach.” 
  • If the candidate attempts to dress up a strength as something that needs to be addressed. For example, “I am a perfectionist, and in my next role, I would like to change that.”

3. “Imagine your customer is upset about a recent project delivery. What’s your response?” 

Strong Responses

  • A solutions-based approach to their answer.
  • Any attempt to try to understand the client’s perspective.
  • Any answers that demonstrate empathy with an attempt to address the client’s emotional response.
  • Any answers that attempt to take a broader positive ‘lesson” from the negative experience.

Poor Responses

  • Candidates who immediately move to ‘blame’ based answers or quick-to-find external causes instead of focusing on the solution in their answer.
  • Candidates that try to avoid the question by suggesting they ‘just can’t imagine a situation like that happening to me…” 
  • Any answers where the candidate is focused more on how they feel rather than prioritizing the client’s emotions.

4. “Tell me about a time when you were convinced you were right about something but then eventually changed your mind.”

Strong Responses

  • Any answers that show a level of adaptability when new data or information is provided.
  • Any example that speaks to the candidate’s respect for other competing views and demonstrates tolerance for those they disagree with.
  • Bonus points if they can demonstrate how the disagreement resulted in an innovative solution that would not have been developed without competing points of view.

Poor Responses

  • If the candidate is unable to think of a time they changed their mind about anything.
  • Any answers that suggest they were forced through significant pressure rather than thoughtful conversation or new data. This demonstrates that they are only open to hearing countering points of view under severe pressure or duress.
  • Information that suggests that the candidate has an unacceptable level of ego or is conflict-driven in their approach to workplace disagreements.

5. Can you tell me about a time that you had a positive impact on someone in the workplace? 

Strong Responses

  • Any examples where the candidate is focused on the person in need, the steps they took to help, and the results of that help.
  • Any answers that demonstrate a recognition that people around the candidate can positively or negatively be impacted by their choices.

Poor Responses

  • Any answers where the impact isn’t clear, or it feels like they are grasping.
  • Any answers that are too self-directed or are quickly turned into helping make the candidate look good or seem disingenuous.
  • The candidate believes they did the right thing, but objectively, they did not display emotional intelligence. 

6.  “What makes you angry (or frustrated or annoyed) at work?

Keep in mind that this a tough question for candidates who are trained not to discuss annoyances in interviews. Be patient, as it may take the candidate a moment to collect their thoughts.

Strong Responses

  • Any relatable or common annoyance that is reasonable.
  • Answers that include some level of discipline to manage emotions and to move past the cause of the annoyance.

Poor Responses

  • Any answers where the candidate says nothing upsets them because it’s untrue.
  • Any answers that suggest abnormal triggers outside of what we expect of professionals or responses that are too angry in tone.
  • Any answers where the candidate’s response is to disengage and not attempt to manage their emotions. For example, “I don’t like it when X happens, and if it does happen, I just go home immediately.” 

7. “How do you correct a situation or a project that’s gone wrong?”

This is another non-leading question, so pay close attention to how the candidate answers it. Do they ask for more context or just dive right into the answer? How they approach the question may give useful assessment data on their natural approach to problem-solving in real-time.

Strong Responses

  • Any answers that reflect both inwardly and outwardly on the situation and where the candidate reflects on their behaviour equally or more than external factors.
  • Any solution-based information that is more focused on moving past the issues rather than assigning blame.

Poor Responses

  • Any answers that do not demonstrate any self-reflection or interest in identifying the underlying causes.
  • Answers that shift accountability to others. For example, “I would just get my manager to deal with it,” or “I would just ask another team member to solve the problem.” 
  • Any answers where the candidate cannot imagine a situation where the project has gone wrong or has no idea how they would approach it.

Follow-Up Questions To Consider

  • What were the long-term impacts, if any, of that action or decision?
  • What was the thought process behind that reasoning?
  • What lesson did you learn from that experience?
  • How do you feel the example provided addresses your capacity for self-awareness? 

Key Takeaways

Once you start asking the right questions, it can be straightforward to distinguish self-aware candidates from those who lack this ability. Self-aware people tend to look at their role in the bigger picture and how their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs influence those around them.

At Talentlab, we understand the struggles of companies looking for candidates who fit the bill in terms of soft and hard skills. Trust our expertise when it comes to interviewing, and let us lend a hand when it comes to finding the perfect fit. Reach out to us today.

Sarah Doughty

Sarah is a seasoned recruitment advisor, with a background in hard-to-find technical talent searches. Over the course of her career she has worked with hundreds of clients building high-tech employment brands, leading recruitment teams, marketing candidates, executing passive search strategies, and developing expansive passive candidate pools in key markets across North America. Sarah excels in tough situations that require creativity and tenacity to overcome challenges.