Past Performance DOES Predict Future Behavior – And it Depends a LOT on Culture

job performanceI saw this post today with alarm as it’s completely counter to what I have always believed. As I read more of the article, I realized the author, Lou Adler, and I are actually probably in agreement, just using different ways and words to describe it.

Adler says that people can perform differently in identical situations, therefore past behavior does not predict future performance. However, I would say that the situation, workplaces in this case, are never identical. All cultures and people are a little different. What predicts future performance is how someone has “behaved” in a similar set of circumstances. You aren’t looking at their skill set necessarily, you are looking at their ability to perform in a certain subset of conditions.

Let’s say that someone has a track record of managing several large projects, delivering them on time, and driving results for the company. My next questions are:

  • What was that company like?
  • What was the culture?
  • What was this person’s authority structure like both above and below?
  • What resources did they have?

Once you know these answers you can create behavioral questions based on what you know the current or “new” company to be. Behavioral-based questions are simply asking a person about the choices they made in “identical circumstances” and clarifying how they performed and what exactly they did. It avoids the hypothetical because that is meaningless anyway – it’s not real. You want real world examples of how someone managed in ambiguity, in the absence of resources, with a dictatorial boss, etc. You want them to describe how their best boss managed them and why that was important. You want them to describe the best team they have been on and what the results were and why that made their performance better. Just having someone tell you what they accomplished and expecting that to magically show up at a completely new company is fantasy. Adler and I agree on this.

I expect people to come with the skills I’m looking for. Those should have been screened and verified and in the interview you are simply double-checking on those. As a leader conducting an interview, most of your time should be spent asking about values, and asking behavioral-based questions that are looking for a match to the companies values. You are looking for “why” a candidate does what they do, not “what” they do. The more you understand the “why,” the better you will be able to determine whether or not they will be a good fit in the new company.

So don’t throw out the behavioral-based questions, just make them focused on culture, values and the ability to operate in the environment that you are interviewing for. There will be something in their past that will predict the future for you – but YOU have to ask the right question. As I said in my recent blog, Interviewing the Introvert, it’s about the interviewer’s ability to ask the right questions, and past performance in the identical situation will predict future behavior.