Priscilla Claman, in the HBR blog post Choose Your Boss Wisely, talks about how important it is to evaluate a potential boss’s leadership style when interviewing for a new position. She tells the story of a time early in her career when she interviewed with a manager reputed to have a dictatorial style, and she asked him if he had any superstars working for him. He responded by telling her about an employee whom he considered to be a star because she did exactly what he told her to do even when she didn’t want to, and he told a story about one particular time when she had done that. It made me think, why can’t you use the same behavioral interviewing techniques on the boss that they’re supposed to be using on you? Which is Claman’s point, although she doesn’t actually use the term “behavioral interviewing.”
Behavioral interviewing, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a technique used to bypass a candidate’s natural tendency to tell you what you want to hear by getting him to tell stories about past behavior. Stories about past behavior are pretty good predictors of future behavior, much more so than a candidate’s espoused beliefs about behavior. So for example, instead of asking a candidate how he would normally handle a difficult customer, you ask him to tell a story about a specific time in the past when he had a difficult customer and then describe how he handled him.
I see no reason to suppose the same technique wouldn’t work just as well on a potential boss. Instead of asking her what her philosophy on employee motivation is, you’d ask her to tell about a time when she was having trouble increasing the motivational level of a team and what she did about it. Or instead of asking her about her approach to delegation, you might ask her to describe a time when she had to restructure specific task assignments for a new project.
As we consultants are fond of saying, when people quit a job it’s usually the people they’re leaving, not the job. And who has the most potential to make you miserable out of all the “people” you might choose to leave? Your boss, of course. So as Claman says, find out early on whether you’re about to work for “Mr. Mafia Management Style.” It could save you a lot of time and trouble some day.