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How to Hire People Who Can Handle Change

By Mark Murphy


In a world beset by change, from the ever-increasing utilization of AI to shifting job markets and even political uncertainty, most companies need people who can navigate change with aplomb.


Change readiness can be a tricky quality to ascertain in a job interview. But we need to do it, as research from the test “What Motivates You?” reveals that employees are nearly 300% more likely to prefer stability and consistency to change and uncertainty.


So, how do we assess the skill with which a candidate handles change? Use this interview question: “Could you tell me about a time when you were asked to change the way you do something?”


That’s the whole question. You’re not asking about a significant or difficult change because you want the candidates to define what they consider “change.” If someone considers using an updated piece of software a significant or difficult change, you’ve immediately learned that this person probably isn’t great at change.


You also do not want to give away the correct answer to your question, like so many interview questions. The report “6 Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions” revealed that the majority of interview questions include phrases like “how you did it successfully” or “how you overcame that,” signaling that the interviewer only wants answers with positive outcomes. However, a good interviewer actually wants to hear about candidates’ failures. After all, how are you going to reveal that a candidate can’t handle change if you never hear about all the times they failed to handle change?


Armed with a revelatory question, pinpointing the hallmarks of change readiness or resistance in candidates’ responses becomes significantly easier. Below are examples of real-life bad and good answers to the question, “Could you tell me about a time you were asked to change the way you do something?”


Bad Answer: “Change is good, but it is hard for everyone, and it’s normally met with opposition at first. But if the change benefits the team to do something differently, then it’s always worth talking over and considering. Everyone will struggle with change, but it’s best to embrace change and to accept the opportunity to learn new things.”


Why It’s Bad: The response is generic and doesn’t provide a specific instance when the candidate was asked to change how they do something. The candidate speaks in general terms and uses “everyone” instead of focusing on their own experiences and reactions to change. This can make the answer seem hypothetical and not give the interviewer insight into the candidate’s adaptability and approach to change.


In the Leadership IQ study “Words That Cost You The Job Interview,” we discovered that high performers use far more past tense verbs in their answers than low performers; after all, it’s how we talk about things that happened to us, instead of using hypothetical “will” and “would” examples. And you can see that the above answer barely uses any past tense verbs.

The candidate mentions that “change is hard for everyone” and “it’s normally met with opposition at first,” which, while possibly true, doesn’t necessarily add value to the answer and might subtly convey a sense of hesitancy toward change. The response doesn’t describe any outcomes or resolutions resulting from the change, leaving the interviewer with no understanding of the impact or effectiveness of the change process.


Good Answer: “I was asked to have one-on-one sessions to coach my team. I had never had a job in the past where I had been asked to do this. I was always given training and left to do my job. I was raised to do my job and go above and beyond and not look for recognition, so I thought it was odd that I was being asked to, as I understood it, praise people for doing everyday things. It was quite a struggle, but I tried many different approaches, including different methods, worksheets, and scripts, until I found one that I was comfortable sticking with. At one point, I asked each of my employees whether they found any value in the coaching sessions, and every single one of them said it was one of the best things we do. That turned the light bulb on for me; even though this wasn’t something I had ever received as an employee, it hugely benefited the team. That really energized me to keep going and even ask the team for their ideas about how to make the sessions more valuable. We recently tried a group session, one of my employees’ ideas, and it was so energizing. I never thought I would enjoy coaching the way that I do.”


Why It’s Good: This highly specific answer effectively addresses the question by providing a detailed narrative of the candidate’s experience adapting to change. The candidate acknowledges their initial resistance and discomfort with the new task of conducting one-on-one coaching sessions, which they had never been asked to do before. This vulnerability and honesty make the response relatable and authentic.


The candidate demonstrates a proactive approach to finding a solution. Despite their skepticism, they experimented with different methods, worksheets, and scripts to find a technique that worked for them and their team. The candidate’s decision to seek feedback from their team shows a commitment to continuous improvement and a willingness to listen to others. By asking whether the employees found value in the coaching sessions, the candidate focuses on ensuring that their efforts were beneficial and aligned with the team’s needs.


The “light bulb” moment for the candidate highlights their capacity for personal and professional growth. Recognizing the value of something they were initially skeptical about indicates an openness to learning and evolving in their role. The candidate goes beyond simply implementing the change and actively seeks input from the team on how to make the sessions more valuable.


The ability to adapt to change is not just beneficial—it’s essential. By using targeted interview questions (like “Could you tell me about a time when you were asked to change the way you do something?”), hiring managers can effectively assess a candidate’s readiness for change. This approach allows us to distinguish between those who merely tolerate change and those who embrace it as an opportunity for growth and innovation. Remember, the goal isn’t just to find employees who can weather change but those who can drive it forward, turning challenges into opportunities for themselves and the organization.


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