January 29, 2021

To Make Better Hires, Turn Up the Pressure

Written by Mike Sarraille, George Randle and Dr. Josh Cotton

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

Everyone can put up a good-looking facade when things are easy, but who cares how people act when they win? What happens when things don’t work out the way they expect?

In Special Operations, the assessment and selection process is designed to pressure-test candidates because an individual’s actual behavior comes out under pressure. Adversity doesn’t just build character; it reveals it. 

For instance, in Navy SEAL selection and training, the instructors use physical challenges to push students to the limit. Though the challenges are physical, they’re testing mental: students’ character, including drive and resiliency.

Companies will not put job candidates through an intensive, physically challenging, months-long selection and training program like Special Operations. Though the tactics you use will be different, the strategy is the same: to reveal candidates’ character and make better hires, you need to turn up the pressure. There are several ways you can do this in the interviewing process.

Scenario-Based and Behavioral Questions

One of the simplest ways to pressure-test candidates is to use scenario-based and behavioral questions. A scenario-based question involves asking the candidate about how they would handle a hypothetical situation: “Given this scenario, what would you do?” A behavioral question asks about how they dealt with an experience: “Tell me about a time you did x.”

You likely already use these questions in your interview process. To turn them into a pressure test, ask about high-pressure or stressful situations, and make sure the questions reflect the job environment they would be working in. Use real-life scenarios from your company and have them walk you through how they would handle it.

Additionally, try to ask questions that don’t have a clear “right” solution. While the candidate’s answer itself is crucial, it is even more important to reach the answer. What is their decision-making process? How do they approach the problem, and what do they prioritize?

This is something instructors do in Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection. They place students in a complex, uncertain, challenging environment and then present them with problems without clear solutions. That way, it’s less about the solution itself and more about how the students find a solution. It’s in the problem-solving process that you see character.

Practical Challenges

Scenario-based and behavioral questions reveal the ideal reaction—what they believe they should do in a stressful situation. To see how the candidate would act, you need to provide practical challenges.

A practical challenge is any exercise where the candidate must do something. This lets you see candidates in action in a high-pressure situation (a job interview). 

Challenges come in a wide range but should reflect the duties of the job. You may ask a candidate to prepare a writing sample or to give a presentation on a topic they’re unfamiliar with. One of the most well-known challenges for salespeople is to hand them an object—like a pen—and ask them to sell it to you. 

One of the best types of challenges used in Special Operations is a case study. These are standardized written fictional scenarios that vary depending on how much time you give the candidate. If the candidate has fifteen minutes of prep time, the case study should be short. If they have a week’s notice, the case study will probably be several pages long, including charts and data, and require a twenty-minute or more presentation on the day of the final round of interviews.

These challenges focus on the candidates’ thought processes, dealing with time-constraint stress, and their ability to communicate concisely and confidently. Don’t get hung up on minor technical or process errors, as these are things you can train the candidate in after hiring.

Challenges are a fundamental strategy of pressure-testing because they give you a sneak peek at how the candidate would perform in the role.

Pushing Candidates Outside Their Comfort Zone

Suppose a candidate works in an environment that requires cool, calm, and collected (which is every business environment). In that case, you need to make sure that they don’t get flustered by the unknown and uncomfortable. You can test that by pushing them out of their comfort zone.

Candidates—good ones, at least—will prepare answers ahead of time for traditional interview questions. This is their comfort zone. By asking them unexpected, nontraditional questions, you can knock them off balance and force them to think about something other than what they came to do, which is selling themselves.

Two of our favorite unexpected questions are:

  • “Who would you hire for this role other than yourself, and why?”
  • “If you were to gather your best friends—the ones you’d trust to erase your phone in the event of your demise—what would that group unanimously say is their pet peeve about you?” 

Questions like this allow you to assess how a candidate operates under stress and evaluate their authenticity and integrity.

Another strategy is to delve into any red flags the candidate has shown. People typically don’t like talking about their weak areas, but it’s a great way to gain insight into their character. There’s a twofold benefit here: you determine the strength and validity of any red flags, and you see how the candidate acts under pressure.

If hired, a candidate will likely need to operate outside their comfort zone in the course of the job, so you want to know how they will handle that ahead of time.

Hire Good Employees, Not Good Interviewers

All too often, people make the mistake of hiring someone who can interview well. That’s not always the same thing as someone who will be great on the job.

By tailoring your interviews to reflect the realities of the work environment, you can better assess how a candidate will perform in the job. 

The strategies—scenario-based and behavioral questions, practical challenges, and pushing candidates outside their comfort zone—will stay the same. Still, the specific tactics you use will vary according to the demand of the role. In some cases, you might choose to use time constraints, or you might put candidates in a scenario where they have to work with others to solve a problem.

But no matter the role, the key to revealing a candidate’s potential is pressure testing.

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Founder, Managing Partner & CEO | Website | + posts

Mike Sarraille is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and a former enlisted Recon Marine and Scout-Sniper. A graduate of the University of Texas McCombs Business School, he is the founder and CEO of Talent War Group, a specialized executive search firm, and talent advisory that finds high-performing business leaders for senior, executive, or other critical leadership positions. He is co-author of ‘The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent’ and a columnist for Men’s Journal and Men’s Fitness under ‘The Everyday Warrior’ column. He founded and served as a board of directors for the VETTED Foundation, a cutting-edge executive-level transition program.

Mike enlisted in the Marine Corps and later became a Recon Marine and also served as a scout sniper. He was selected for a Marine officer program, but after finishing his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M University, he sought a commission in the Navy to try out for the SEAL Teams.  He is also a recognized keynote speaker and subject matter expert in leadership development, talent acquisition, and talent management.

Managing Partner & Co-Director of Talent Advisory | Website | + posts

George Randle is an experienced talent executive, veteran, coach, mentor, and leader known for selecting, building, and reorganizing teams to reach their full business potential. George has 20+ years of Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 global Human Resources and Talent Acquisition experience building elite teams. George began his professional life by enlisting in the US Army Reserves.  While serving in the USAR, he received his bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University and was commissioned an officer. His career assignments included Berlin, US CENTCOM, and III Corps with deployments to Africa (Somalia and Kenya), Central America, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Following his successful military career, George transitioned to the corporate world, experiencing many of the same challenges the Military and Veterans face today. These challenges along with the recognition that building elite teams are his true passion, George ultimately transitioned to the Human Resources and Talent Acquisition function. He later went on to create one of the largest and most successful Veteran Hiring Programs for a Global Fortune 50 firm. Collectively, the teams George has built have hired over 85,000 professionals, including over 2000 executives. He is also a Hogan (HPI, HDS, and MVPI) Leadership Assessment Certified coach.

George currently resides in Austin, Texas, and is the co-author of the best-selling book, “The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent” and the Host of "The Talent War" Podcast.

Website | + posts

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies, and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.

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