The benefits of strengths-focused interviews over traditional competency-based approaches

Traditional competency-based interview approaches have become the norm in most large companies today. There appeal lies in their simplicity as well as their supposed ability to predict successful performance of applicants in job at all levels. However, there are a growing number of problems associated with this type of selection interview including:

Underlying flawed assumptions that all high performers in a specific role achieve their outcomes using the same or at least similar qualities and behaviours. This is no longer supported by recent research which shows that people doing similar jobs possess a wide diversity of underlying personality strengths, although their skills and domain knowledge may be very similar.

  1. Competencies are derived through understanding what standards are required for “competent performance” in a job. Whilst we believe it is important to define these minimum standards, competencies don’t fully capture the person’s strengths and potential, in other words, their true sources of energy and excellence at work. The result is that a competency-based approach encourages mediocrity and well-rounded performance rather than excellence.
  2. Candidates can easily prepare for and rehearse competency-based interview answers as the process is incredibly transparent and predictable. There is now even a plethora of books available to help candidates prepare their answers to more commonly asked questions. This undermines the accuracy and reliability of this type of interview as a robust selection tool.
  3. Candidates often find the whole competency-based interview process to be tedious and repetitive; it does nothing to engage their attention and energy and often leaves candidates feeling neutral or de-energised by the process at a time when the organisation is hoping to create the best possible impression amongst top candidates.

Recently, a refreshingly new approach to interviewing, called “strengths-based” or strengths-focused interviewing has rapidly gained popularity as a promising alternative to dated competency-based approaches. Early studies suggests that this provides a more accurate and in-depth understanding of key drivers of exceptional performance than traditional interviews. It also improve the overall candidate experience, enhancing an organisation’s employer brand and attractiveness to top talent.

Specific benefits this approach delivers include:

Clarity on the natural strengths or underlying qualities that energise a person and help them achieve excellence. Understanding what people have a strong desire to do, as well as what they are good at, is crucial as evidence shows that when people are energised by their work, they perform consistently better and are more strongly engaged at work.

  1. Improved candidate experience during hiring.
  2. Improved quality of new recruits and lower levels of voluntary turnover.
  3. More effective induction and quicker learning as the organisation understands how to keep the new hire engaged and challenged from day one.
  4. Because it is flexible enough to be used in conjunction with other hiring methods, it adds incremental validity to the aspects of the hiring process that are already working well for the organisation.

Our own approach to strengths-based interviewing follows the OPAL™ process, which is designed to assess candidate’s in the following 4 areas:

Outcomes and Achievements

 The aim of this part of the process is to find out what measurable outcomes the person has achieved to determine the likelihood of the person contributing successfully in the target role.
The focus is on understanding accomplishments of which the person is particularly proud and has found most energising and meaningful in relation to their aspirations. The impact of these achievements on the person, team and organisation is explored in depth.

Productive Strengths

The emphasis here is on exploring how the person achieved the outcomes with specific focus on the underlying strengths and core qualities (values, interests and abilities) that have contributed to success. While the focus is on the strengths identified in the selection profile, the interview also probes other standout strengths that are identified in the Strengthscope™ report or observed during the interview as evidence shows that people often achieve great results in non-traditional, creative ways.

Through deep questioning techniques and skilful observation, the interview focuses on understanding the whole person (thoughts, feelings and behaviours) and the way they’ve used their unique strengths to achieve successes.


The focus here is on understanding how agile the person is at adapting their strengths and competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) to get the best out of different situations they encounter. We also evaluate the person’s ability and interest in adapting their interpersonal style to get the most out of relationships with key stakeholders. This provides a clear picture on the candidate’s ability to adapt and grow with the role and company.

Learning and Reducing Performance Risk

The aim of the final part of the process is to explore key successes and mistakes during the person’s career and what they’ve learned from these, as well as the person’s willingness and ability to move outside their comfort zone and ‘stretch’ themselves in their areas of strengths and well as their weaker areas.

During this part of the interview, we also build a clear picture of the extent to which the person is aware of risks to their performance and success, including weaker areas and overdone strengths and the extent to which they take responsibility and positive action for dealing with these risks.

Although research and practice in this promising new area is still in its infancy, our own experience (as well as external research) shows that results amongst early adopters are very positive across a variety of key success indicators, including the ability to predict successful job performance. However, a lot more research needs to be undertaken to arrive at any definitive conclusions on the efficacy of this approach in relation to competency-based approaches.