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Early Social Competencies Lead to Success

INTERVIEW EDGE • OCT 2016

photo of social competence based behavioral interviewing leading to success

Is it possible to predict a child's future based on her social competencies and behavior in kindergarten? A new study that followed 800 U.S. children from kindergarten through their mid-20s suggests it is.

The study, a joint project of researchers at Duke and Penn State, found that kids who showed specific social competency traits in kindergarten were four times more likely to graduate college and have a full-time job by age 25. Those who lacked these traits at age five were less likely to finish high school, complete college or have a history of stable employment.

The researchers were surprised by the strong correlation between early social competence and later achievement. But it's no surprise to anyone familiar with competency-based behavioral interviewing, which is based on the principle that past and present behaviors and competencies are the best predictors of future performance. We've been helping people make the right hiring decisions using this approach for 30 years.

Early social competence isn't destiny…or is it?

The study authors stress that struggling five-year-olds aren't doomed to a life of failure and that people can develop social competence throughout life. But they also note that the kindergarteners who demonstrated social competency traits such as being helpful, sharing with others, resolving problems with their peers and listening to others maintained these qualities through high school, college and beyond.

This suggests that using behavioral interview techniques to assess fundamental competencies found in childhood and adolescence gives today's interviewers some unique advantages, especially with candidates who are entering the workforce right out of school, with little or no real work experience to explore.

Here are some sample questions that can help probe for some of these important social competencies:

• Give an example of a time you were noted for helping others in high school or college.
• In school, how did your understanding of the feelings of others improve a difficult situation?
• As a student, when did you solve an important problem on your own without turning to friends, parents or teachers?

You can follow up answers to these questions by asking, "What was the outcome and what did you learn from the experience?" Of course, we suggest that if you use these types of questions, they be used in a broader interview strategy with other behavioral questioning techniques.

What this social competence study means for interviewers

Business leaders have long known the importance of hiring employees who demonstrate certain social competencies. Not only do these traits make for a happier workplace, they also improve productivity and profits. The current study only reinforces this and should encourage interviewers to broaden their lines of inquiry. They can now go back further in a candidate’s history to discover evidence of the ability to understand and manage emotion, show empathy for others and resolve conflict. Too often, these essential social competency traits are overlooked in favor of strong test scores or a high IQ. But as the study authors point out, success usually requires more than cognitive ability — it takes non-cognitive processes such as discipline, self-motivation and interpersonal qualities to turn intelligence into real achievement.