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The 'Imaginary' Question Every Job Interviewer Should Ask


If you're hiring an employee and want to know what kind of worker the person will make, here's a good way to do it.

Ask the job candidate to come up with an imaginary co-worker and describe that co-worker to you. Odds are it will reveal what the person is really like.

That's the result of new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which found that study participants who envisioned positive  co-workers contributed more in the actual workplace, both in job performance and by going above and beyond their job descriptions to help others.

The results showed that your perception of others — even imaginary ones — says a lot about what kind of person you are, said Peter Harms, UNL assistant professor of management and the study's lead author. Imagining co-workers instead of reporting on how you perceive your actual co-workers produces more accurate ratings of having a positive worldview, he said, because it strips away the baggage that one may have with their peers.

"When you make up imaginary peers, they are completely a product of how you see the world," Harms said. "Because of that we can gain better insight into your perceptual biases. That tells us a lot about how you see the world, how you interpret events and what your expectations of others are."

The study consisted of hundreds of adults working in a range of fields, Harms said. It specifically targeted their "psychological capital," a cluster of personality characteristics associated with the ability to overcome obstacles and the tendency to actively pursue one's goals. After asking participants to conjure up imaginary workers in a series of hypothetical situations, they were then asked to rate the made-up individuals on a wide range of characteristics.

Those who envisioned workers as engaging in a take-charge manner or readily rebounding from failures were happier and more productive in their work, the researchers found.

Researchers have long acknowledged the benefits of a positive mindset, but getting an accurate assessment has always been difficult because people are typically unwilling or unable to make accurate self-appraisals, Harms said.

Through the use of projective storytelling, the UNL researchers were able to predict real-life work outcomes with greater reliability than other established measures.

"We've known that workplace relations are a self-fulfilling prophecy for some time," Harms said. "If a manager believes that their workers are lazy and incompetent, they will elicit those patterns in their employees.

"It's hard to be motivated and enthusiastic for someone you know doesn't think of you very highly. But most people don't want to disappoint someone who sincerely believes in them."