Behavioral interviewing is a popular approach to assess a candidate’s past experiences and judge his/her response to similar situations on a future job. This variety of interviewing is based on the premise that past performance in comparable circumstances is the best predictor of future performance.
Rather than ask hypothetical questions (E.g., “How will you handle…,”) interviewers ask more specific, focused questions (E.g., “Describe a time when you had to…”) to elicit concrete examples of desired behaviors from the past. For example, instead of asking an interviewee, “How will you deal with a team member who is not pulling his weight on a project?” as in a traditional interview, an interviewer using the behavioral technique may ask, “Describe a project where one of your teammates was not pulling his weight. What did you do?” For further details and sample questions, see my earlier article on behavioral interviewing.
Prior to the interview, an interviewer identifies a set of behavioral traits he/she believes is essential for professional success on a particular job assignment. He/she then selects a series of questions:
- “Describe a time when you had to …. What did you do?”
- “Give me an example of a time when you had to …”
- “Tell me about a situation in the past …”
Next, the interviewer may question the interviewee further:
- “What was the outcome?”
- “Did you consider …?”
- “How did the other person react?”
Instead of allowing the interviewee to theorize or generalize about events, the interviewer expects the interviewee to narrate four details for each experience: (1) what the situation was, (2) what the challenges were, (3) how the interviewee dealt with the situation, and (3) what the outcome was.
6 Steps to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions
- Listen to the question carefully. Commonly, behavioral interview questions tend be long-winded and may sound vague (blame an overuse of adjectives, adverbs and trendy language.) Here is an example: “Good problem-solving often includes a careful review of the substantial facts and weighing of options before making a decision. Give me an instance when you reached a practical business decision by assessing the facts and weighing the options.”
- Make sure you understand the question before you start to answer. You may paraphrase the question and ask the interviewer if you understand it correctly. If necessary, ask the interviewer to repeat the question. Do not, however, ask the interviewer to repeat every question—the interviewer may doubt your ability to listen.
- Organize your answer. Allow yourself five to eight seconds to collect your thoughts and structure your response. Interviewers appreciate this break and could use the time to drink some water, review their notes, or rest their hands from note taking.
- State your answer. Try to limit your answer to about three minutes. Three minutes is long enough to relate a story completely and short enough to hold the interviewer’s attention.
- Do not digress from your plan. Resist the temptation to think of new details as you state the answer. By sticking to your planned details and structure, you can provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.
- Answer follow-up questions. In response to your three-minute answer, the interviewer may pose additional questions. These questions may require simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers or brief elaboration.
Answering a Question: Use the STAR Technique to Narrate an Experience
In behavioral interviewing, every answer should specifically address the skill in question. Your response should relate an experience from a previous job assignment, project, academic study, or community work.
Present a diverse set of experiences. Suppose you are asked six behavioral questions during a thirty-minute interview. Supplementing each question with a distinct experience will help you portray a wide range of skills and interests.
First, examine the question: what is its purpose; what specific skill is the question addressing? Next, choose an applicable experience. In your mind, recollect and reflect on specifics of that experience. You can structure your answer a using the four steps of the ‘STAR’ technique:
- ‘S’ for Situation: Start your answer by providing the background of your experience. Describe the circumstances of your involvement. Provide enough detail to preface the rest of your narration.
- ‘T’ for Task: Describe the challenge at hand and what needed to be done. Give the expected outcome and any conditions that needed to be satisfied.
- ‘A’ for Action: Elaborate your specific action in response to the challenge. Specify analytical work, team effort or project coordination. Use ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements as appropriate.
- ‘R’ for Results: Explain the results of your efforts: what you accomplished, what you learned, how your managers and team responded, and how your organization recognized you. Wherever possible, quantify your achievements and improvements—e. g., “20% improvement in …” or “reduced manufacturing costs by 1.5 million dollars per year …”
An Example: Using the STAR Technique to Narrate an Experience
Consider a question posed by authors Jack and Suzy Welch in a 2008 BusinessWeek article on recruiting for leadership positions: “Have you ever had to define yourself in the midst of criticism, and did you succeed?”
Below is a ‘STAR’ answer to this interview question. The interviewee’s response illustrates their ability to listen to feedback, adapt as a manager, and lead teams well.
- ‘S’ for Situation: “My first job after business school was to lead a product development team at Acme Corporation. One of my responsibilities involved weekly product planning meetings that chose product features. After the meeting, I would meet with my staff and delegate programming tasks. Since I am an experienced programmer, I would explain the approach to each feature to be programmed. I expected my staff to write the programs in C++, then test and debug them. We seemed to work very well as a team.”
- ‘T’ for Task: “Three months later, my manager collected feedback from my staff. In my performance review, my manager noted that I could improve my delegation skills. His comment surprised me. I thought I was good at delegating, as I would explain my expectations and all necessary steps to each staff member. I felt my staff was productive and consistently benefitted from my coaching. I thanked my manager for the feedback and promised to reflect on my delegating style and consider a change.”
- ‘A’ for Action: “Upon reflection, I noticed two issues with my delegation approach. Firstly, in assigning tasks to my staff I only described the steps they needed to take. I had habitually failed to describe the background of product features we wanted to develop and explain how their work would contribute to and improve the overall product. My staff would just do what I had asked of them without understanding the context of their efforts. Secondly, while explaining how to complete each assignment, I was micromanaging. This may have limited my staff’s initiative and reduced opportunities to advance their programming skills. During the next staff meeting, I thanked them for the feedback and acknowledged I would change. from that point forward, Then, each week, I explained each product feature’s unique context, described the task in terms of outcomes and asked my staff how we could approach each task.”
- ‘R’ for Results: “My staff was very excited by the opportunity to propose ideas, brainstorm, and choose their own preferred method of going about their work. They were no longer working on my idea alone: they shared in its conception and approached it their own way. They were more enthusiastic about their work and realized they were an integral part of something bigger than they were. During the next quarterly meeting, my manager praised me for empowering my team.”
The Significant Accomplishment Question
The single most important question that you will answer in every interview is the significant accomplishment question: “Tell me about the most significant accomplishment in your life. What challenges did you face? What did you do? How did it impact your organization?” An interviewer may pose this question as one of these variations: “Tell me something you are most proud of,” “Share the one thing you want me to know,” or, “Tell me something from your past that you are really excited about.”
If there’s one question that you should prepare for, it’s this significant accomplishment question. Here is a sample answer:
“The accomplishment that I am most proud of was being named ‘Consultant of the Year’ by Acme Medical Systems in 2002. When I worked as a product development consultant at Indigo, a team of Acme Medical Systems designers hired me to develop the plastic prototype of a new Computed Tomography (CT) scanner. Acme wanted to display their new cardiac scanner to their vice president who was visiting the following week. In preparation, I was asked to help develop the prototype of the CT-scanner’s new keyboard.
“The keyboard is a large, intricate device with plenty of keys, knobs, and styluses. One of the primary challenges with prototyping this keyboard was that it was too large to fit into any standard manufacturing machine. In addition, based on the design’s complexity, I originally estimated that developing the prototype would take at least two weeks. We had just eight days, including the weekend. For the next week, I worked from 10:00 AM until midnight every day and over the weekend. On the first day, after studying the design, I proposed a modified, simpler version, which my clients accepted. The next day, I used my advanced CAD skills to digitally split the complex design into smaller components that could be manufactured individually and then assembled. The new modular design, in fact, facilitated the assembly plan.
“Initially, my clients were concerned about the assembly process. I used a finite element model to reassure them and confirm that the assembly would be sufficiently robust. Since my clients were busy working on the rest of the CT-scanner, I offered to work with the suppliers. I visited five suppliers and prepared a manufacturing budget. After my budget was approved, I chose two suppliers and spent three days supervising the manufacturing process. Then, I worked with a third supplier to have the prototype carefully assembled, painted, and delivered the day before the vice president’s visit.
“The end-result was that the prototype was prepared in half the lead-time and 40% under budget, even after paying the suppliers overtime. In addition, my modular design lowered manufacturing costs by 20% when the CT-scanner went into production. In recognition of my hard work and cost savings, Acme honored me among sixteen contenders with the ‘Consultant of the Year’ award.
Behavioral Interview Questions for Practice
Consider the following questions. Practice your answers using the four-step ‘STAR’ technique. For more questions to practice with, see my compilation of job interview questions categorized by personal attributes, career performance, communication skills, team skills, managerial skills, and leadership skills.
- Question on team work: “Describe a situation when your team members disagreed with your ideas or proposal on a project. What did you do?”
- Question on analytical problem-solving: “Tell me about a time when you discovered a problem before anybody else on your team. What was the nature of the problem? How did you handle it? Did you ask for help?”
- Question on assertiveness: “Give me an example of when you had difficulty getting along with a team member. What made this person difficult to work with? How did you handle the situation?”
- Question on customer orientation and commitment to task: “Tell me about a time when you had to reject a customer’s request. What reasons did you give? How did you communicate?”
- Question on creativity: “What is your most creative solution to a problem?”
- Question on working effectively with others: “What was a constructive criticism you received recently? How did you respond to it? Did your relationship with this person change?”
In answering interview questions, the best way to impress an interviewer is to discuss your credentials and accomplishments in terms of personal success stories. The ‘STAR’ technique is probably the best method to structure answers to interview questions. By following this simple technique, you can narrate direct, meaningful, personalized experiences that best demonstrate your qualifications.