Behavioral interviewing is a popular approach to assess the past experiences of a candidate to judge his/her response to identical situations on a future job. Essentially, behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that “past performance in comparable circumstances is the best predictor of future performance.”
In place of asking hypothetical questions (E.g., “How will you handle …,”) interviewers ask specific questions (E.g., “Describe a time when you had to …”) to elicit concrete examples of desired behaviors from the past. For further details and sample questions, see my earlier article on behavioral interviewing.
6 Steps to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions
- Listen to the question carefully. Commonly, behavioral interview questions tend be longwinded and may sometimes 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 of how you reached a practical business decision by an organized assessment of the facts and weighing of options.”
- Ensure you understand the question before you begin 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 question your ability to listen and comprehend.
- Organize your answer. Allow yourself five to eight seconds to collect your thoughts and structure your answer. Interviewers appreciate this break — they could use this time to drink some water, review their notes or rest their hands from note-taking.
- State your answer. Attempt to conclude your answer in about three minutes. Three minutes is long enough to relate a story comprehensively 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 the details and structure you had planned for, you can provide a consistent and well-reasoned answer. Be concise. Do not ramble on.
- Answer follow-up questions. In response to your three-minute answer, the interviewer may pose follow-up questions. These questions can be confirming questions that require simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers or clarifying questions that require brief answers.
Answering a Question: Use the STAR Technique to Narrate an Experience
In behavioral interviewing, every answer should specifically address the skill being addressed. Your answer should relate an experience from a previous job assignment, project, academic studies or community work.
Present a diverse set of experiences. Suppose that you are asked six behavioral questions during a thirty-minute interview. Using a distinct context and/or experience for each question will help you portray a diversity of skills, interests and experiences.
Begin by examining the question: what is the purpose of the question, what specific skill is the question trying to address? Then, pick an experience that you could describe to address the question at hand. In your mind, recollect specifics of your experience. Structure your answer and narrate your experience using the four steps in the ‘STAR’ technique.
- ‘S’ for Situation : Commence your answer with the background to your experience. Detail the circumstances of your involvement. Provide sufficient detail to develop a context to the rest of your narration.
- ‘T’ for Task: Describe the challenge at hand: what needed to be done, what should have been done. Detail the outcome that was expected, constraints or 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 [more details here.]
- ‘R’ for Results: Explain the results of your efforts: what did you accomplish, what did you learn, how did your managers and team respond, how did your organization recognize 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 suggested by authors Jack and Suzy Welch in a recent 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 concise four-step ‘STAR’ answer to this interview question. This question illustrates the ability of the interviewee 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 ABC Corporation. One of my responsibilities involved participating in weekly product planning meetings that decided on product features. After the meeting, I would meet with my staff and delegate the programming tasks. Since I am an experienced programmer, I would explain details of how each feature needed to be programmed. I expected my staff to write the programs in C++, test and debug. We seemed to work very well as a team.”
- ‘T’ for Task: “Three months later, my manager had collected feedback from my staff. In my performance review, my manager observed that I could improve my delegation skills. I was surprised to receive this feedback. I had believed that I was good at delegating given that I would detail my expectations of each staff-member and list every step he/she needed to work on. It believed my staff was productive and continually gained knowledge 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: “I reflected on my delegation approach and realized two problems. Firstly, I assigned work to my staff only in terms of steps to take. I had habitually failed to describe the background of product features we wanted to develop and explain how their work would improve the overall product. My staff would do just what I had asked them to do. Secondly, in telling my staff how to complete each assignment, I was micromanaging. This may have tended to limit my staff’s initiative and reduced opportunities to advance their programming skills. During the next staff meeting, I thanked my staff for the feedback and acknowledged I would change. Then, each week, I explained the context to every product feature we wanted to develop, 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 about the opportunity to propose ideas, brainstorm and choose a preferred way of going about their work. It was no longer my idea they would work on; it was their own idea and their own approach. They were more enthusiastic about their work and realized they were an integral part of something bigger than themselves. During the next quarterly meeting, my manager praised me for empowering my team.”
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 identify your qualifications.