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Smart Strategies to Answer to Behavioral Interview Questions

By Jeff Lipschultz

Top Recruiter Tips: Smart Answers to Behavioral Interview QuestionsInterviewers often use “behavioral interview questions” (a.k.a., “BI” questions) in job interviews today.

The reason employers ask BI questions is to understand how the job candidate handles different -- often difficult -- situations.

BI questions typically start with, "Tell me about a time when you..." or "Describe how you have handled..."

While these questions may feel like a trap when you are asked, that’s really not the employer’s intent (most of the time).

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They are looking for insight into the job candidate's behavior beyond the questions traditionally asked (read Smart Answers to Interview Questions for those).

Your answers to these questions demonstrate your personal qualities and illustrate your "soft skills." People claim them relentlessly, but, in a behavioral interview, employers are hoping for genuine insight into those qualities and skills.

Why Behavioral Interview Questions Are Asked

As with the other interview questions, the interviewer’s goal is to understand how well you would perform the job as well as your fit into the organization.

Your answers to BI questions give insight into how you have succeeded in your previous jobs:

  • What is your work style?
  • How do you behave in some typical situations and interact with others (co-workers, subordinates, managers, customers/clients, suppliers, etc.)?
  • How do you react when you face an obstacle or a problem?

As you answer these questions, remember that the interviewers are assuming that how you have reacted to a situation in the past is likely a good indicator of how you will react in the future.

How to Prepare for BI Questions

As usual, the best strategy is to be prepared for these questions. Think about your achievements and difficult situations that you overcame at work.

Employers are looking for key abilities (a.k.a., "soft skills") like these:

Problem-solving, initiative, judgement
Handling stress, resilience, adaptability
Analytical skills, creativity
Persuasiveness, negotiation
Attention to detail, planning and organizing
Integrity, reliability, motivation
Team building, leadership

Think about situations where you had to put these abilities into action, and make sure they are listed on your interview checklist. Your “stories” about these experiences can provide concrete answers to BI questions.

The Most Common Behavioral Interview Questions

Many of the behavioral questions follow a pattern where each have certain soft skills in mind.

The key to handling these questions is to already know how to address the most popular skill sets they will ask about.

I have provided some popular skills along with related questions or thoughts for you to consider as you develop your answers:

  • Tell me about a time when you handled a challenging situation.

    Did you have an irate client? Did the boss leave you in charge? Did you need to find compromise among your team?
  • Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and how you handled it.

    Did you leverage problem-solving skills? Did you need to act humbly? Did you need to rebuild trust? How do you avoid making that mistake again?
  • Tell me about a time when you (or your boss) made an unpopular decision that had to be executed by your team.

    Did you need to work hard to get buy-in or to motivate the team? Did people threaten to quit? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Tell me about a time when you were in direct conflict with a peer and how was it resolved.

    Did you resolve it using your own skills or was external help required? Why did the conflict happen in the first place? How would you avoid this conflict in the future?

As I said, many of the questions are looking to understand how you leveraged certain abilities (more than the actual outcome).

How to Answer BI Questions

Don’t feel you must immediately provide an answer. Think about the question before you answer -- which of the examples of your accomplishments would provide an answer to the question asked?

Ask for a clarification, if that would be helpful

Or simply say something like,

“That’s an interesting question. Let me think about that for a second…”

Then, after a short pause while you gather your thoughts, use the strategies described below to answer the questions successfully.

Be sure to give enough details to make it clear that you are describing a genuine experience. When appropriate, use the same example to answer more than one of the BI questions.

Expect follow-up questions asking for clarification or requesting more details about the situation.

Throughout the process of answering these types of questions you will be slipping in the soft skills you leveraged (see my other article on discussing your Soft Skills during the interview).

Smart Strategies for Your Answers to BI Questions

These are not questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. BI questions are open-ended, so you can take them in a direction that presents you in the best light.

Behavioral interview questions are asked not only to see how well you perform tasks, but also to see the strengths you demonstrated to overcome obstacles, deliver quality results, and interact effectively with people.

Tell your stories to answer these questions. Provide examples of real work situations where you were successful -- where you had a challenge and you overcame that challenge.

If the question asks you to provide an example of a personal failure, give the example and then follow up with what you learned as a result and how you have avoided making that mistake again.

When answering --

  • Be positive

    Focus on your achievements and successes, when possible, and don’t “trash” anyone even when describing a time you have failed (or not been perfect) or when you were dealing with someone else's failure.
  • Be brief

    Avoid the trap of talking too much. Answer the question concisely, and then ask if your answer provides enough insight. Expand your answer if requested, staying positive.
  • Focus on work situations

    Be cautious about sharing examples from your personal life (family situations, personal finances, health, etc.). Focus on your work experiences.
  • Be truthful

    If you have made a mistake (which means you are human), share how you recovered and learned from the mistake and have avoided making that mistake again.
  • Be careful

    Don't reveal any of your current (or former) employer's confidential information, particularly if you are interviewing with a competitor.

For candidates who “own the interview,” like I’ve always instructed, it is just another chance to pull from your interview checklist and cite examples of projects you’ve worked on that showcase your fit for the job.

Examples of BI Answers

Notice these are short and positive --

  • Describe a challenging situation you handled.

    “On Project XYZ at Company 123, I was unexpectedly thrust into a team lead role and had two team members who hated working with each other.

    "So I designed a project planning meeting that would get the three of us talking about best ways to approach the project and leverage each of their strengths. The results were excellent as we delivered the project on time and on budget.”

    This answer showcases skills/traits of leadership, adaptability, strategic planning, getting consensus, teamwork, among others.
  • Describe a mistake you made and how you handled it.

    “Last year, I made a terrible mistake while adding financial information to our company’s bookkeeping system. It lead to a shortfall in available funds at a critical time. I was actually the one who discovered my mistake first. When I did, I was able to figure out how it happened and what needed to be done about it.

    "With a plan in hand, I talked to my supervisor and asked that I be responsible for fixing the mistake and calling all effected parties required to remedy it, including our bank. Fortunately, this was caught soon enough that very limited impact occurred, and I was able to prove I was capable of fixing the problem myself.

    "As a result of that mistake, I developed a method to quickly do a final review and verification of the data before publishing it, added that step to our publishing protocol, and I haven't made that mistake again."

    This answer showcases skills/traits of honesty, taking ownership, good communication, sound accounting practices, loyalty, problem-solving, analytical thinking, quick thinking, and ability to deliver bad news, among others.

The Bottom Line

Don't be intimidated. Think of these questions as opportunities to share how you have succeeded in your work. Prepare by analyzing the job, determining both the hard and soft skills needed for the job, and then give examples of how you have handled similar situations, demonstrating your soft skills.

More Help for Succeeding in Your Job Interviews


About the author...

Job-Hunt's Working with Recruiters Expert Jeff Lipschultz is a 20+ year veteran in management, hiring, and recruiting of all types of business and technical professionals. He has worked in industries ranging from telecom to transportation to dotcom. Jeff is a founding partner of A-List Solutions, a Dallas-based recruiting and employment consulting company. He is a unique recruiter with Lean Engineering experience and a Six Sigma Blackbelt. Learn more about him through his company site alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on Twitter (@JLipschultz).


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Guide to the Most Common Interview Questions (with Sample Answers)

 

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