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Guide to Smart Strategies for Answering 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 to learn about how job candidates behave.

The reason employers ask behavioral questions is to understand how the job candidate handles different -- often difficult -- situations, demonstrating their "soft skills."

Behavioral questions typically start with, "Tell me about a time when you..." or "Describe how you have handled..." or "Give me an example of..." or even "Walk me through..."

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).

What Employers Seek When They Ask Behavioral Questions

Your answers to these questions should demonstrate your personal qualities and illustrate those "soft skills" often relentlessly claimed on resumes.

Behavioral interview questions typically focus on common problems faced at work. Employers are looking for examples that you have demonstrated key 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, management

To be well-prepared, 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.

5 Smart Strategies to Answer Behavioral 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:

  1.   Be prepared.  

    Analyze the job description, and have your "stories" ready -- examples of difficult situations from your past jobs, how you successfully handled those situations, and, possibly, what you learned from the experience.
  2.   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.
  3.   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.
  4.   Be truthful.  

    Although it is very tempting, don't create fantasy stories. Reality maybe discovered during the reference-checking part of the hiring process, and kill the opportunity.
  5.   Be careful.  

    Don't reveal any of your current (or former) employer's confidential information, particularly if you are interviewing with a competitor. (While a competitor will appreciate the information, they will know that they cannot trust you.)

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.

For candidates who “own the interview,” like I’ve always instructed, this 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.

Common Behavioral Interview Questions

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

A key to handling these questions is to anticipate which skill sets they will likely ask about and have answers ready.

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?

    [See the first sample answer below.]
  •   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?

    [See the second sample answer below.]
  •   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).

Examples of Good Behavioral Interview Answers

Notice these are short and positive --

  •   Describe a challenging situation you oversaw.  

    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.
  •   Tell me about 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.

For another example of a tough behavioral interview question, read: Tell Me About a Time When You Failed.

The Finer Points on Answering Behavioral Interview 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).

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 noting examples of how you have handled similar situations in the past, demonstrating that you have those soft skills.

How to Answer These Behavioral Interview Questions:

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. Learn more about him through his company site alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on LinkedIn and on Twitter (@JLipschultz).