December 30, 2020

What Behavioral Interview Questions Are Really Asking

The goal of any job interview is for both you (the candidate) and the potential employer to gather information and determine if there is a good match between you, the position and the organization. However, an interview is only as good as the questions asked -- and formulating effective interview questions is challenging.

Behavioral interviews, which ask about how a candidate handled specific situations in the past, provide some of the best predictions of future performance. Employers aim to create behavioral interview questions that get at the heart of the skills necessary for successful job performance. When responding, candidates must also consider the skills behind these questions.

Under the pressure of the hiring process and job interviews, candidates often rush to answer without thinking about the real meaning behind what's being asked. The secret to answering them effectively is to understand: Based on this question, what do they want to know about my experience to show that I can be successful in the new role?

Think Before You Speak

Before diving into responses, ask yourself these questions to inform impactful answers:

What skills are at the heart of the question?

When asked to share a time you failed, for example, the interviewer doesn’t want you to rehash a failure just to relive a challenging time. Rather, they want to hear about how you handled the failure (you accepted personal responsibility, maintained composure/professionalism etc.) and what you learned from it (you made specific changes to avoid repeating it).

What experience can I share to illustrate these skills?

Behavioral interview questions are useful because they draw on prior experience. Respond with real, specific examples from your past.

Set the stage with details and context for your actions while avoiding minutia that does not add value to the example. Describe specific actions you took and their outcome. What happened? Did you close the deal? Can you share metrics about revenue or savings? Were you recognized for your leadership?

Referencing professional experiences is ideal, but you can use a more personal example in some circumstances. However, make sure it is work appropriate and clearly ties to the skills asked about.

What if I don’t have relevant experience?

Occasionally you may encounter a question for which you don’t have directly relevant experience. When this happens, acknowledge it and then provide a detailed response about how you would handle it, such as:

Interviewer: Tell me about a time when you had to let an employee go.

Candidate: I haven’t been in this situation, but if I were, I’d first ensure I had addressed the issue with the employee using progressive discipline. I’d also work with HR to adhere with company policies/legal, documenting all communications and actions taken. If these measures could not resolve the issue, I’d meet with the employee at end of day to explain that their failure to improve performance to standards has now led to termination of their employment. I’d be firm, concise and compassionate, as it’s a difficult conversation.

In this example, the candidate demonstrates strong instincts and knowledge about how to handle a challenging situation even if they haven’t applied it yet in practice.

What is unique and memorable about my experience?

Interviewers often ask the same question to every candidate, so similar responses can blend after some time. Sharing an unusual circumstance and/or presenting your response as a story will stand out as more memorable. The most successful candidates are good storytellers who provide strong context to illustrate their skills in a relatable way. (See also interviewing tips from executive recruiters.)

Remember to practice too! Take an example from your past and try adapting it to highlight different skills. You can tailor several stories to fit a variety of questions, which saves a lot of time when preparing for interviews.

How can I engage with the interviewers?

While you’re interviewing, keep in mind that while skills and qualifications are important, the interviewers also want to determine if you’ll be a good fit for the team.

Avoid focusing so much on process that your personality is absent. While you should be professional and focused, also show what it would be like working with you every day and that you’re capable of building rapport.

Remember that an effective interview is a two-way conversation through which you convey your enthusiasm and interest in the position. Research thoroughly beforehand so that you can ask thoughtful questions, which show that you’re considering how you’ll fit into the company, team, projects and how you can add value.

The Real Questions Behind Common Behavioral Prompts

Analyze behavioral interview questions and adapt your story to show what you’ve learned in your career and how you will implement it to add value in this opportunity.

What They Ask

What They Want To Know

Tell me about a project you are especially proud of. Responses should provide insight into what motivates you as an employee and what you care about. Success is rarely achieved in a vacuum, so mention how you collaborated with others and the ways in which your interpersonal skills contributed to success.
Describe a time when you had to tell someone something they did not want to hear. This addresses interpersonal and communication skills. Share an example that describes how you prepared for the conversation, your approach and how you dealt with any fallout. Highlight that you were organized, clear and compassionate.
Share a time when you learned a new skill. Great employees look for new ways to improve. Show your ongoing interest in developing and growing as a professional.
Give an example of a time when things did not go as planned. Employers seek talent who can problem solve and stay cool under pressure. This question allows you to demonstrate that you’ve gained enough experience and wisdom to plan for problems, build in solutions and use resources effectively.


Set Yourself Up For Interview Success

Interviewing is a critical tool for companies to match the best candidates with positions. Behavioral interview questions provide candidates the opportunity to connect the dots between the needs of the employer and their experience and qualifications.

Set yourself up for success by reviewing past experiences through the lens of expertise and skills you’ve developed that will add the most value in the new opportunity. Curate interesting and engaging stories with rich detail, examples and outcomes that illustrate how your experiences have uniquely shaped you for success in the role.

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