Behavioral interview questions are the reason you should invest some time early in your job search to develop a bank of stories you can tell. If you don’t, you risk being caught off guard. Having to mentally scrounge through all your previous work experiences for a good example to use, before you can even start to answer the question. Here’s how to avoid that.
Interviews generally follow a fairly standard course. After the small talk, there are usually some fairly general ‘get to know you’ questions, and then a deeper dive into your employment history, talking about the jobs you’ve held. At this point, interview questions can take two forms: functional questions focus on what you did at work, behavioural or situational questions focus more on how you did it. Most interviews aren’t one or the other; recruiters will generally ask both kinds of questions. Functional questions can be simpler because they’re objective, or fact-based.
Fun fact: I’ve been in interviews where the unprepared applicant chose a story too hastily, and realized partway through that they wished they hadn’t started telling it, because the ending wasn’t a good one. I can recognize the ‘uh-oh’ change in tone and facial expression.
I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘STAR’ approach to storytelling: Situation, Tactic, Action, Result. I’m not going to repeat that here, just know that a good story should take between one and three minutes to tell, and should consist of each of those four elements. Here, I’ll share the most common areas where behavioral interviews tend to focus, to help point you towards the stories you should have in your pocket.
Accomplishments: “Tell me about a time when you were most proud of your work.”
This is the easiest kind of question to answer, because it gives you the opportunity to shine. Having a couple of these stories ready to tell is a good idea, because you may be able to use more than one, depending on how questions are asked.
Failure: “Tell me about a time when you weren’t successful.”
This is the flip side of the accomplishment question coin, and as such it’s nowhere near as fun to answer. But everyone misses the mark sometimes. What happens when you do?
Overcoming Obstacles: “Tell me about a time when you overcame a significant challenge.”
This is another kind of accomplishment question, but it’s phrased in a specific way to get at specific information: what happens when you hit an unexpected roadblock?
Difficult Decisions: “Tell me about the most difficult decision you’ve had to make.”
The decisions we make, and how we make them, speaks volumes about us – as employees, and as people.
Difficult People: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a challenging personality.”
Dealing with people is part of almost every job, and sometimes those people aren’t the easiest to get along with. How do you handle that?
These questions may be asked using different words, and there are many variations of each one. But if you take the time to identify and develop a few stories for each of these areas, you’ll be well-prepared the next time an interviewer asks you to, “tell me about a time …”.
ps: I’ve put together a resource book which includes over 450 sample behavioral interview questions, and what the answers should focus on. Although it’s written for the people who ask the questions, it can also be a fantastic resource for the people being asked. It’s called ‘Best Behavior’, and you can find it here.