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How to Behave in A Behavioral Interview

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Do you struggle with answering behavioral interview questions? Not even sure what they are? Behavioral questions demand that the candidate describe a specific event from their past, such as “tell me about a time that you had to deal with a conflict at work…” These can be challenging, not just because you must think of a situation, but you also must answer the question in detail and conclude with a tangible result.

Why They Exist

The theory behind behavioral interviews is that your past performance will be indicative of your future behavior. This is why HR and hiring managers alike ask for specific examples from the past. Plus, it is a pretty good test for how well you can think on your feet and formulate a comprehensive answer that really addresses all the components of the question.

Difficulties in Preparation

While most candidates already have prepared answers for typical questions like “what is your greatest weakness” or “tell me about yourself,” it is more difficult to prepare for behavioral questions. There are some behavioral questions that have become more popular in the last few years, but in general, not all companies are using the same list of questions. In fact, employers will often customize these questions for their specific situation and needs. This means that preparing canned answers usually won’t work – instead, you must train your brain in HOW to answer behavioral questions, rather than just rattling off memorized answers.

Tell-Tale Sign of a Behavioral Question

Not sure of what denotes a behavioral question? Pay attention to the way it is asked. If it starts with anything like “tell me about a time…” or “describe a situation…” or “give me an example…” or similar language, you better start thinking of some story that will fit their criteria.

 The STAR Method

One of the best strategies for a behavioral question is the STAR method. This consists of 4 components to the answer: a situation, a description of your task, the action you took, and the result:

S = Situation: A specific, real world example that relates to the question

T = Task: Job duties or responsibilities within that situation

A = Action: What you actually did

R = Result: the measurable outcome of your action

Here’s an example:

Question: Tell us about a time when you had to manage a large project.

[Situation] Our company was putting on a conference for our employees scattered around the state.

[Task] As the executive assistant, my supervisor tasked me with organizing the event.

[Action] I selected the speakers, found a venue, contracted with caterers and managed the attendee list

[Result] Many of the 500 employees that attended stated it was the most meaningful conference in the past 5 years.

As you can see, this may be longer than the answer that you are used to giving. That’s part of the trap. Candidates feel like they have been talking too long, so they cut off the result from their answer. However, the result is the most important part!

Preparing for Behavioral Interviews

The best way to prepare for these types of questions is to practice writing out your answers to as many questions as you can find. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it can be boring. However, you really need to put pen (or keyboard) to paper to work out your answers. Just reading a list of questions is not going to help prepare for challenging and complex behavioral questions.

How To “Behave” In the Interview

Since you have few chances to prepare for specific questions, be ready to exercise some flexibility during the interview itself. If you find yourself in the midst of a behavioral interview, follow these tips to get your brain in gear:

  1. Don’t forget to breathe.
  2. Repeat back part of the question to help solidify your answer and give you more time to think of an appropriate situation.
  3. Don’t answer a behavioral question with a hypothetical response. If you honestly haven’t had a situation like what the employer has posed (for example, “tell me about a time you lead a team that failed” but you never managed a team before), DO preposition your answer with: “while I haven’t faced that yet, here’s what I would do…”
  4. Always come to a clear result at the end of your answer.
  5. If you feel like you spoke too long, ask the interviewer, “would you like to hear more?” This gives both of you an escape and an opportunity to move onto other subjects.
  6. Don’t use the same situation for every answer. It’s a common trap for candidates to keep coming back to the same story. To an interviewer, this looks like you have very limited experience (plus, it’s boring).

Some Practice Questions to Get You Started

While there are literally hundreds of behavioral questions, here’s a few that are very popular with hiring managers and HR departments alike:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a conflict at work.
  • Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond your job description.
  • Describe an achievement that you are very proud of and was very difficult to accomplish.
  • Give me an example of a time when you couldn’t provide a service that your customer wanted. How did you handle it? What was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a decision you made while under a lot of pressure.
  • Describe a mistake you made or a project that failed. What did you learn from it?

 

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About the Author:

Since 2004, Donna has been teaching job seekers of all levels effective job search strategies. In 2009, she published her book "Get a Job Without Going Crazy: a Practical Guide to Your Employment Search." Donna is based in Denver, and has presented workshops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas. She continues to work with job seekers across the country.
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