Behavioral Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

By Robert Half on July 30, 2020 at 4:15pm

You received word that you landed a job interview. As you prepare for inquiries related to your skills and experience, you realize you’re comfortable answering those questions. But you’re not so sure about behavioral interview questions. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.

What are behavioral interview questions? They are queries that employers ask to find out more about how you think and what you’ve done — or would do — in certain circumstances.

The idea is that your answers will provide insight into your problem-solving skills and personal attributes. So, what’s the best advice to help you prepare for behavioral interview questions?

Develop some compelling stories

Some behavioral interview questions will require you to recall a difficult situation you’ve experienced on the job. Prior to your job interview, think of several challenging circumstances you’ve encountered at work and make a list of actions you took to help remedy each issue.

As you think about problems you’ve tackled in the workplace, compose several concise stories you can share in a minute or two. Come up with examples of times when you were able to overcome obstacles, deal with a crisis or help fuel a successful workplace collaboration. Think about how open you are to new ideas, how adept you are at finding common ground and what experiences you might draw upon to navigate complicated problems in the future.

Let’s say the hiring manager asks you, “When you’ve strongly disagreed with members of your team, how did you communicate those feelings?”

In all likelihood, you’ve had a disagreement with a manager or coworker, so to answer this question, find an example you can frame in a positive light. Perhaps the difference of opinion identified a problem you were able to solve or revealed an insight that led to greater efficiency. Share your thought process and explain how you tactfully communicated your concerns and feelings, but keep the focus on the positive outcome.

Consider different topics

Hiring managers want to learn about your real-life work experiences because they’re looking for clues about how you’ll behave in the future.

Another typical behavioral interview question would be something like, “Tell me about a time when you set an ambitious goal at work and met your objective.”

Discuss a workplace goal that was measurable and time bound. Did you complete a key project in record time, increase traffic to your company’s website, find a creative way to cut quarterly costs in your department, or hit lofty sales numbers? Talk about the strategic steps you took and the methods you used to achieve the results. Whenever possible, use numbers to quantify your success.

On the other side, you might get this behavioral interview question: “Can you describe a time when you failed to achieve a goal?”

Nobody is perfect, and this is an opportunity for you to describe a mistake that you made on the job that may have taught you a lesson. Rather than mentioning a major weakness, highlight a challenging event where things didn’t go as planned, and you weren’t completely successful. The primary part of your answer will be what you would have done in hindsight — or what you’ll do going forward as a result of the lesson learned.

Some other common behavioral interview questions include:

  • Describe a situation where you found yourself outside your comfort zone.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to explain something complex to a client, customer or coworker.
  • Have you ever convinced a manager to change direction on a project? How did you do it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to make an unpopular decision.
  • Describe a time when you missed a deadline. What did you do?

Prepare to think on your feet

Other behavioral interview questions address circumstances you might encounter. They are “what if” scenarios in which you have no past experience to call on.

Sometimes called situational interview questions, these can be difficult if you’ve never considered the question. If that’s the case, you will have to go off script and think quickly on your feet. As you describe your hypothetical actions, think problem, solution, benefit.

Here is a sample situational interview question: “How would you respond to a client who insisted you made an error?”

Whether you made a mistake or not, the key is to focus on the resolution. The interviewer wants to know how you would handle conflict. Instead of pointing the finger at others, discuss how you would address the complaint, outlining the steps you’d take to diffuse the situation.

Another question might be: “How would you cope with being assigned a project for which you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete?”

An effective answer is one where you spotlight your initiative, resourcefulness and drive to succeed. That could involve asking for company training, finding a knowledgeable colleague or systematically gathering the information needed to complete the assignment. Put simply, your response should convey a positive, innovative approach.

Practice answering situational interview questions

Following are some sample questions to consider. Even if you’re not asked these specific ones, you’ll train your brain to formulate responses to situational queries.

  • What would you do if you were asked to partner on a project with a colleague who has a drastically different work style?
  • If you had to undertake multiple projects with tight deadlines, how would you stay on track?
  • If a manager wasn’t satisfied with the work you turned in, how would you respond?

Final words of advice before the interview

Don’t memorize your lines, but try to have a general strategy for approaching potential topics, using compelling anecdotes. Rehearse your stories out loud. You might even record them. Ask a friend or family member to listen and help you polish your speaking points.

One technique for answering interview questions is called the STAR method, which stands for Situation, Task, Action and Results. That helps you break down your answers into the when, where, what and how, and articulate the results without rambling.

The bottom line: Don’t view behavioral interview questions as curveballs meant to trip you up. View them as opportunities to highlight your insight, experience and critical thinking skills as indicators of future success.

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