Behavioral Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

By Robert Half February 7, 2019 at 8:00am

Your job search is starting to pay off, and you scored an 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 what to do.

What are behavioral interview questions? They are the unpredictable queries that employers ask during job interviews. They help hiring managers take a deeper dive and 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. Managers are looking for people who are competent and a good fit for their organization, and they can get at that by asking these behavioral interview questions.

So, what’s the best advice to help you prepare?

Recall your experiences, develop your stories

Some questions will require you to recall a situation you’ve likely experienced. Prior to your interview, think of different circumstances you’ve encountered on the job where you took a specific action, and make a list of them. That way the memories can be top of mind when you need them.

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 coworker, so to answer this, 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 improved productivity. Tell your story, but keep yourself from naming names or giving specifics that shouldn’t be shared outside the company.

As you think about issues you’ve tackled in the workplace, try to compose several short stories you can share in a minute or two. Come up with examples of times when you were able to overcome stress, deal with a crisis or help fuel a successful workplace collaboration. Think about how open you are to new ideas, how good you are at finding common ground and what experiences you might draw upon to think through a problem.

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Explore different topics

Hiring managers want to learn about your real-life work experiences, but they’re also looking for how those experiences will predict how you’ll behave in the future.

A typical question would be something like this, “Tell me about a time when you set a goal and met your objectives.”

Discuss a workplace goal that was specific, measurable and time bound. Discuss the action you took and the method you used to achieve the results. Did you develop proficiency in a new tool or technology? Did you complete a project in record time, increase customer satisfaction in specific ways, cut costs in your department, or achieve ambitious sales goals? 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 huge failure, highlight a challenging event where things didn’t go as planned, and you weren’t completely successful. The main part of your answer will be what you would have done in hindsight — or what you’ll do going forward as a result.

Some other common behavioral interview questions include:

  • Describe a scenario when you were persuaded to change your mind about something?
  • Have you ever convinced a manager to change their mind about something?
  • Describe a situation where you found yourself outside your comfort zone.
  • What were the best things about your very first job?
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to explain something complex to a client or coworker.
  • How have you saved your company money in the past?
  • How have you interacted with a difficult boss?
  • Describe an example of when you ran out of time before you got something done.
  • When have you gotten a special thank you for something you did on the job?

Prepare to think on your feet, hypothetically

Other behavioral interview questions address circumstances you could encounter. They are “what if” scenarios, in which you have no past experience to call on and have to use your imagination.

Sometimes called situational interview questions, these can be difficult if you’ve never considered the question. If that’s the case, they will definitely require you 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 complications. 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 the drive to succeed. That could involve asking for company training, finding a knowledgeable colleague or gathering the information needed to complete the assignment. The key is to convey a positive, innovative approach.

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Practice answering situational interview questions

Here 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 collaborate with a coworker you didn’t feel you could work with or who was unproductive?
  • How would you handle working at a job where you knew your boss was wrong about something that was affecting the company?
  • If you had to undertake multiple projects with tight deadlines, how would you stay on track?
  • How would you persuade a coworker to see things your way at work?
  • What would you do if you were expected to conform to a company policy with which you had a strong disagreement?
  • If you weren’t satisfied with the work you turned in, what would you do about it?
  • How would you prioritize your work if you had multiple assignments from different managers?

Final words of advice before the interview

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

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 your specific results without rambling.

Even if you’re thrown a curveball, behavioral interview questions give you the opportunity to illustrate your insight or experience as an indicator of future success.

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