What is a Behavioral Interview?
Behaviorally based interviewing is also known as situation based interviewing or the “STAR” method (Situation, Task, Activity, Result). Basically, it means the interviewer will ask you to describe examples of things you’ve done on the job, and most of the interview questions will begin with something like, “Tell me about a time when you… “. The interviewer then listens and probes for details about the who, what, when, where, how, etc. in the examples you provide.
Asking what a person did do in certain job situations is different from traditional interviewing methods that ask people what they would do. The behavioral method is used because what a person did do tends to be more predictive of what they will do in the future, in comparison to what they say they would do. For example, if a candidate was asked what he would do if he had a conflict with a colleague, he might say that he would confront his coworker to discuss the matter. However, when asked to describe what he did do during a recent time he had a conflict with a colleague, the same candidate might share an example in which he ignored the conflict in hopes it would fade with time.
How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview
Behavioral interview questions are usually designed to match the competencies needed for success in a role (e.g., problem-solving skills, project management skills, relationship building skills, etc.). For instance, if a job requires a person to think strategically, an interviewer might ask them to describe a recent time when they had to define a business strategy.
With that in mind, it’s useful to identify what competencies a job requires so you can prepare accordingly for related interview questions:
• Sometimes formal job descriptions will list the competencies required for a position. If not, Human Resources or the hiring manager for the role will likely share the competencies if asked. It’s certainly OK to ask about the competencies required for success in a role when applying for a position.
• You may also be able to discern the required competencies by closely reviewing the job description and “reading between the lines”, so to speak. In my experience, most job competencies fall into the three broad categories: Thinking (e.g., problem-solving, innovating, etc.), Results (e.g., accountability, time management, etc.), and People (e.g., networking, influencing, etc.). Those categories can be used as a guide for deciphering the competencies underpinning a job description. For example, while reading the job description, you could ask yourself, “What thinking-related competencies seem needed for this role?”, “What results-related competencies seem needed for this role?”, and so on.
Once you’ve identified the competencies required for a job, the next step is to recall instances from your work experience when you evidenced those competencies:
• Recall examples that occurred within the last year or less (the more recent, the better). They’ll be easier to remember and share details about. Further, behavioral interviewers usually require examples to be relatively recent.
• Avoid getting caught-up in trying to identify the biggest, best, or most elaborate example you can think of. I’ve interviewed many people who had difficulty giving examples because they didn’t feel the example was sophisticated or spectacular enough to share. Behavioral interviewers tend to focus more on the how than the what in the examples you provide. For instance, you probably take a similar approach to delegating work whether a project is large or small, but it’d be easier to convey the details of the smaller project when the interviewer asks.
• Don’t let an undesired outcome keep you from sharing what would otherwise be a good example. I see this often, for example, when asking people to describe a time when they had to influence upward (e.g., gain buy-in from senior leadership, change their boss’s opinion, etc.). They hesitate to share an example because they were unsuccessful at influencing upward. However, once they share the example it’s clear (to me as a behavioral interviewer) that their approach to influencing was sound, despite senior leadership choosing not to buy-in.
How to Respond to Behavioral Interview Questions
Now that you’ve identified the competencies required for a job and some examples from your work experience that illustrate those skills, the final step is to refine how you’ll communicate those examples:
• Answer the question the interviewer asks. Seems intuitive, but I still come across candidates who give examples they believe will make them look good, rather than examples that fit the questions asked. The behavioral interview method requires clear examples from candidates that match specific competency areas, and so it’s not the time to respond like a politician. For instance, if the interviewer asks you for an example of how you dealt with a customer complaint, you won’t be able to get by with an example of how you exceeded your sales goals for the year. Similarly, if you find yourself falling back into the traditional interview habit of responding to questions with guesses about what you would do in a hypothetical scenario, be prepared to be asked again about what you did do in an actual situation.
• Center your responses on describing your actions and involvement in the examples you provide. Remember, in most instances, the interviewer is seeking to understand what you did so they can draw conclusions about your skills, abilities, and fit for a job. For instances when you were part of a team, you can start your example with, “As part of a team I… (and then talk specifically about what you did or the role you played on the team)”.
• Be concise. Interview time is limited, and interviewers typically have several competency areas to cover. Communicating only the essentials of each example (e.g., the who, what, where, when, and how) will help ensure you don’t run short on time. Keep in mind that interviewers can ask you for more detail if they need it, but in contrast, it’s difficult to make up for time lost on longwinded examples. Moreover, interviewers are likely to be gauging how well you communicate, as many jobs require strong verbal communication skills.
• Practice to ensure examples are fresh in your mind, but do not over-rehearse or read from your notes during an interview. Behaviorally based interviews are not like school exams that can be “passed” by giving certain “right” answers. As alluded to previously, interviewers will likely be evaluating how you communicate, think on your feet, handle pressure, etc., while you are responding. Having a few notes (such as bullet points to jog your memory) is usually fine, but coming across as scripted, robotic, or rigid during an interview is not.
• Finally, don’t be shy about taking time to think before responding (especially if you’re asked a question you weren’t expecting). It’s much better to take a few moments to recall an example that is fitting and straightforward than it is to respond quickly with an example that’s mismatched or convoluted.