Success with Behavioral Interviewing Questions

Being prepared will lead to confidence and competence

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | November 2006


Interviewing for a job can be nerve racking. Even experienced professionals can have a hard time demonstrating their capabilities and expressing themselves effectively, given the tension of an interview situation. The best way to reduce your anxiety and increase your interviewing proficiency, is to eliminate the element of surprise by anticipating the questions you¿ll be asked, and preparing some answers.

During the interview, you should expect to hear the interviewer ask questions that start with the phrase, "Tell me about a time when." Or the interviewer might ask a question in this format: "We often have projects where the scope of work changes mid-stream, requiring a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. Can you tell me about a project that you worked on where the scope of work kept changing? How did you handle it?" When you hear open ended questions asking you to describe how you behaved in previous situations, that’s your tip that you are being asked a behavioral interviewing question.

Behavioral interviewing questions are the outgrowth of two commonly held theories. The first is that most people succeed or fail in a position not because of their technical knowledge, but because of their behavior and soft skills, and second, those behaviors rarely change over time. By asking you to describe how you have behaved in a similar situation in the past, you will unveil how you will continue to behave under similar circumstances in the future, as well as demonstrating your oral competencies, your ability to think on your feet and handle pressure.

Be a S.T.A.R.

Preparation starts with knowing the types of behaviors the interviewer is likely to inquire about. The list often includes behaviors such as:

  • Adaptability
  •  Analysis
  • Attention to Detail
  • Building Rapport
  • Building consensus
  • Communication skills
  • Decisiveness
  • Delegation
  • Flexibility
  • Independence
  • Initiative
  • Integrity
  • Innovation
  • Judgment
  • Listening
  • Organization
  • Persuasiveness
  • Presentation skills
  • Setting priorities
  • Teamwork
  • Technical knowledge and proficiency
  • Tenacity
  • Work ethic

To prepare, start by reviewing your work history and think about the various situations that have occurred during your experience. Create a list of the vignettes, followed by a list of the behaviors you exhibited in each situation. Knowing the inventory of the behaviors you have exhibited in the past is the first step toward knowing yourself and what type of job you might be best suited for says Dr. Neil Lewis, a corporate consultant and principal of Lewis Associates.

Demonstrating self-awareness and knowing what you are good at and not good at is vital to selecting the right position, and effectively transferring that information in response to behavioral interviewing questions," says Lewis.

The next step is to write the stories that will illustrate your talent. One of the best formats for describing your experiences is the S.T.A.R. technique. Here’s an example:

S describes the situation. The IT infrastructure at a local non-profit agency had been implemented in stages, mostly through the efforts of volunteers and with donated hardware. The network was slow, and in the last quarter it was down 30 percent of the time. In addition, the agency staff was bogged down with manual record keeping, but the existing infrastructure was unable to support records management software.

T describes the task. I needed to analyze the problems, expand the system capacity and stabilize the network within 30 days with a modest budget.

A describes the action you took. After listening to all of the staff¿s concerns, I prioritized the needs and rebuilt the network increasing the capacity and reliability. Through my technical knowledge, I was able to save money by recycling many of the components, and by being a bit tenacious with a software vendor, I was able to purchase a records management program at a discounted rate, and I installed it on the system.

R describes the result you achieved. The project was completed within 28 days at 5 percent below budget.

The next level

While not wanting to sound contrived, it is best to practice your stories by telling them to your family, friends or even talking to yourself in front of a mirror. This will increase your comfort level and your confidence, which is important because according to Lewis, roughly 60 percent of your success will be based on how you answer the question- not just the content.

There are a few things you can do to take your expertise in relating your experiences to the next level. Add the "V" statement to the end of your story, which stands for validation. This is where you supply the name of a reference who can validate your statements and your success. Also, consider creating an addendum to your chronological or functional resume that describes your experiences using the S.T.A.R. structure. This can be a great accompaniment to your thank you note, and it reminds the interviewer about your story which will help you stand out from the crowd.

Tips for handling the unexpected

No matter how well prepared you are, sometimes you might be asked a question that you are not immediately prepared to answer. It’s best to take a moment and jot down a few notes before answering.

"I would formulate my thoughts before I attempted to give my answer. The interviewer will understand and appreciate the fact that you have gone about it in a systematic way," says Dr. Eliot Lasson, adjunct professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Baltimore.

Lasson says that if you don’t have specific work experience that relates to a question be honest about it, because you will undoubtedly be asked follow-up questions that will require more detail. Also, consider using non-work experiences to validate your behaviors and competencies. Most of all remember that it’s only one question.

"If you don¿t have an answer, admit it and move on. The truth of the matter is that the interviewer will not always be completely proficient in scoring your answer. Much of the determination of your fit for the job will come down to the chemistry between you and the interviewer," says Lasson.

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.

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