I have a lot of experience with answering behavioral interview questions. When I first encountered a behavioral interview, however, I was completely unprepared.
The interviewer asked me to provide examples of situations that I had faced in the past. I was just starting out in my career and had little experience to draw upon. More importantly, however, I had not prepared any examples and had no idea what a behavioral interview question was, let alone how to answer it.
A valuable lesson in behavioral interview
It was a good lesson, and I quickly learned what behavioral-based interviews are all about, and since that day I have sat many assessments that followed the behavioral format.
I have been trained to interview others using the behavioral method, and have coached plenty of people to succeed in this type of interview.
The key to a successful behavioral interview
I now know that the key to a successful behavioral interview is a little technique called STAR. In this article, I am going to explain exactly how behavioral-based interviews work and how you can master the STAR technique.
My intention is for you to be fully equipped and prepared for your next behavioral interview questions. As you progress in your career you will face more behavioral interview questions, so it’s important that you understand them.
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What is a behavioral interview?
You may have experienced a less formal interview style with questions such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘what is your biggest weakness?’.
Behavioral interview questions are much more structured than this, a standard behavoral question will likely begin like this;
- ‘Tell me about a time when you…’
- ‘Give us an example of when you have…’
By framing their questions in this way, the interviewer is looking for you to draw on your past experience.
This is because the way in which you behaved in the past is a good indication of how you will behave in similar situations in the future.
For example, by understanding how you handled a conflict situation in the past, the interviewer can better predict how you will handle a conflict situation in their organization if they were to hire you.
Behavioral interviews are more objective
This style of a job interview is designed to be much more objective as less is left up to the interviewer’s own interpretation or opinion. Each candidate interviewing for the role will be asked the same questions and will go through the same scoring process.
This means that behavioral-based interviewing is a much fairer and more transparent means of assessing candidates. It’s a much better way to determine the level of a candidate’s capabilities as well as their fit for an organisation.
This is why large, multinational companies prefer this interview model over a less formal, objective and structured process. Companies typically experience a higher degree of success from this style of interview.
From a candidate’s perspective, behavioral interview questions are a great opportunity to demonstrate the difference that they can make to an organisation.
It is actually easier to perform well in this style of job interview as you know what to expect. You can prepare in advance and master techniques, such as STAR to give us a framework to structure our answers in the most effective way.
How are behavioral interviews scored?
Behavioral interview questions are designed to be objective and transparent. To achieve this, each interviewer will typically have a copy of the same question and score sheet.
Below each pre-prepared question, the interviewer will be required to provide a score, for example, 1-5, plus their evidence for the score given. The evidence may consist of quotes from your answer.
An example might look something like this;
‘Did the candidate demonstrate the ability to adapt their communication style for different employees?’
‘Did the candidate demonstrate they were able to take a task through to completion?’
- If your example adequately demonstrated this, you might be given a score of 5/5.
- Your example might somewhat demonstrate this, and so you may be given a score of 3/5.
- However, if your example failed to demonstrate this, you might be given a score of 0/5.
Each question will be focused on a particular competency but may include more than one criteria by which to assess the candidates’ capacities. The scores for each will be used to calculate the overall score for each question asked.
Once the interview process is complete, the scores of all the candidates will be reviewed and contrasted in order to provide a fair and transparent comparison.
This robust scoring system means that it’s particularly important for interviewees to answer the questions in a structured and appropriate manner.
What competencies are assessed in a behavioral interview?
The competencies that will be assessed will depend on the role that you are interviewing for.
Here is a list of common competencies
This list is not exhaustive but is a good start.
- Handling conflict
- Critical thinking
- Project management
- Decision making
It is important to spend some time developing a list of the competencies that will likely be required for each role that you interview for.
Consider the skills that would enable a person to be successful in the role, list the most essential ones first and work your way down to those that are not so essential but still useful.
Read the job description, conduct an online search, imagine yourself in the role and talk to people who do a similar role in order to help you to develop this list.
This list is important as it’s going to form the basis of your preparation.
Let’s talk about the STAR technique
If you’re anything like me, you’ll love a good, easy-to-remember acronym and STAR is one of the best! STAR is a brilliant way to go about answering behavioral interview questions.
What does STAR stand for?
Why should you use STAR in a behavioral interview?
STAR enables you to structure your answer in the most effective way possible. Without using a technique such as STAR, you are likely to deliver an example that is somewhat unstructured.
Unstructured answers are difficult to follow and ultimately fail to communicate exactly what the interviewer is looking for.
Let’s look at the STAR technique in more detail
The key here is to describe a specific situation. The interviewer is not looking for a hypothetical situation i.e. what you would do if you were faced with that situation, nor are they looking for a typical situation i.e. what you usually do in that scenario.
Use a real-life, specific situation and briefly outline it, providing some relevant, context. What company were you in, what was your role and what circumstances did you find yourself in? This should take no more than 30 seconds.
This is where you’re going to talk about the real challenge that you faced. At this stage of your answer, it can help to reference the competency that you have been asked to demonstrate.
What had you been asked to do? What challenges had you been set, and what obstacles were you facing? Again be very specific, however, do not provide the detail of what you did yet. The detail of your actions come next.
This is where you will focus most of your time. The interviewer is looking for the specific steps and actions that you as an individual took.
Walk them through what you did, step by step. This is going to reassure them that you could repeat this sequence of events and replicate your success.
Clear and concise detail is important and you need to tell them a story that makes sense. Don’t forget to mention the tools that you used, key stakeholders that you influenced, strategies that you developed and difficult decisions that had to be made.
What was the outcome of your actions? Don’t forget this part! It’s essential that you communicate accurate results. This might be sales figures, cost savings, increases in customer satisfaction scores or employee engagement scores.
Whatever it is, communicating the results of your actions tells a hiring manager the kind of results you can bring to their organisation. It also confirms that your chosen course of action was a success and not a failure.
An example behavioral question & answer structured with STAR
Behavioral interview question:
“Tell us about a time you used your influencing skills to achieve a goal”.
I took on a team last year that was underperforming, in fact, they had not hit the target in over 24 months. I was brought on board to turn the situation around.
As I spent time with the team and observed what was taking place, I very quickly realised that the staff were unmotivated and that I really needed to influence them in order to refocus their efforts and motivate them to reach their individual sales targets. This was the only way for the team to achieve its combined targets.
To influence the team I had to understand what motivated them as individuals. I sat with each team member and asked them questions to understand why they were in the organisation, what they enjoyed about their role and what their long-term goals were.
This insight enabled me to tap into their individual motivations.
For those motivated by bonuses, I demonstrated just how much extra money they could earn by hitting certain targets. For those who were interested in developing their career, I talked about how their performance was directly linked to their progression.
I followed up with regular 1-2-1 meetings to review progress and provide the right coaching and support.
As a result of identifying each team members individual motivations and priorities, I was able to speak directly into what drives them and influence them effectively.
This resulted in a marked increase in each employees’ sales results. 80% of the team hit target in the following quarter and 10% exceeded target.
This meant that we as a team achieved 105% of our target and we never underachieved from that point onwards.
How to prepare for behavioral interview questions
Now that you understand how a behavioral interview works, what STAR stands for and how to implement it, you can begin preparing your examples.
I’m going to share with you a four-part framework for your preparation.
1. Determine which competencies you are likely to be assessed on
Here are a few ideas to help you:
Go through the job description and make a note of the kind of language that has been used. Highlight words such as leadership, communication, negotiation, etc.
Refer back to our list of competencies to help you.
Picture yourself in the role, what kind of skills do you think you would need in order to be successful? What kind of challenges do you feel you would face and what elements of the role do you think you would find difficult? Which skills would you need to face this head-on?
Use LinkedIn to find the last one or two incumbents of the role, how have they described the role on their profile? How have they summarised their skillset? Look for some clues.
2. Go through your resume
Remind yourself of your greatest successes, biggest achievements, proudest moments and most challenging obstacles. These are the stories that you are going to use to demonstrate your list of competencies. This exercise is also a great confidence booster! We often forget about all the great things that we have achieved throughout our working life.
3. Draft out your examples
Start drafting each section of your answer under the four headings of STAR.
Situation, Task, Action, Results.
Remember, the action section is where most of the detail will occur, and don’t forget to include measurable results. Measurable results are how you demonstrate your success.
Often, things that sound great in our heads do not sound so great when we hear ourselves saying them out loud.
Take your examples and begin to practice them out loud, preferably in front of a mirror, even better, record yourself doing it and listen to it back.
5 behavioral interview mistakes to avoid
1. Failing to prepare examples for behavioral interview questions
Even if you understand STAR, unless you have pre-prepared examples for each competency you will find yourself unable to provide adequate answers.
Go through your career and make a note of your greatest successes and biggest challenges. The best examples are those that demonstrate how you overcame challenges.
2. Using the wrong examples
Sometimes we can be so eager to tell a story or use a certain example that we don’t even realise that it isn’t actually demonstrating the competency that the interviewer is looking for.
Even a great success story will not help you to score well if it demonstrates the wrong competency. When being asked the question make sure you pinpoint the competency you are being asked to demonstrate.
3. Using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’
Don’t forget that the interviewer is assessing you, they are not assessing your team or your boss or colleagues. When giving your examples make sure you use ‘I’.
Tell the interviewer exactly what it is that you did. It’s wonderful to give credit to your team, however, now is not the time. Be sure to tell the interviewers exactly what you were responsible for.
4. Getting too technical
If you are in a very technical role it can be all too easy to get too focused on lots of technicalities that are either irrelevant or simply lost on the interviewer.
Don’t get distracted from demonstrating the competency that you are being assessed on and don’t forget to keep the interviewer engaged. Providing some detail is important, but share only the details that support your example and help you to tell the story.
5. Forgetting the results
It can be difficult to quantify or articulate the exact results of your actions. However, communicating the results of your actions is essential.
Without this, it is difficult to assess if you took the right course of action and whether or not you were successful. Remember, the interviewer is looking to see what it is you can do for their organisation and so the results are essential.
The result does not need to be numerical, there may be other outcomes to your actions.
Behavioral interview questions can be challenging and a behavioral interview should not be left to chance. It’s all too easy to make small but serious errors that ruin our chances of being offered a great career opportunity.
Candidates who invest in themselves and work on their interview performance are many times more likely to succeed. Take as much time as you can to prepare for a behavioral interview.
If you can afford to, you should consider investing in one or two interview preparation sessions with an expert. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel on the day!