Preparing to answer behavioral interview questions may not be at the top of your to-do list. But it ought to be, if you plan to be interviewing in the near future.
Have you ever stopped to define the purpose of an interview? From your side of the desk, it’s the opportunity to sell yourself and land the job. Your future employer, of course, already has your resume, which lists your skills, education, and the dates and places you’ve worked. Naturally, they want to describe the position, its responsibilities, and the organization’s culture in glowing enough terms to attract the best talent. What more do they need from you?
Think about this situation from their side of the desk. Your potential employer is embarking on a relationship that will impact their entire organization. This means they would like to know things such as how you make decisions, whether you have a sense of humor, if you are a team player, how you respond to authority, whether you’re a big-picture or detail-minded person, and so much more!
Experience has proven, however, that they can’t just ask, “How do you make decisions?” or, “Do you have a good sense of humor?” If they were to ask you, “Are you a team player?” it’s highly unlikely that you would say “No!” even if you are a solo performer at heart. And it’s pointless to ask you whether you’re a big-picture or detail-minded person without something to measure your answer against. It’s also meaningless for them to ask what you might do in a situation–hypothetically speaking, you could say whatever you think they want to hear, but it’s not grounded in actual fact.
What an employer needs is a way to dig deeper, to figure out, not how you imagine you might behave in a certain future situation, but how you have behaved in the past…because past performance is the best predictor of future behavior. Since that has become a known fact, behavioral interview questions are replacing the straightforward fact-gathering questions that once were the norm.
Asking these open-ended behavioral interview questions not only keeps the interviewer from giving away the answer. It also opens the door for them to learn so much more about you. Consider the difference in these two questions an employer could ask a programmer candidate:
The first question might end simply with a yes or no answer. The second question may lead to a discussion about the type of project the candidate worked on, how long it lasted, what role the candidate played, what challenges and obstacles were faced, and what the candidate did or didn’t like about the whole experience. In the process of hearing the programmer’s story, the employer may discover whether this candidate has a sense of humor, is a team player, learns from making mistakes, and sees the big picture or all the tiny details. The interviewer now knows more about the programmer’s thinking, style, motivations, tendencies, and preferences than if they’d read his or her resume forty times.
Now that you understand why employers like to use these open-ended interview questions, let’s get you started in preparing to answer behavioral interview questions.
One key to preparing is not to memorize or rehearse an exact answer. A scripted response will probably come across as insincere. The best way to approach an interview is to define several clear key qualities about yourself that you want to convey and be ready to share a few personal stories or situations that demonstrate those qualities.
Another key to preparing to answer behavioral interview questions is to always be truthful, even if you have to admit a mistake or failure. Remember that the employer is looking for a good fit, and so are you. Misrepresenting yourself is the surest recipe for failure, whether now or later. But do keep in mind the qualities or values you want to emphasize in your examples. If you made a mistake, admit it with humility and weave in how resilient or resourceful you were to correct the error. If you failed to meet a deadline, talk about how you made your boss aware of the potential problem beforehand and worked overtime to combat the problem. If you have an employment history gap to explain, share how you continued to learn and grow. Point out the upside in the downside wherever possible.
Jeff Haden, experienced businessman and contributing author for Inc.com, says, “Most of the successful people I know have failed dozens of times. That’s one of the reasons they are so successful: They try difficult things, and regardless of how it turns out, they come out the other side smarter, more skilled, more experienced…. they’re better for the experience.”
Here are a few examples of behavioral interview questions, what the intent is behind them, and how you might approach answering them:
1. Tell me about a problem you had with a customer or coworker. What did you do? The interviewer is trying to understand how you deal with conflict, whether you have interpersonal skills, and what level of emotional intelligence you possess. A great answer would be to tell how you addressed the problem, took responsibility for your part in creating the difficulty, worked to resolve the issue, and learned from the situation.
2. Tell me about a major mistake you made. What did you do about it? (It’s hard to predict what kinds of questions interviewers will ask, but you can almost count on having to field a question like this about mistakes!) What the interviewer is looking for is whether you owned responsibility for the error and took steps to correct it. When you realized the mistake, what did you do to rectify it? What did you learn from it? Did you put a system in place to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again?
3. Tell us about a time when you had too many things on your plate and were not able to meet a deadline. The interviewer is looking for how you prioritize and make decisions about what to work on. Your answers will also reveal your level of commitment and dedication to your work as well as your ability to anticipate and deal with problems. Did you work overtime to try to meet the deadline? Were you a problem-solver once you realized the situation? Afterward, did you suggest a plan to prevent this from occurring again?
4. Describe a time when you disagreed with the direction you were given. All employers appreciate a team member who is able to take direction, be a team player, and follow the leader. This question is about attitude and how your actions affected morale. Did you bring others down with you or lift them up to a positive mindset? If you were in leadership, did you respectfully present your case for disagreement in a private meeting but publicly support the boss? Did you have the courage to stand alone in a way that respectfully kept the doors of communication open?
5. What single project or task are you most proud of in your most recent job? This is a complex question which the employer hopes will reveal what motivates you, as well as how you approach and follow through on the tasks you are asked to perform. If you are prompted with the same question about previous jobs, the interviewer is probably looking for a pattern of significant contributions. While there is no right or wrong answer here, keep in mind what key qualities or values you want to emphasize, as well as qualities or values you don’t. If a project was significant only because it was your chance to get accolades or a promotion, rather than promote the company’s well-being, you may not want to emphasize that!
Remember that most employers are not looking for a flawless person. They’re looking for someone who is a really good fit for their open position. Preparing to answer behavioral interview questions will give you the opportunity to demonstrate that you are the right person for the job.
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