How to Handle a Behavioral Interview

by Sam Perry on February 11, 2010

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Behavioral interviewing is not exactly new on the corporate scene, but until recently, it wasn’t all that common. Today, more often than not, you’ll run into at least a few behavioral based questions designed to predict how you’ll react in the future based on how you reacted to similar situations in the past.

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Traditional interview questions are geared more towards what your skills and strengths are and are subject to creative editing; who’s not guilty of turning a one day seminar on a subject we’re only passingly familiar with into functional expertise on paper to beef up the old skill set? But once you get into behavioral analysis questions, creative embellishments might look like lipstick on a pig. Traditional questions start with “What would you do if this happened?” but behavioral questions ask “What did you do when this happened before?”…leaving you to find a real-life situation that illustrates the answer they are looking for.

I can’t stress enough that the answer to good interview skills is preparation, and behavioral interviews are no exception. To prepare, it helps to anticipate what kind of skills they might look for and come up with real-life stories that will fit. Some of the most common scenarios involve your response to failure or crisis, the challenges and rewards of working on a team project, dealing with on-the-job stresses, or a situation where you took control, exhibited leadership, or solved a sticky problem that led to a project success.

Some tips for successful behavioral story-telling:

  • Set the stage. You want to keep it brief and not ramble, but every good story needs a little background. Start by describing the players (client, co-workers?) and how the situation evolved, then lead into how you handled it and finish with how it was resolved.
  • Don’t whine or complain. The very last thing you want to do is give the impression that you feel dumped on. Keep it professional, even if someone else dropped the ball and you stepped in with the rescue.
  • No horn-tooting. There’s no need to draw a big arrow pointing to your head that reads “HERO” on the mental storyboard.
  • Make it active. Convey a sense of urgency without trying to pump up the drama by describing your ninja debugging skills.
  • Conclude on a high note. Don’t pick a story with a lousy ending. Pick stories where success was achieved and you played a starring role.
  • Practice like your acceptance speech for the Academy Award. Spontaneous can be charming, but more often it’s awkward, rambling, and a little weird.

Experience stories do not all have to be work related, and in fact will seem more authentic if every answer does not relate to your last job. Don’t pull out ancient history (when I was a kid, we had to walk 10 miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. Uphill both ways), but do include personal triumphs, volunteer experiences, and creative problem solving. Be ready with a couple of unconventional experiences that add personality and depth to your character. That’s what makes you memorable, and presentation is key.

Some typical behavioral questions:

  1. Tell me about a situation where you inspired or motivated others.
  2. Give an example of a situation where you had to deal with an upset customer or co-worker.
  3. Tell me about a time when you stepped in and took a leadership role.
  4. Tell me about a time when you were overloaded with work and had to meet a time deadline that seemed unrealistic.
  5. Describe a situation where you had to convince a group of people to do things your way.
  6. Tell me about a failure or crisis and how you overcame it.

There are hundreds of potential questions, and it’s impossible to predict which ones you may be asked, but with a little careful planning, you can polish up half a dozen stories that can be adapted on the fly as a response to many different questions. For example, a well-crafted story about jury duty could answer 1, 2, 3, or 5, or a story about nearly losing a customer over a missed deadline could answer any of them.

Behavioral interview questions can give the false impression of character flaws and lack of leadership skills if you’re unprepared, or worse, can’t think of examples. Being prepared for an interview is always the answer!

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