“Tell me about a time when...”
If those six words make you squirm, you’re not alone. According to a survey by Everest College and Harris Interactive, 92 percent of Americans report that they will get anxiety about an upcoming job interview. As behavioral interview questions and answers become increasingly popular in the job search, that means that interviewing has a larger focus on telling potential employers about “a time when.”
But job interviews don’t have to be stressful. Or, rather, they don’t have to be as stressful. With the right preparation, the right mindset and a strong cup of coffee to jolt your confidence (that last one not required!) you can turn a story into a good answer and ace a behavioral interview.
First things first: What is a behavioral interview (BI)?
A behavioral job interview question seeks to draw out your past behavior (hence the name) with an open-ended question. Your answer tells an interviewer how you have operated (and hopefully thrived) during certain, typically challenging job situations. Job seekers will want to have multiple examples on hand so they're prepared for any situational interview question, regardless if it's an in-person or phone interview.
It also shines light on your job communication style. If you answer these questions succinctly and well, you show first hand that you’re a strong communicator. If you wander aimlessly and, after a 10-minute winding narrative, ask “What was the original question?” you’re showing that you may struggle with framing answers, information and your competencies in a compelling and meaningful way — something that you do not want to do in an interview.
What’s the best structure for answering a BI?
There are various “methods” you can utilize when answering a behavior-based interview question. Regardless of the position a candidate is interviewing for, I recommend my students and clients use the STAR method.
The STAR method stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. It’s a simple way to frame your answer to include brief context (situation), highlight what was expected of you and what you had to deliver (task), share what action you personally took (action) and the work outcome (result).
How to use the STAR method
The best way to get good at a BI is the way you hone all your other skills: practice.
And since practicing actual questions is most effective, let’s look at sample answers for five of the most common BIs that can trip people up — by unpacking what the question is meant to unearth about candidates, a strategy to respond effectively and a common trap in each.
5 common behavioral interview questions
1. “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult coworker.”
What this question is after: This question is about work style and interpersonal abilities. It’s not — I repeat, it is not — a time to vent about or bad-mouth a team member from an old job. The trick in applying STAR here is to move quickly through the difficult situation. Spend only a few seconds setting the stage on what made the working relationship a problem — focusing on the relationship and not on her — and spend the high majority of your answer expressing how you overcame this.
Situation: “While serving as the project manager on a cross-functional product launch team at Acme Industries, one of my co-leads struggled with prioritizing team outcomes over individual recognition.”
Trap to avoid: You’re highlighting your colleague's tendency to prioritize her own recognition over the greater good of the team, but you’re not launching into a litany of what a glory hog this woman was (or is). The objective is to move on and share how you overcame her behavior to drive results.
2. “Tell me about a time when a project you worked on did not meet expectations.”
What this question is after: This question is about accountability, ownership and whether you can take responsibility for setbacks or another stressful situation. It's important to reference a specific example in this question. Remember — it’s about your reaction to a poorly performing situation, not about the situation itself.
Situation: Last year, I took on a new leadership role overseeing a test business that wasn’t performing as expected.
Task: I was tasked to improve operational performance by 50% within six months. An ambitious — but at the time — a seemingly doable goal.
Action: Simply put, we fell short. Very short.
Result: Rather than wallowing or simply saying that the business was a problem, within three months I saw the writing on the wall, so I got ahead of it. I approached my management team, shared the facts and owned the shortcomings. I also made a decision to both readjust the timeline and reprioritize the program, which would allow us to better staff.
Trap to avoid: It can be uncomfortable talking about a problem. When a job interview gets uncomfortable, there’s often overcompensation, which in an interview can mean rambling! Resist the urge to offer too many details. Aim for short and sweet in this one. If your interviewer has more questions, she’ll ask a follow-up. Otherwise, you do not need to offer every small detail.
Pro Tip: Use first-person pronouns to further show your accountability. It’s easy to use “we” to water something down — don’t do this!
3. “Tell me about a time when you had to deliver difficult news to a key customer or stakeholder.”
What this question is after: This question is about communication. The fact that you had difficult news at your old job is not the focus, don’t fall into the trap of overly explaining everything that went wrong. Instead, focus on how you handled the less than ideal news.
Situation and task together: After working for weeks to earn a key new account, I had to communicate the less than ideal news that we did not win the account to my management team.
Action: I called a formal meeting and shared all relevant information and opted to proactively share what I thought we could have done better that would have helped to win the business.
Trap to avoid: TMI — too much information. Like many BIs, the easy-to-fall-into trap is offering too much detail. This is an interview, not a therapy session or a happy hour with your friends. Be succinct and to the point. This job interview question is asking about your communication, not about the issue.
Pro Tip: Sometimes to be succinct it helps to merge some parts of the STAR method together, like communicating the situation and task in a single, short phrase.
4. “Tell me about the project or accomplishment you are most proud of.”
What this question is after: At its core, it will reveal a shining moment of yours. It also reveals what you define as success and lets you share any unique moments of your career to date.
Situation: I was given the opportunity quite early on in my career to lead an entire business deal, start-to-finish, on my own.
Task: I was expected to own the entire operation. It was pretty awesome.
Action: I did the research, built the pitch deck and led the entire presentation.
Results: We won the business. The best part? The VP of the client told my manager that she hadn’t seen that strong of a presentation in years.
Trap to avoid: Being unprepared or being too stale. This should be a softball question for a job interview, but you would be surprised at the number of people who are not prepared to answer it. Practice this one and be sure to infuse your personality and favorite job experiences into it!
Pro Tip: ALWAYS have an answer to this question ready, even if you're not interviewing!
5. Tell me about a time your boss made a decision with which you disagreed.
What this question is after: This question explores how you work with others, as well as whether your ability to navigate potential conflict and broach difficult conversations in the workplace. The hiring manager also wants to see how you interact with people in positions of authority.
Situation: My boss put a junior team member in charge of a large account, despite his lack of experience.
Task: My coworkers, especially one with more experience who wanted the account, were upset, and I decided to broach the subject privately with my manager.
Action: I asked to have a conversation and presented the reasons why someone else would be better equipped to lead the account.
Result: We had a polite, professional conversation, in which I expressed my concerns and explained why another sales representative was better qualified. I was careful not to belittle the original choice or make assumptions about my manager's reasoning. Ultimately, he agreed that we should wait for the more junior team member to prove himself.
Trap to avoid: You should never say negative things about your previous or current manager because this will show the hiring manager that you're not a team player and might not respect authority figures.
Pro Tip: Maintain a positive attitude, focusing on what you did rather than the problem or disagreement.
How to prepare for a behavioral interview.
1. Research, research, research.
Thoroughly investigate the company, hiring manager, recruiter and any potential colleagues.
2. Review the above questions and other behavioral interview questions.
These will help you figure out what kinds of scenarios, skills and experiences you should keep in mind when responding.
3. Practice the STAR method.
As outlined above, the STAR method asks you to call on a Situation, Task, Action and Result. Practicing responses will prepare you for the actual interview.
4. Write out previous experiences, skills and qualities.
This will help you solidify them in your memory, so you can draw on them when your speaking to the interviewer.
Now you know what a behavioral job interview is, the best methods to answer them and how to answer five of the most common questions without falling into their traps. Get to practicing and rock it!
Jane Scudder is a certified coach, facilitator, university professor, and workplace & leadership consultant based in Chicago, IL. She helps individuals and group navigate their careers, teams, and personal lives. Find out more at janescudder.com.