Behavior-Based Questions

Some questions are based on the assumption that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. Phrased as declaratives, they usually begin with the words "Tell me about a time when…," "Describe a time when you…," or "Give me an example of a time when…"

Behavior-based interviewers usually develop their questions around the traits and skills they deem necessary for succeeding in the position or organization. For example, an interviewer for a job that included lots of customer service would undoubtedly ask "Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an irate customer."

Some candidates find the format of the question unsettling. In the pressure of the moment, they simply can't think of a single thing. To overcome that obstacle, Tom Washington recommends developing a list of experiences that cover the waterfront of skills and characteristics required for the position you seek.

You can handle this most expediently by developing responses to standard questions that always include at least an illustrative example. Since it helps to tell stories to anchor information, anyway, you can be ready for both eventualities by preparing in this manner.

At times, behavior-based questions are nothing more than standard questions in a slightly different frame. In these cases, you can use a strategy much like your standard interview style.

For example, should an interviewer say, "Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a supervisor," you can begin by clarifying the question (e.g., "would you like me to discuss my relationship with my last supervisor?"). If you get an affirmative nod, go on to describe your relationship with that supervisor.

If this description raises any negatives, be sure to follow up by explaining what you learned from the experience. Keep in mind that half the questions behavior-based interviewers ask are phrased negatively. To avoid the trap, remember that you must respond to every question by revealing a strength, and without getting so flustered that you deal your hand away.

Says Tom Washington: "Whenever you speak, your intention should be to sell yourself, not merely to answer questions. Try not to forget your primary purpose."

Sometimes you'll have trouble coming up with a specific experience. Since behavior-based interviewers can be like bulldogs who won't give up until they get the specifics they want, you may have to encourage them to ask their questions differently.

For example, if asked to describe a time when you failed, you might reply, "I need you to help me out here. Since I tend to view most things as an opportunity to learn, I'm not sure I know what mean by the term 'failure'. If you learn something from an experience, it can never be a failure. And I try to learn from everything I do. Would you like me to share a learning experience with you?"

Whenever you do share an experience (and in this interviewing format, you'll share lots of them), make sure that everything you say and do reflects positively on you.

Let me give you a personal example:  If I were asked to describe a time when I had to take a stand on an unpopular position, I'd probably talk about my graduate school advisor, who believed that master's-level psychologists like me shouldn't go into private practice because they needed more clinical experience.  I agreed that more supervision would help, but I felt that if I could use my entrepreneurial skills to develop a client base, I could also afford to purchase the services of a quality supervisor.  So I did.  The end result was that I received clinical supervision from one of the most competent psychologists in the city - and it was someone whom I'd hand-selected to teach me.

I believe that this example demonstrates my willingness to go against conventional wisdom without sacrificing my personal integrity or professional development.  But I wouldn't leave it up to the interviewer to figure that out.   Rather than simply tell the story and hope the interviewer would get the point, I'd use Laurie Anderson's strategy of saying, "I tell you this story because..."   In addition, I'd follow it up with some kind of a feedback question to determine how the interviewer was processing the message:  "I'm curious about your reaction to my story.  Is that what you wanted to hear?"

You can also follow up with a turnabout strategy.  For example, in response to the question, "Describe a time when you had to fire someone," you might follow up your response with a question of your own:   "Can you tell me more about the employees that I'd be supervising in this position?  Do you often have to let people go?  If so, how do you usually handle it?"

Sometimes interviewers may try to bully you into endless specific examples.  However, you can't be expected to have had every kind of experience in the universe.  Sometimes, the only true answer is, "I'm sorry.  Nothing comes to mind."  If, for example, an interviewer should ask me, "Tell me about a time when you lost your temper," I could honestly say, "I do get angry sometimes but I never lose my temper.  In fact, I'm not sure I have a temper."

All these strategies use the following basic principles:

 Examples of Behavior Based Interview Questions

Tell me about a time when you…

1. Worked effectively under pressure. 14. Were disappointed in your behavior.
2. Handled a difficult situation with a co-worker. 15. Had to deal with an irate customer.
3. Were creative in solving a problem. 16. Delegated a project effectively.
4. Missed an obvious solution to a problem. 17. Surmounted a major obstacle.
5. Were unable to complete a project on time. 18. Set your sights too high (or too low).
6. Persuaded team members to do things your way. 19. Prioritized the elements of a complicated project.
7. Wrote a report that was well-received. 20. Got bogged down in the details of a project.
8. Anticipated potential problems and developed preventive measures. 21. Lost (or won) an important contract.
9. Had to make an important decision with limited facts. 22. Made a bad decision.
10. Were forced to make an unpopular decision. 23. Had to fire a friend.
11. Had to adapt to a difficult situation.         24. Hired (or fired) the wrong person.
12. Were tolerant of an opinion that was different from yours. 25. Turned down a good job.
13. Used your political savvy to push a program through that you really believed in.


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