How to Answer Behavioral Questions

Two people in a meeting doing an interview for a job
Two people in a meeting doing an interview for a job
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

The first time I conducted an interview was as a supervisor at Starbucks over 20 years ago. Since then, I have interviewed people for engineering teams, project managers (PM), and even a few interns. Having conducted hundreds of interviews, I am still amazed when I speak to someone who is unable to answer behavioral or situational style questions. At a Starbucks, I can understand someone not knowing this style of questioning as many people interviewing are young and newer to the job market. The same applies to an intern. At large technology companies, however, I expect a person interviewing for an engineering or PM role to be experienced enough to know how to handle behavioral questions. I would not expect someone to have an example for every situation, but to use appropriate examples for most of the standard behavioral questions asked is expected. It is sad that sometimes, even though a person might be a great fit for a role, they might be losing out with some interviewers by not being able to appropriately answer behavioral questions.

Not everyone uses these types of questions in an interview, but I would argue that most people hiring do look for these types of answers, even if they are not aware that they are doing it.

What is a Behavioral or Situational Question?

Before we move into how to answer one, we should define what a behavioral question is. In general terms these questions are phrased as “give me a time when…” or “give me an example of…” leading to the candidate to respond with an actual real-life example of a time when they had to deal with a situation. This allows the interviewer to hear how you handled a situation that might be similar to situations you would deal with it in the job.

A common example is, “Give me an example of a time when you went above and beyond for work?” The expectation is that you would provide an example of a time that you did something that wasn’t expected of you at a job to prove what a great employee you are. Now, you might not have an actual example of a time that you did this, as you might just come in each day, do the minimum and go home, but your interviewer doesn’t know that. And you could tell them that, at which point they would most likely not hire you. Or you could take an example of something you did that is part of the job, and embellish a little to make it sound like you went above and beyond, and hope they don’t ask follow-up questions to get details. However, the goal of this question is to get an actual real-life example of a time you went above and beyond because employers don’t want someone who meets expectations, they want someone who exceeds expectations.

How to Answer a Behavioral Question?

Answering a question that involves a specific situation isn’t as simple as just telling the story of what happened. The answers should provide an example as to how a candidate has dealt with a specific issue in the past. It is a way to let your past performance show them what you are capable of doing in the future for this employer. Try to break it down into three parts.

1. Start with the problem you faced. What was the situation? For example, I had a situation where I was getting asked a lot of questions by my peers which was taking up a lot of my time. I wasn’t able to get all my work done because of people interrupting me and taking me away from my task.

2. Define the solution — how you solved the problem. In this example, I set up an hour each day that people could come to my desk with issues. It was a set time that was dedicated to helping others and made everyone aware of that time. This way they weren’t interrupting me from performing my regular duties allowing me to focus on my work, but also made sure that I was available should they need it.

3. Finish with the benefit to the employer — what the business got out of the deal. In this case the business saw a productivity improvement in my workload because I no longer had to jump from one task to another, and they saw productivity in the other employees because they were able to take those learnings and use them in their daily workload.

By breaking each situation down to the problem, the solution, and the benefit to the employer you are answering the question in a way that shows your thought process and how you work through issues and how your solutions to those issues benefit the company that you worked for and how it would benefit them if they hired you.

Keep it Short

In an YouTube interview with Stephen Curry, well-known technology icon Bill Gates was asked how he would answer interview questions. His answer to each question lasted around 30 seconds. While these were not behavioral questions, they were questions relevant to the role and the way Gates answered is relevant here. He focused on why he is the best candidate for the role and the standards of excellence he holds himself and others too. He did one other thing in his responses, namely showing his preference for working in a team environment, which is a key item that many hiring managers are looking for. Gates does this in under 30 seconds. He was able to state everything the interviewer needed to know in a short concise answer.

Common Behavioral Questions

If you do not have a lot of experience with behavioral questions that is not a problem because from one interview to another the questions are relatively similar. So, you can spend some time in advance researching the questions. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tell me about a time you reached a big goal at work. How did you reach it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours.
  • Describe a situation where you saw a problem and took steps to fix it.
  • Tell me about a time you had to collaborate with a coworker who was tough to please.
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult customer
  • Tell me about a time your workload was very heavy.
  • Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle that?

When answering the questions, if possible, try to look at the company you are interviewing with and make the answers as relevant as possible. For example, the first question of reaching a big goal at work, if you are applying for a job as a supervisor or manager, try to give an example of how you managed a team to achieve a big goal. However, if you are interviewing for a job in a call center, a more relevant example would be how you managed your workload dealing with one call right after another, while also multitasking note-taking on the computer and responding to customers.

For Example

Describe a situation where you saw a problem and took steps to fix it?

I was working for Company A and we were upgrading the CRM system we used to manage our customers. There was a backend issue that caused some customers to receive a small charge on their bills. Once I became aware of the issue, I ran some reporting to identify if this was a widespread issue or a one-off. After doing the research to identify the issue and the cause, I championed a system fix. The end result helped customers who were being mischarged and helped to reduce over 13,000 calls per month into the customer service department that the company was receiving by customers asking about the charge and requesting a refund.

Notice in this example that I kept it short and to the point. In-person I would elaborate just a little more on how I was invaluable in identifying the issue and driving a quick resolution, while also still including the three key items.

  1. The problem I faced
  2. My solution
  3. The benefit to the employer

Don’t Have an Example

There will be times you don’t have an example of a situation, or you have a brain freeze (which happens to many of us when we are nervous) and can’t think of a situation. That is okay. A good way to respond is to ask the interviewer for an example. They will reply with a brief response, and that will give you time to think of something, or perhaps their response will trigger a memory that you can use.

Confused look at getting asked an interview question
Confused look at getting asked an interview question
Image from Pixabay

If you don’t have a situation specific to the job, or if you are new to the workforce without a lot of relevant experience, look towards other areas in your life that are related. For example, if interviewing for a role that requires project management experience, perhaps describe that time you project managed a home remodel.

Another option is to provide a hypothetical example. Simply say, I can’t think of an example at the moment, but if you want to give me a situation, I will tell you how I would deal with that. I was interviewing someone for a supervisor role and was trying to get him to answer questions on how he would deal with conflict within the team. He was having a hard time giving me an example that I liked, so instead of writing him off and moving on to the next candidate, I decided to give him a hypothetical situation between two employees. He was then able to detail how he would handle that situation in a way that I was satisfied with.

When Interviewing

It is a good idea to go into an interview with an idea of how you would answer these questions and even practice at home before. Think of it as storytelling. I’m sure we have all been talking to someone who is telling a story that rambles on forever, or they jump around in the story getting off track, or just have a boring tone to their voice. Just like we tuned that person out, an interviewer will tune you out if your story is too long or jumps around or is boring. You want to answer a situational question in a concise and easy to follow format, focusing on the problem, how you solved it, and what the benefits to the employer were. Do this and it will set you apart from any other candidate that stumbles around their responses.

Milo Denison is a former office monkey, a freelance writer, and his most recent book “How to Manage Your Manager” is out now

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